In the New York Times on Feb. 25, Sasha Cohen, the 2006 figure skating Olympic silver medalist, shared the story of her retirement from skating.
She spent her childhood and adolescence training for competitions. Like all internationally-ranked athletes, her entire life was her sport. But after she stepped off Olympic ice, she was unprepared for her future as an ordinary civilian. She felt lost and uncertain. Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer of all time, fell into a deep depression when he retired from swimming.
Like Olympic athletes, many of us ordinary folks are prone to putting all of our eggs in one basket. Some put everything into their job. Others, are solely devoted to their family — their children, grandchildren, spouse or parents. Inevitably, our work life comes to an end. Our children grow up. Our grandchildren become teenagers and lose interest in the adults around them. Our parents pass away.
Mary, now in her mid-60s, moved to the Northwest 20 years ago to live near her sister and her sister’s family. Several years ago her sister passed away and, more recently, her nephew and his daughter moved away. Everything is different now. Her grandniece is 13 and has more important things to do than to spend time with her great aunt. Mary feels lost and doesn’t know what to do next.
Bill, 80, recently lost his wife to cancer. He has the beginning stages of Parkinson’s disease. Always somewhat dependent on his wife, he lives alone in a large house where they raised their four children. He’s depressed and anxious, and worries about the future. But mostly, he’s very lonely. He would probably be much happier living in a retirement community with other older adults. But he refuses to consider alternative living options.
Life is change. Everything has a beginning, middle and end.
Sometimes change comes suddenly — with an unanticipated loss of a relationship or job. Other times, these transitions are long-anticipated. The unexpected changes can be jarring and dramatic. We feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath us. But other times, like our Olympic champions, we know that our time in the fast lane will come to a natural end.
So how can we better cope with life’s natural transitions?
Accept your feelings. It’s natural to mourn the loss of important relationships, work or other significant changes. It’s important to acknowledge these losses, feel sad, angry or adrift. These emotions will rise up, like waves from the ocean. We have to accept them, even though they can be intense. Don’t resist them — ride them until they dissolve into something else.
Anticipate and expect change. This is tough because we want to believe that what we love or is familiar will last forever. But it won’t. It will come to its natural end even though we may not know how or when. Savor all that you love today — drink deeply of your life, but know that it will change and become something else. Don’t get too comfortable.
It’s always good to have a Plan B. I loved practicing aikido, a physically demanding martial art. But I anticipated that someday I would no longer be able to fly through the air and land on the mat. About five years ago, I started studying tai chi, a more suitable mind-body practice for an ageing body. I knew the day would come that I would have to retire from my aikido practice.
It’s very helpful to think ahead and imagine what your life might look like doing a different job, living in a different place, working for a different company or having an empty nest.
Don’t let fear hold you back. Change is scary. We push against our comfort zone when we try something new. Don’t let your discomfort stop you from moving forward.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.