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What is Retirement Grief: 4 Important Things You Need to Know

Retirement Grief and Stress

Retiree on river standing up paddle boarding had suffered retirement grief
Retirees can suffer retirement grief

Adjusting to retirement is a major challenge for many retirees. Many new retirees struggle with retirement and go through a grieving or loss process. We refer this type of grief you may experience as Retirement Grief.

Retirement is one of the top 10 most stressful events that you will experience in your life. Not far behind from losing your job.

Everyone will suffer various types of loss throughout their lives. Sometimes the grief and emotions you have when you retire become overwhelming for many retirees. You can experience a wide range of emotions, and these can be very unexpected.

It is important to know that we all grieve differently; it is personal and is natural. Retirement Grief is not widely written about nor acknowledged by many retirees. We should not exclusively link this type of grief or loss with only death.

Challenges of Retirement – Psychological

Retirees rarely understand what is occurring to them and why they feel the way they do. Retirement should be one of the best times of their lives, but they are not feeling it. Many retirees are at a loss on how to best cope with the way they are feeling.

The good news is you can mentally prepare for these issues once you are aware of them. Real retirement planning is much more than just financial planning if you want to live a good retirement. You only discover the impact retirement can have on you mentally when living as a retiree. Most people never discuss the issues they experience nor the insights into the important things you need to know about retirement, but nobody tells you about.

The challenge for you as a retiree is to better understand the impact adjusting to retirement stress can have on you. How it affects your feelings, behaviour, and your physical well-being once you retire.

Adjusting to retirement is a major life challenge. Adjusting to this next stage of life for many new retirees may mean going through a grieving process. What is important for you is to be aware that retirement grief is real and the 4 important things you need to know about it is:

  1. Why it is happening
  2. Understand what is happening to you,
  3. The different emotional stages you will experience, and
  4. How it affects you emotionally, behaviourally and physically.

Struggling with Retirement Stress

Retirement is one of the top 10 most stressful life events you will experience according to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. (1) This means to the extent that the event can affect your health and well-being. The top ten life events stressors are:

Black and white exit sign on wall
What was your exit from work like?
  1. Death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Imprisonment or detention
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Major personal injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Dismissal from work or job loss
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement from work

Retirement is a major life transition, and many people suffer from retirement stress. Retirement is portrayed and considered by most people as a time of:

  • Enjoyment, fun, relaxation
  • Never-ending vacation
  • Freedom,
  • Opportunity to reinvent yourself, or
  • Ability to do or pursue all those activities you only dreamt about.

Yet, sadly for many people, retiring triggers:

  • Stress,
  • Anxiety,
  • Depression, and
  • Grief.

Retirees can have difficulty in coping with the dramatic change that retirement brings. This can be overwhelming for many retirees.

The situations where retirement is forced upon you sometimes years earlier than you had planned often magnifies the feelings and emotions you will experience. Especially, if you are not financially secure. The financial shortfall combined with no or limited support services has many retirees emotionally struggling.

Grief in Retirement

Many retirees never associate what they are experiencing emotionally as a form of grieving or loss. People incorrectly only associate grief with the death of a loved one or family member. However, new retirees will experience significant loss once they retire, including:

Retire both hands cupping face in grief
Reaction to retirement grief
  • Loss of identity
  • Lack of a sense of purpose
  • Absence of a work schedule
  • The dramatic change in the workplace and social interactions
  • Decrease in mental stimulation or physical activity
  • Security of a regular salary

The loss of:

  • Daily commutes
  • Office politics
  • Challenging supervisors or managers
  • Stressful time-sensitive project deadlines

are welcomed and beneficial, they do not compensate for the negative feelings new retires experience.

It is crucial to recognize that the thoughts and feelings you experience in the early stages of retirement are both normal and part of the transition process from exiting work. The challenges of retiring and the amount of grief individuals will experience is related to:.

  • How much we enjoyed our job
  • Whether we had a planned retirement, or
  • Was it an involuntary retirement due to ill-health, redundancy, termination, or business closure?

The feelings of loss for the people forced to retire are often more intense and last longer compared to people who retired on their terms.

The combination of factors such as:

  • Unplanned job loss, combine with
  • Being forced into earlier than expected retirement
  • Inability to secure future employment often due to age,
  • Financial stress in both the short and long term into retirement

dramatically increases the stress levels upon individuals.

Later life redundancy has much great financial impact on a person’s future retirement nest egg. People increase their savings allocation for retirement in the latter years leading up to their retirement. Forced unplanned retirement has a major impact on a person’s retirement savings.

It is normal for people to grieve as they transition to retirement. They are exiting a period of their lives that often spanned over 40 – 50 years. The change is a significant event with which they had a strong association.

A 5 Stage Grief Retirement Model

The 5 stages of Retirement Grief can be explained by using the Kübler-Ross 5 Stage Grief Model. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss–American psychiatrist, published a book called Death and Dying in 1969. (3) Kübler-Ross’s writings are best remembered for her 5-stage model of grief. Used to explain the range of emotional stages or states that people experience when grieving a loss.

It is a useful model to understand the emotional stages many people experience after retirement. Though the model was based on people diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. There is a strong correlation with what new retirees experience in retirement.

Kübler-Ross wrote about 10 -12 emotional stages that individuals encountered, although she only wrote about 5 of them. Listed below are the common phrases I hear from retirees, together with the corresponding stages associated with the Kübler-Ross 5 Stage Grief Model.

  1. Denial: “I didn’t really want to retire……. I really should still be there but for…….”,
  2. Anger: “I was forced out……. They wanted me out so they could replace me with a younger guy”
  3. Bargaining: “Maybe if I just……. Or If I hadn’t ……….”
  4. Depression: “I never really was that good at ……….”
  5. Acceptance: “I found retiring a real challenge at first, but I am so happy now”
Graph of 5 Stages of retirement grief model Kübler-Ross
The 5 Stages of Retirement Grief

Is Kübler-Ross’s grieving model best for you?

Though Kübler-Ross’s 5 stage grief model (4) is the most well-known and written about on the internet. Doesn’t make it the best model to explain your reaction regarding retirement grief. Relying solely on the well-known 5 Stages of Grief model as a roadmap to measure your own grieving experience or the stage that you may be at is a mistake.:

It is time to consider if Kübler-Ross’s 30-year-old popular grieving model is the best to explain retirement grief. Several new models better describe the process of how individuals handle the impact of grief and loss in retirement.

The area of concern in relying on the Kübler-Ross grief model is:

  • People do not experience all the 5 stages of grief as listed in the Kübler-Ross grief model.
  • The order and intensity that people experience these 5 stages, and which can be distinct,
  • People experience various emotional states such as anger over and over during the courses of their grieving and
  • It is too simplified to account for the range of mixed emotions individual retirees encounter when grieving
  • it fails to adequately explain how individuals perceive grief and process it on several levels

Relying only on the 5 stage model people suffering from grief may “perceive that they are grieving incorrectly”. A claim made by George Bonanno (2) professor of Clinical Medicine and Head of the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University.

Retirees need to realise that they are considerably more resilient than they imagine. It forces them to face their fears and continue with their new life and the challenges it will present

ARE THERE ANY BENEFITS OF THE 5 STAGES OF GRIEF RETIREMENT?

Painted Word sad on wall with said face

Kübler-Ross’s model provides a simplistic outline of a range of emotions a retired person may experience. Some retirees may relate to a specific stage. This would reinforce their own belief that what they are experiencing is normal.

Yet, new retirees can become confused when they presume, they ought to have felt a particular way and they are not. Especially if they experienced unplanned retirement.

It is common for relatives and friends to judge a retiree’s reactions to retirement based on their perception of what retirement is. They often will have difficulty in comprehending why a new retiree would experience grief! This will limit their ability to assist new retirees to understand the feelings they are experiencing.

For people experiencing retirement grief, the sequence of emotional responses doesn’t necessarily follow the stages as outlined by Kubler-Ross. This model for what the “ideal grieving sequence should be” is erroneous. It is based on the entrenched and popular notion of the Kübler-Ross 5-stages of grief model. It would be better referred to in terms of the states of grief.

Other Ways Retirement Grief and Loss is Experienced

There are several other theories on how retirees experience retirement grief. None are as well-known and written about as the Kübler-Ross 5 stages on the internet. All the models about grieving attempt to better describe how people perceive grief and process it.

As David Kessler, a grief expert and author, suggests people find control in acceptance. He views – “acceptance …. is where the power lies”. Acceptance would then become the sixth stage of the Kübler-Ross grief model. In that, the retiree comes to accept the current situation and progress.

Other grief models provide better insight for people experiencing grief in retirement. Colin Parkes, a British psychiatrist, developed another grief model. Suggesting there are four phases of grief or mourning, like when a person experiences employment loss. (7) These include:

1. Shock and Numbness

This is the first stage following the loss of a job or retirement. The shock and loss in this phase seem to be impossible to accept. It is like Kübler-Ross’s stage of denial. Where people are overwhelmed when trying to cope with their emotions. It is the mechanism by which we attempt to cope with the loss.

2. Yearning and Searching

Retirees become all consumed with their previous employment in particular:

  • their old jobs titles,
  • sense of identity it offered,
  • feelings of self-worth and purpose that their employment provided.

Retirees seek consolation during this stage. By reliving past work memories through pictures, awards, or thinking about completed projects they worked on. Even looking at contacting previous work colleagues to feel connected to them again. People experience a range of emotions whilst searching for meaning in their loss.

3. Despair and Disorganization

Retirees felt increasingly angry. They question why they ever retired or allowed themselves to be forced out of the organisation. The reality that they will not be returning to work for that particular company begins to feel real.

People have a hard time comprehending the situation or seeing any hope for their future.

During this stage, many retirees experience the feeling of pointlessness. They tend to withdraw from others as they process their pain and regret.

4. Reorganization and Recovery

As with Kübler-Ross’s acceptance stage, this phase of restructuring and recovery does not mean that retirees will not still feel sadness or longing for pre-retirement jobs.

They may start to feel their hearts and minds are rebuilding a sense of normality as they return to their daily lives. A sense of hope and acceptance enters the way they perceive their retirement life. They begin to have renewed energy together with positive emotions.

Diagram of Wordens 4 phase task model of retirement grief
Worden’s Four Phase Task Model of Retirement Grieving

Four Phase Task Model of Grieving – Psychological Effects of Retiring

Understanding the psychological effects, the stages of grief and the feelings associated with it is essential. As you will experience them whilst transitioning from work into your retirement. By being aware of the range of emotions you will have and having them put into perspective will assist you to move through this period of transition more smoothly and in reduced time.

You will benefit by continue living and enjoying life to the fullest in this next phase of your life after retiring. Whilst keeping the bond with your previous careers and people you had retired from.

Psychologist J. William Worden proposed in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy (8) that there are four ‘tasks’ involved in mourning a loss. In the Worden model, a person must:

  • complete four tasks before “the process of grief or mourning are completed”, and
  • before a person’s “equilibrium being re-established.”

Worden’s 4 phase tasks model (10) help us better understand the path through grief which people travel. A person gradually heals as they experience and address each of the tasks in no particular order. This happens as they go back and forwards from one task to another over a period.

The four tasks of grieving are:

Task 1: To Accept the Reality of the Loss

Where feelings of shock and numbness are present from what has happened. You must confront your denial of retiring or being forced into unplanned retirement.

Having to accept that the loss of working has occurred because of retirement, either planned or unplanned. Realising that you cannot make the loss disappear by denying it.

Acceptance that you are now retired is the first step towards adapting and moving on to the next stage of your life.

Task 2: To Process the Pain of the Loss – Grief

The emotions you can experience in this task can range from feelings of guilt, anger, acute distress, and regrets. These feelings of grief and pain are all-natural and part of the process to work through.

You need to work through these feelings, which can include:

  • Talking with family or friends,
  • Writing, physical activity, or
  • Painting or making videos.

What you must not do is try to avoid reality. Don’t distract yourself through:

  • Medication,
  • Sitting around binge-watching Netflix, or
  • Seeking solace from drugs or alcohol.

Task 3: To Adjust to the new reality of Retirement

You must adjust and adapt to the new reality of life that of being retirement. Your life will change, and you will need to set and pursue other goals, careers, or adventures.

Otherwise, you may become stuck, and with a feeling of flatness which may often overcome you.

Task 4: To Find an Enduring Connection with the past while Embarking on a New Life

retired couple on seat looking talking beside a river
Retirees coping with their new stage of life called retirement

Even though you may not work again or work in the same industry because of retirement. What you experienced and achieved will always be with you.

Instead of focusing on what you lost from your job, acknowledge what you achieved from it. Such as the experiences you gained, the people you met, and the opportunities you had over the years.

Consider retirement as a great opportunity to embark on doing what you have always wanted to do. These could include:

  • Starting a new career in a different industry
  • Undertake volunteer work,
  • Travel and explore
  • Indulge in your desire to write a book or start a blog post, or
  • Spend time with your children or grandchildren.

You must re-engage with living your life. Whilst at the same time putting what you feel you have lost into a new perspective.

William Worden clearly states the 4 tasks are in no particular order. Although there is a natural order in that completion of some tasks presuppose completion of another task.

He acknowledges people may need to revisit certain tasks several times. As well as acknowledging grief is not linear. It is also difficult to determine a timeline for completing each of these grief tasks.

By engaging with the four tasks will empower you. You will adjust to your new normal and continue living the life you deserve.

What Other Ways Can Grief in Retirement Affect you?

Any grieving is difficult, though it is common and the reality of life. You have to progress through your retirement grief, otherwise you become stuck.

Retirement Grief manifests itself in a complex collection of:

  • feelings,
  • varied range of behaviours. and
  • physical effects.

Feelings

retiree feeling depressed head sholder slumped walking on railway tracks in mist
Many struggle with retirement

When it comes to grief, people experience a range of feelings with varying degrees of intensity. Some retirees experience much more powerful and overwhelming emotions than others. Experiencing a range of feelings is normal during a period of grief that can last for many months.

Accepting everything changes is important. Attempting to live in the past will rob you and your family of the future you and they deserve.

Dealing with retirement grief is not easy, but it is much better than the alternative. You will start to appreciate life much more and what you should be thankful for.

Behaviours

A range of grief-related behaviours that people may exhibit are:

  • loss of interest in previous hobbies or activities they once enjoyed,
  • they neglect their health and relationships with others, and
  • have a strong desire to be left alone withdrawing from life.

Physical Effects

The physical effects of stress and anxiety-related symptoms brought on by grief can be very intense and varied. This often leads to weight changes, excessive tiredness which can interfere with a person’s ability to adequately care for themselves

People can become increasingly susceptible to illness, physically unwell wasting many valuable years of their retirement, as they never grieved effectively.

It is vital to recognise if you or another person is experiencing these signs and symptoms, seek help. You need to take care and look after yourself and them more than would normally be required.

retiree accepting retirement fishing in river

Retirement Grief Reactions

Any grieving is difficult, though it is common and the reality of life. You have to progress through your retirement grief, otherwise you become stuck. Accepting everything changes is important. Attempting to live in the past will rob you and your family of the future you and they deserve.

Dealing with retirement grief is not easy, but it is much better than the alternative. You will start to appreciate life much more and what you should be grateful for.

It is important to consider to plan emotionally for your retirement and not just the financial side as it will minimise the impact retirement grief will have on you.

REFERENCES FOR THIS GRIEF ARTICLE:

  1. The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory; The American Institute of Stress website viewed on 4 October 2021
  2. Bonanno, G. A. (2009). The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Basic Books
  3. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “On Death and Dying” Scribner 1st Ed 1997, Simon and Schuster (2003)
  4. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster USA (2005)
  5. Maciejewski PK, Zhang B, Block SD, Prigerson HG. An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA. 2007;297(7):716–723. doi:10.1001/Jama.297.7.716
  6. Scott Berinato That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief Harvard Business Review 23 Mar 2020,
  7. Parkes CM. Bereavement in adult lifeBMJ. 1998;316(7134):856–859. doi:10.1136 / bmj.316. 7134.856
  8. Worden JW. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner. fifth ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company; 2018
  9. Mohsen Khosravi. Worden’s task-based approach for supporting people bereaved by COVID-19 2021 Jan 2

Retirement Grief Frequently Asked Questions

What is Retirement Grief?

Is the process of adjusting to the reality of retirement which is a major challenge for many retirees. New retirees struggle with the loss of their previous life and go through a grieving or loss process. We refer this type of grief that is experienced as Retirement Grief.

Signs of Grief in Retirement?

Retirees experience a complex range of feelings, behaviors and physical effects such as sadness, loss of interest in various activities and suffer a range of stress and anxiety related symptoms.  Retirees transition through various stages similar to that following the death of a loved one.   

Why people Are struggling with retirement?

The reason why many retirees struggle in retirement is they experience significant loss once they retire from work and struggle emotionally with the:
– Loss of identity
– Lack of a sense of purpose
– Absence of a work schedule or routine
– Dramatic change from the workplace and social interaction
– Decrease in mental stimulation or physical activity
– Security of a regular salary

psychological impact of retirement?

Adjusting to retirement is a major life challenge. Adjusting to this next stage of life for many new retirees may mean going through a grieving process. What is important for you is to be aware that retirement grief is real and the 4 important things you need to know about it is:
– Why it is happening
– Understand what is happening to you,
– The different emotional stages you will experience, and
– How it affects you emotionally, behaviourally and physically.

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