When it comes to retirement planning, money issues typically get the most attention. Too often the important non-financial aspects of retirement are overlooked. One of which is the painful prospect of losing people we love as we age, including our friends.
Consider for a moment the several unique features of the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Of course, it’s notable that they were both Founding Fathers and Presidents of the United States. They also had a famously acrimonious falling out, which was only repaired by a third friend tricking them with a series of fake letters. Perhaps though, what is most endearing about the story of these two friends is that they died within mere hours of each other. Adams’s last words are said to have been either “Thomas Jefferson survives” or “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”
The fact is, the blessing of passing away at around the same time as our peers, like Adams and Jefferson, is rarely given to us. We will at times experience the grief that comes with life without some of the closest people in our lives. The people who stood in our weddings, who let us cry on their shoulders after a break up, who’ve been by our side since grade school.
This experience becomes more common the older we get. Yet, it’s something few of us ever think about.
The late writer Philip Roth, in interview with the New York Times, aptly summed it up like this:
“If you’re lucky, your grandparents will die when you’re, say, in college. If you’re lucky, your parents will live until you’re somewhere in your 50s; if you’re very lucky, into your 60s. You won’t ever die, and your children, certainly, will never die before you. That’s the deal, that’s the contract. But in this contract nothing is written about your friends, so when they start dying, it’s a gigantic shock.”
So, how can you prepare for and overcome one of the biggest non-financial challenges of your later years?
Preparing for the Inevitable
Death, as we all know, is inevitable. Knowing this certainty can’t prevent the pain of losing a friend. But, there are things you can do that will make the healing process easier.
Most important is to build a strong social network. This can consist of your friends and family members, as well as people you frequently interact with at places such as the gym or at church. An academic paper on grief in older adults by the University of Georgia shows that developing and maintaining a social network significantly helps older individuals to grieve.
It can also help to become comfortable expressing your feelings to others. Tell loved ones what they mean to you while you have the chance. Speaking to Next Avenue, Alan Wolfelt, an author, grief counselor and founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, said: “If we practice living authentically in this manner, not only will our lives take on greater depth and meaning, but we’ll also be better equipped to encounter grief.”
Coping after a Loss
For those who’ve had to bear this painful experience, it’s important to mourn and honor the friends you’ve lost. Find an outlet for your thoughts and feelings, such as writing a letter to the person who died.
And, rely on your social network. Grieve openly to someone, especially someone who knew the person, too.
It’s also imperative to remain committed to your social group and daily activities. The University of Georgia paper mentioned above references a study on widows that found those who reduced their leisure activities after the loss of their husbands had higher rates of depression.
Other coping mechanisms that have proven to be effective include focusing on positive emotions and helping others. You can help yourself and others grieve by making yourself available to them.
Enjoy the Present
An old proverb goes something like this: Today is a gift, which is why it is called the present. Just the thought of losing someone is good enough reason not to waste an opportunity to talk or go grab lunch with your friends.
One thing we enjoy about our annual client meetings is that many of our clients treat them as pseudo-reunions. People are often referred to us by someone they know, so our meetings serve as a chance for old friends to spend time together.
Enjoy the present and cherish the time you have left. Money is important, but time with friends isn’t something you can save up and spend later. It can never be replenished. So, plan accordingly.