– Janina M. Jolley
This morning, I stood in front of my class to deliver the last lecture of my career. After 38 years of teaching, this was the long-anticipated moment when I would walk through the door to retirement. But as I stood before my class, delivering a lecture on dying and bereavement, what I did not anticipate were the tears of grief that interrupted my words. As a gerontologist, I understood that retirement should be about moving toward new opportunities rather than running away from the present. This was a moment that I had prepared for and felt ready to embrace. So why the tears?
I played a video clip of Morrie Swartz, the focus of the book and movie “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Swartz, 1979). As he contemplated his impending death, he too was crying. Through his tears, he advised us to embrace our emotions and “when we feel our tears come, let them come––Cry freely.” The clip ended, and I attempted to lead a discussion about the process of dying and grief. I did not wish to follow Morrie’s advice during my final moments teaching, but I had no choice.
Although ending a career does not have the finality of losing one’s life, both mark an endpoint. What I miscalculated about my retirement was an assumption that grieving was for those who involuntarily retired or did not have a post-retirement plan that incorporated new ways of finding meaning in living. Although I assumed the university’s financial officers would be pleased to see a full professor retire, I believed that my colleagues and most students would be sad at my departure. My varied interests, commitment to local groups, friends and family ensured that I had a rewarding future. So why the tears?
Retiring from a career includes relinquishing roles that have provided structure and meaning to one’s life. Serving as mentor, colleague, scholar, editor, creator, and performer gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Indeed, even as I prepared for my last lecture, I could not help but update it. But today I walked through the door and shed those long-held roles in exchange for the indistinct identity of “retired professor.”
It has been over 3 months since that last lecture. The ever-evolving kaleidoscope of life has transformed the sharp initial grief over leaving my career into the subtle blur of detachment from my former calling. Rather than a constant preoccupation with developing lectures and grading papers, my calendar and mind are filled with new responsibilities and pursuits. I have found satisfaction in knocking on doors to gather signatures for candidates seeking political office, strumming my guitar during the monthly Clarion Folk Jam, and rocking out to my tunes on the elliptical at the YMCA. At this point in the transition, there are more things I want to do than there is time or energy. Retirement has given me a greater sense of freedom to say and do what feels true to my character, and I better understand the research finding that most people who are over 60 are happier than younger people. I have entered a privileged time––a time to pursue old and fresh interests and explore new avenues of meaning.
No matter whether you are planning on retiring within the
next few months, within the next few decades, or never, you have already
discovered the truth in Carl Rogers’s observation that “The good life is a
process, not a state of being.” Giving my best to a long career as a
professor, grieving when it was time to let go of that identity, and now
starting a fresh journey as an elder are meaningful moments in my process of
Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York: Doubleday.
 On the occasion of my retirement, my colleagues in the Psychology Department presented me with a framed picture that included this meaningful quotation.