How to handle painful losses during retirement

What a title!  Way to bring readers down!

No, I’m not trying to depress you, dear reader, or bring you down.  I’m trying to give you some tools to handle FORESEEABLE, painful losses during retirement years.  You may and likely WILL suffer losses–many of them.

They’re part of living and growing old.  Sad, but true.

Isn’t it better to be prepared than to be surprised?

You don’t have to forge ahead blindly into the many losses that come with aging.  This post will tell you about the types of losses you will suffer,   the likely responses  you may have, and the types of coping mechanisms you can use to survive the losses.

So let’s get on with it.  Here’s how to handle painful losses during retirement.

Types of losses you will suffer

Your losses will involve people and pets, roles, objects, physical aspects of your body, and states of being.

People and Pets

Photo by Christian Langballe, on

Your most difficult losses will be the serious injuries, terminal illnesses, divorces,  and deaths of yourself and those you love – both human and nonhuman.  I include pets in this category because many adults love their pets as though the pets were children or companions.

I’m sorry to remind  you about the upcoming losses of people and pets, but it’s true; they will happen.  Here are some statistics from the Social Security Administration on senior citizen losses of a spouse or partner by death or divorce:

  • 12% of people 65 and over are already divorced
  • 5% of people 65 and over have never married
  • 25% of people 65 and over are widowed
  • 58% of people  65 and over are married or living with a partner.

Income of the Population 55 and Older, 2014, Table 11.1.

By age 65, 37% of people have ALREADY lost a spouse or partner.  The rest — 58% — will lose their spouse or partner in the years after age 65.

In 2010, the life expectancy for people aged 65  was 17.7 years for men and 20.3 years for women.  This means if you were 65 in 2010, you’re going to live an average of either 17.7 more years or 20.3 more years, depending on your gender.

So if you are part of the 58% of Americans who are over 65 and married or living with a partner, you can expect to lose that partner within 17 to 20 years, on average.  Some will die sooner and some will die later, but everybody is going to die.

In 2010, 1.8 million or 72.8 % of the total 2.5 million deaths in the United States occurred to people aged 65 and over (Murphy, Xu,
and Kochanek, 2012).  Heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, nephritis, and accidents were the 9 leading causes of deaths in 2010, according to the same study. (Murphy, Sherry L., Jiaquan Xu, and Kenneth D.Kochanek. 2012. Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2010.National Vital Statistics Reports 60/4. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Availableat <>)
Photo by Alex Blajan on

Every one of those 2.5 million deaths was a loss to a family and to friends.  Most of the deaths were people 65 and over, but a substantial number (700,000) were to people under 65.  Those deaths were of people who were someone’s daughter, son, grandson, granddaughter, sister, or brother.  That’s another kind of loss that you may suffer.

And that’s just one year’s worth of deaths.


Loss of a child, parent, sibling, or grandparent will happen, and likely more than once during our retirement years because today many of us have more than 20 years of retirement to live through.  So we will lose those we love.


Losses from death or divorce WILL occur.  So we might as well be ready to cope with these painful losses during retirement.


After losing a spouse by death or divorce, many older people keep pets as companions to help them deal with loneliness and to give them something to love.  Some have already had dogs or cats or both throughout their lives.  Others adopt pets after a loved person passes away.  Pets offer companionship and unconditional love.
Caring for them offers people a way to share their love and desire to take care of another living being.  Giving the pet a home can stave off loneliness.
RIP Shunkie, 2006-2017. A sweet companion.

But pets age quickly and die.  Cats can live from 12 to 15 years very often, as can small dogs.  Large dogs usually live to age 9 or 10, and medium-sized dogs to age 12 or 13.  Of course there are exceptions; some live longer, some shorter.  Some adults have horses, llamas, alpacas, donkeys, or cattle that they keep as pets or companions  in a barn on a farm or in a rural area that allows large animals.

When someone adopts a pet, he or she knows that the pet will eventually die.  Although we try not to think about it, the beloved dog or cat may grow white around the face, limp, become thin, or have trouble moving by around age 7 or 8.  When we see these signs of aging, we know that there is not much time left.  Dealing with the loss of a loving animal is very hard and emotionally draining.


Women over 60

When we retire from career or work or both, we automatically lose our important roles as members of a profession or occupation, and our roles as employees, bosses, or teammates at a place of business. Along with the role loss goes loss of the respect and admiration that came from other people who learned of our chosen career or job.

When I retired from my career as a university professor 13 years ago, I was no longer a teacher, no longer an employee of a university system, no longer a colleague in a department of other professors, and no longer a person with a secure job.  These four identities disappeared the moment I drove home on December 31, 2004.  I lost these roles.


When I was divorced 30 years ago, I lost my roles as wife and partner.  I kept the role of parent.  I lost my role as part of a couple in a neighborhood group of couples, which meant I no longer had a social life with couples.  I gained the role of divorced woman, which meant that I was seen as a danger by married women in my age group.  I had to develop an identity as a single woman, a single parent, the head of a family of three, solely responsible for the maintenance of a home.   It was a tough process of role loss and change.


When we lose familiar roles, we face uncertainty and feel pain.  Familiar patterns of behavior are now gone.  What do we do instead?  How do we adopt new patterns of behavior to fit our changed status?  How do we handle these painful losses during retirement?
For me, when I retired from teaching, I didn’t know what to do with all the time that was suddenly freed up.  Used to working 60 hours per week, I now had 60 hours to fill.  Used to commuting to work 45 minutes each morning and evening, I now had to find other reasons to leave the house.I had to create a new role for myself that was not the role of professor or employee or colleague, while grieving for these familiar roles that I lost.  I had to think differently about myself.  This process took a long time.

The condo building where I live now, after giving up my house.

Similar losses occur to roles when you move house.  In your former house/condo/apartment, you lived in a community of people who knew you as the owner or renter of that home.  You had specific duties as a member of that community.  You moved in a system of relationships among your neighbors, your local government, your local stores, your local medical facilities and schools, and so on.

But when you move house more than a block or so away from the old place, you lose the community of people and some or all of the relationships that were familiar.  You have to reestablish your duties in a new place, meet new people, learn the culture of the new place.  It’s difficult.  You must simultaneously give up your old, familiar roles, and create new roles in the new place.  These painful role losses must be grieved as you initiate new roles in retirement.  I have written a series of blogs about my experience in giving up a large home and moving to a small condo.


Many retired people downsize their living arrangements either before or during their early retirement years.  Some stay in their familiar homes until they lose their spouse or partner.  Then they move somewhere else and lose their homes and familiar community relationships.  Retirement blogger Jeanette Lewis has written about her experience with moving: 


It’s often helpful to read about how others survived the experiences of loss that you are facing.


Along with the loss of a partner or other family member, a job or career, and/or a familiar home comes the loss of important objects.
Photo by Andrew Neel on

During our lives, most of us become fond of certain pieces of furniture such as a favorite chair. We may hoard special dishes or wine glasses or mugs, collect shells  or glass horses or model cars and so on.

These objects are part of our familiar, comfortable spaces in our home place.  But when we are faced with giving them up, we suffer another set of painful losses during retirement — letting go of our stuff.

This can happen as a result of a move from a larger place to a smaller place.  Or it can result from a fire, a flood, a hurricane, or some other natural disaster than damages or destroys our homes or businesses or both.  It could even be the outcome of a robbery.


Losing our stuff is painful.  When I was going through divorce, my husband drove a rented truck to our home one Saturday and took away about half of our furniture.   This loss left me with an empty living room and dining room.  I was allowed to keep the kitchen table “for now,” but eventually had to let him have that too.  These furniture items came to us from his family over a period of years.  They replaced furniture items that were mine or that we had purchased together.


Photo by DennisKoralArchitects

If you have ever visited someone in a nursing home, then you know that the amount of space each resident has is very small compared to the home that he or she gave up.

Sometimes a resident can have a piece of furniture like a china cabinet or a shelf in her or his room, with some favorite collectibles or mementos displayed there.  That helps the resident to retain some familiar items from the earlier stages of life.  But everything else from the former home is gone:  given away, sold, or placed in storage.  The process of moving into a nursing home is one of the painful losses in retirement that each of us may have to face.  There is so much to give up – so many objects to lose.

Physical aspects of your body

Photo by

Growing physically old is also a process of coming to terms with painful losses in retirement.  We are faced with losing our mobility, our physical abilities, our strength, our endurance, our body image, our sexual activity, our hair, our teeth, our sight, our hearing, our sense of smell, our sense of taste, and eventually our lives through death.

Each of these aspects of our physical body represents another loss.  Some of us will have more losses than others.  Each loss must be faced, addressed, grieved, and accepted.  Each loss brings with it more changes and adjustments that must be made.


When my father reached age 70, his lung disease (COPD) entered a stage where he required oxygen to breathe.  This meant, in the 1980s, that he had to drag around a tank of oxygen on a little cart and wear an oxygen tube in his nose and accompanying headgear at all times.  This change in his physical body was difficult for him to accept and identified him as a “patient” – a role he hated.  It also meant he had to give up his mobility to a large extent.  He could no longer drive and had to persuade my mother to take him wherever he wanted to go in the car.  He did not like to be dependent in that way.  He got out of breath easily, and had to walk slowly.  He had to give up beloved activities like golf, gardening, lawn care, fixing things around the house, and going on trips.  These losses caused him a lot of psychological pain.


A woman I know is nearing 80 years old.  She suffers from chronic pain and uses a walker to get around.  She has lost most of her mobility, although she can still drive.  She also suffers from allopecia (hair loss), and has experienced the body “sagging” that many older women develop when gravity pulls. This makes finding well-fitting, attractive clothing difficult in the thrift shops where she gets her clothes.  She no longer wears makeup, even lipstick.  When you look at her and take all these factors in, it seems like she has given up on herself.  The changes in her physical body have become overwhelming.  Other people avoid her because she treats others cruelly and constantly criticizes those around her.


A man I knew, who has now passed away, suffered from diabetes and lost both of his feet in his late 50s.  He used a wheelchair to get around, and had to be carried from the wheelchair to the family van whenever he went somewhere, because he was not capable of getting from the wheelchair to the van by himself.  His sons or his man friends did the transferring.   He had no teeth left, and his eyesight was poor.  But this man did not give up.  He accepted his physical losses as just part of his journey.  He attended spiritual ceremonies, sang, told stories, and enjoyed his meals and especially hot coffee.   He died at the age of 64, but he lived every day as fully as possible up until he passed away.


These three stories offer three approaches to the physical losses we all may face as we age.  They are part of the painful losses in retirement.  Each of must choose how to deal with them.

States of Being

The last category of losses, states of being, is about how we perceive what is happening and how we feel about our aging process.
Source: Free Stock Images

For example, when a retired person (or any person) loses a spouse or life partner, along with the loss of that person come other potential losses:  financial stability, self-determination, security, happiness, shared experiences, partnership, togetherness.

 A friend of mine lost her husband in September 2016 after 61 years of marriage.  She still lives in their home, but it is a big house on a big double lot and now she is alone.  I’ve heard her say that she doesn’t know what to do with herself – having been married so long, depending on another person for most of her life, losing companionship, faced with maintenance of a large house and yard.  She feels disconnected.  There’s no one to talk to. She has lost her security as a spouse, her happiness as part of a couple, togetherness, partnership.  The shared experiences she and her husband had are no longer shared. She is the only one left.

For another example, I’ll share the losses that have left me with a different state of being.  All my life I’ve depended on my body to walk, bend, lift, reach, sit, stand, climb stairs, and so on.  But now, when standing or walking, I become dizzy without warning at times.  I can’t climb stairs without developing intense pain in my knees.

I can’t kneel or squat down to pick something up, or get down on the floor to do yoga or other exercises without experiencing severe knee pain.  Then if I do get down on the floor, I’m unable to get back up without help.  Getting out of a low chair or soft sofa is almost impossible without using something to lean on to propel myself up.  My legs no longer work as they did for the first 65 years of living.  I’ve lost confidence in my body.

Many women feel they are no longer attractive when they reach age 65 or more.  Their hair may have changed color and texture.  Their faces have developed wrinkles and lost the plump smoothness of the cheeks.  Their neck skin has developed wattles like a turkey.  Their upper arms no longer have defined muscles.  Their waists have thickened.  And on and on.


No longer feeling pretty is a loss.  Looking in the mirror and seeing an old woman is a new state of being that many don’t want to accept.  It’s disorienting.
Photo by

Men react similarly.  Muscle tone is lost.  Facial skin sags along with neck skin.  Spines may develop humps.  Shoulders droop.  Former athletes can no longer perform the skills of running, throwing, swimming, jumping, shooting, or skiing.  Living in an old body is a new state of being.  Familiar activities have to be abandoned or extensive accommodations made.

Some men and women lose interest in sexual activity and can no longer perform as they did earlier in life.  This is a new state of being, and often a very unwelcome loss.


People who have suffered a stroke, who have a debilitating or progressive disease, must often use a wheelchair, walker, or scooter to move around.  Loss of mobility can bring on feelings of irritability and resentment as we are forced to depend on others for help.



People who have suffered financial losses, for whatever reason, and people who never earned much money, may find themselves living on a tight budget in retirement.  They have a hard time paying for their basic living expenses of food, shelter, medicine, clothing, and doctor bills.  This is a new state of being – the feeling of being poor, not having enough, being deprived, being afraid of the future.

People who sell their single-family homes and move into assisted living, condominiums, apartments, or nursing homes experience extensive loss of control over their living situations, activities, surroundings, and freedom of movement.  They learn that there are many rules they have to follow – often for the first time since high school or college!  Living in a condo or apartment is like living in a dormitory, and very different from living in one’s own house.


Homeowners’ associations, landlord-tenant leases, and other legal documents severely limit what people can do.  It’s uncomfortable and confining.   The regimentation of a nursing home or assisted living facility may lead a person to feel trapped and sad.

Types of Coping Mechanisms

Well.  If you’ve read this far, you probably have seen your own situations, or those of loved ones, depicted in the two preceding sections.

You’ve recognized that you’re going to experience losses.  Maybe you already have.

So now let’s take a look at what you can do about it.

Facing Problems image 6

The most important principle of coping is a recognition that you have to take care of YOURSELF.  No one else is going to do it for you.  It’s up to you to find out what you need and take steps to get it.  Others can help, but they can’t do the hard work of accepting change for you.

There are MANY  coping mechanisms that can help you deal with the painful losses in retirement.  You and I have probably tried some of them before.  Feel free to use as many as you want to!  There’s no limit on the ways that you can ask for help or help yourself!

One coping mechanism that helps me is to schedule a treat for myself every day.  It might be as simple as saying, “Well, at 3:00PM I’m going to fix a nice cup of tea and sit on my balcony for a few minutes to listen to the birds.”

Here is a list of coping methods that can help you get through a loss:

  • Talk therapy, with a trained psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist
  • Self-help books, tapes, and CDs
  • Support groups filled with people like yourself experiencing what you’re experiencing
  • Writing – in a diary, journal, or blog – about what you’re going through
  • Volunteer work, where you reach out to help others and find that your activities also help yourself recover from losses
  • Meditation
  • Yoga, exercise, walking – alone or in a class or group
  • Travel, domestic or international, provides a change of scene and a change of subject, leading you to forget your own troubles
  • Rituals and ceremonies that honor what you lost
  • Gathering mementos and keeping them in a box readily available to you but out of sight
  • Focusing on the good times and the best memories of your loved one or pet
  • Gardening
  • Cooking, canning, preserving, or drying food
  • Listening to beautiful, uplifting music
  • Fishing
  • Sewing, knitting, crocheting, working with wood or leather, beading
  • Drawing, painting, or coloring
  • Spending time with good people
  • Spending time outside in the sun each day
  • Going out for coffee or a meal
  • Going to a movie or concert. Many free ones can be found!
  • Visiting new places in your local area
  • Taking a warm bath or shower
  • Signing up for a class
  • Trying a new hobby
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Painting the walls of your home or room in a light color
  • Taking stock of your goals.  What do you want out of life?
  • Learning your limits
  • Making a plan for the next day, week, month, year, or longer
  • Finding a part-time job
  • Joining a book club, card club, biking group, etc. that meets regularly
  • Thinking about your daily schedule
  • Enjoying each new day with gratitude
  • Letting time go by

These coping methods will help you go through the stages of grief:  shock, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  The stages may last for months or years.  There’s no fixed way of going through them.  Each person handles grief differently.  But knowing that there is a process togo through can help you survive it and heal.

Other coping methods are NOT good and should be avoided.  These include

  • Drinking or eating too much
  • Gambling
  • Using illegal drugs or prescription drugs to excess
  • Lashing out at others
  • Isolating yourself longer than a few days
  • Joining a cult that promises to solve your problems
  • Spending too much money

If you find yourself doing any of those seven things, then get some help.  You don’t have to go through your grief alone.  People will help you.  You just have to ask.

How to handle painful losses in retirement

We’ve now seen the many losses that older people face in retirement.  Sometimes it seems like the losses really pile on.  I talked with a friend recently who told me of her cousin who had just lost his wife, and returned from  the funeral to find his home on fire.  It burned to the ground and he lost all his possessions.  Shortly after, his dog was hit by a car and died.  What a string of losses.  The man turned to his friends and his married son for help in handling so much difficulty.

If we’re lucky, we will be able to face just one loss at a time.  One of the women in my bridge club last year was turning 104.  We asked her if there were anyone she’d like us to invite to a little birthday celebration.  She answered, “Thanks, but no.  Everyone I knew is dead.”  She had recently attended the funeral of her only daughter.

In times when we feel really sad and overwhelmed, it’s helpful to cry.  Everyone needs to cry now and then to release stress.  Crying helps to let out bottled-up feelings. After a few moments, we feel better.  We take some deep breaths, and go on with living.

A radio preacher I used to listen to would start each Sunday service by saying, “Thanks, Lord, for giving me another day of living.  I woke up this  morning clothed and in my right mind, for which I am grateful.”

Sometimes we have to focus on small things and being grateful for them:  a beautiful sunrise, a hot cup of coffee,  the purring of a cat in your lap, a bird singing near your window.  This is the best way to cope with losses:  taking one day at a time and living with an attitude of gratitude.

The list of coping mechanisms that I offered to you in the previous section is a good place to start when handling a loss.  You CAN survive whatever happens to you.  I know you can.

If this post has helped you with a loss, please let me know.  I care!


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Laurinda Porter
Acknowledgements: Photos by Christian Lanballe, Alex Bl more...

38 thoughts on “How to handle painful losses during retirement”

  1. Dr. Rin,
    great blog for us seniors. thank you for the insightful resource. i have to add that i have used a great book for many years as it covers loss of many types, just as you mention. it is called LIFE AFTER LOSS now in it’s 6th edition. i have the 3rd edition! so you can see how worthwhile and USEFUL it is. i just gave and friend and her mom a copy when her dad-husband passed. if you can get a copy before you need it and read it like a how-to book. it has been invaluable for me over the years as my go-to book.

    1. Ann Marie,
      Thank you for reading and commenting on the new post. I’m glad to learn about the book you mention. It sounds like a great resource. I’m going to see if I can get it on Amazon. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Dr Rin

  2. Great information! I have been lucky so far in the I have not experienced many losses, but I know that it’s a natural function of growing older.

  3. Excellent article Dr Rin.

    As painful as it may be, we will lose loved ones in our lifetime. Nothing can prepare you for it. You have to deal with grieving in the way which works for you. My father passed away over 12 years ago and though he was an absent father, I struggled with a lot of emotions. Prior to this I lost my maternal grandmother, someone I was close to as a child. You realise someone can be here today and gone tomorrow. It was hard knowing they could not be found anywhere on this earth. My faith was a great comfort to me during my grieving stages.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences of loss when a relationship breaks down. At times we can underestimate the trauma this can cause when you are no longer “a couple”. Though our spouse is still living there is a grieving process which one must go through.

    1. Hi Phoenicia,
      I just found this comment from you. It had gone to the spam file. I don’t know why. I appreciate your sharing about the loss of your father and grandmother. It is difficult to deal with losses. I hope that my post was helpful to you.


  4. Rin… Great post! I can identify with several of these losses. I’ve lost family, friends and pets in the last few years. As you already know, I’ve written about loss of identity when leaving paid work. And, I’ve grieved the loss of my once thin body, endurance and tolerance of cold weather! As you pointed out, this is just change but change we must accept. Darwin said, (and I paraphrase) survival is not to the most intelligent or the fittest; it is to the most adaptable. Thanks for a thoughtful post. K

    1. Kathy,
      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you found personal meaning in my post. Thanks for mentioning a couple of areas of loss that you’ve experienced and written about. I wish I had linked to your post about loss of identity when leaving work! I realize now that I missed covering a few areas and wish I had included them.


  5. Your post resonated with me. This evening I returned home from a trip to attend the funeral of a dear friend’s husband. I knew him, but not well. I went to be there for my friend, a woman who worked closely with me, and with whom I maintained contact after retirement. She gave the eulogy for her husband and spoke of the many losses he faced during a long illness prior to death and how he coped with most of these by finding new things to enjoy every day. In your post, you give wonderful advice about strategies that we can use to develop new patterns of behaviour when dealing with loss. I will keep this for future reference as well as forwarding it to my friend.
    Thanks for writing this and thanks for including a link to my blog.
    Be well,

    1. Jeanette,
      Your comment means the world to me! I am so gratified to learn that my post resonated with your immediate personal experience, and that you can send it to your friend who was recently widowed. Thank you for letting me know about this. It is heartening to a blogger to learn that one’s efforts are worthwhile and helpful to readers.

  6. As always, Dr. Rin, you provided us with everything we need to know about this issue! I especially like the solutions you provide—the ways to cope! For me, loss of loved ones to death or mental incapacity is the hardest to bear, but loss of health is a close second. I was born into a family of seven siblings, and while the losses are just beginning, I don’t look forward to what will happen with everyone in the future. The writing is already on the wall with two of the siblings. I noted your list of coping methods, and will print it out, and read repeatedly!

    1. Hi Diane,

      Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate your opinion a lot. I wrote this post just after my sweet dog died. I had her since she was 8 weeks old, and she died at 12.5 years. I had to do something to get through the heartache. Wow — didn’t know you had 6 siblings, sad to learn two of them may be terminally ill. This is so hard to face. I hope my list will help somewhat.


  7. What a Good article. Pets are good friends to us, especially after retirement. But they age quickly and die. So it is helpful to know it in advance and adjust ourselves in time. Anyway, losses are painful but unavoidable.

  8. Thanks for some good solid advice, even if some is so sad. I found your site from Still the Lucky Few blog. We have moved to the “Wrinkle Farm”, but frankly, I would have been very happy to stay at home and leave feet first. But it was the best decision for my DH of 52 years, who is a generation older than I. The food is quite good, fortunately, and the people are very pleasant. This is our third and last downsize…sigh. I still dream of being home, though. TMI?

    1. Hi Hillsmom,
      Thanks for writing. I can tell that you miss your former home as I do. It’s hard to leave a beloved place and start over in a new location. After nearly a year here, I’m gradually adjusting. But I miss the change of seasons in my country home, my former jobs and colleagues, my neighbors, and my routine there. I admire you for making your move to do what was best for your DH. That sacrifice must be a difficult one. Hang in there. Not TMI.

      Dr Rin

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