A few years ago my friend Barbara Rainey and I were either in or approaching the season of the empty nest. Another friend who was a few years younger asked us,
How do you navigate the empty nest? I want to prepare. What do you do?”
Bursting out in laughter we responded,
We have no clue!”
And that began a conversation between us that ultimately resulted in a book that Barbara and I wrote, Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest
In writing this book, we interviewed hundreds of other women across the country who were either nearing or well into this season. We wanted to learn from them.
There were lots of books on raising young kids, raising teens, a few on relating to adult children, but hardly any on the empty nest season. We found others hungry to learn.
Now we find ourselves in another new season — a season similar in some ways to the empty nest.
Although there are many books about preparing financially for these retirement years, there’s not a lot of help in preparing relationally, emotionally, spiritually, and in a myriad of other ways.
It’s a huge transition. You may be stepping back from leading a ministry, an organization. You may be leaving your full-time job or shifting to a different vocation. You may feel great relief, much joy, a tinge of sadness, a loss of identity, anxiety about finances. You may be fearful as you look at a blank slate. You too may feel confused as you wonder exactly how you should be feeling or responding.
We live with the illusion that stability is the norm. We wait for things to calm down, to get back to normal. They don’t. The reality is: transition is the norm and stability the rare exception. It helps simply to recognize this.
Throughout life, we experience many transitions — little ones and big ones. We think we have it figured out and then things change: a worldwide pandemic shuts everything down, a child is in crisis, that trip you hoped for can’t happen, you or someone you love has a health crisis, the market collapses . . .
As John and I have entered into this retirement season we’ve learned 4 things which I hope will be helpful to you.
1. Recognize that this season is a lot like Jell-O.
At first Jell-O feels like it’s solid, but soon it begins to leak out in different ways. We scoop up one side and another side leaks. There is just no way to make it neat!
Like Jell-O, this season isn’t stable or solid. It’s awkward.
Our marriage feels unsettled because of all the changes. What will our relationship look like now?
Many of our friends are in a different season so they might not understand what we’re feeling.
We are likely far more tired than we know. Especially if we’ve been going hard 24/7 for many long years. We are exhausted physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally and we probably don’t realize it.
The identity our job gave us is gone and this can be hard. Where is our identity now?
This is a season of uncertainty and ambiguity and it changes many times. We don’t like it. We like clarity. Unlike the season of parenting toddlers which had a beginning and an end, this one does not. It is not neat. Rather it is a season of many small transitions.
It helps to realize that this is all normal. Nothing is wrong with you.
2. Approach this season with a community.
A few years ago, my husband John and I began contemplating his stepping down from his senior pastor role. We knew this was going to be a big adjustment for us — a new season unlike any other. We knew we did not want to enter into this alone.
When we were raising small children, we had friends who were doing the same thing. We could compare notes, encourage each other. It was the same with the teen years. Sitting on the ball field together with other parents became a time of sharing about the challenges and blessings of these teen years. But at this new season people are in different places.
One thing we did know: God has created us for community, and we needed a community to join together in navigating this season.
We invited 5 other couples to meet together regularly with us to explore this transition. After a lot of laughing and thinking we dubbed ourselves the “Oaks Folks.”
It’s a play on the word “old folks” and the scripture, “oaks of righteousness” (from Isaiah 61:3).
Each of us was in a different phase of this transition — one with several years of full-time work left, another already retired 2 years. Not one of us wanted simply to “retire.” (We even hesitate to use that word! 🙂 ) We still had work to do and a desire to make a positive difference.
Our overriding purpose was to discuss how we could finish our lives well for the Lord. (Hebrews 12:1) What might that look like for each couple? We asked those ahead of us: What should we expect? How should we handle change in income, schedule, time together as a married couple? What warnings can you give us?
We read some books (or selected chapters) together.* (See links below.)
We shared our own personal fears. We prayed for each other. And we bonded in deep ways.
One of the wives developed cancer and recently she died. Because of this couple’s unusual openness and our group’s love for one another we were able to walk through her death with candid conversations and shared pain and joy. Through this experience, we’ve seen someone die well. It has been a holy home-going. We would all agree that this shared experience has been most profound.
Don’t navigate this season alone. If you do, you’ll find yourself asking, “Am I the only one who . . . ?” You are not. Pull together some other people and learn from one another as you navigate these new waters together.
3. Be open to new things.
Our God is a God of new things. Good things. And at this season He wants to do something new in each of our lives. We aren’t done! As David says,
I waited patiently for the Lord. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in him.” (Psalm 40:1-3 NIV)
One of the blessings of convening a group is that we can dream together about new visions. As we get to know one another we can affirm one another’s gifts. It helps to ask questions like: When do you feel most alive? When do you sense the presence of the Lord in a clear way? Where have you seen God use you in the past? What excites you or moves you?
It’s normal for our identity to have been defined by what we have done in the past, by our title. It’s disconcerting to lose this identity in part because of the clarity of mission that comes with it. Now is the time to remember and affirm again that my value is not in what I do but in the unchangeable fact that I belong to Jesus. Period. I am His beloved child.
Recently I have been waking up and saying to God, “Father, you absolutely, totally and completely adore me.” This affirmation begins my day on a positive note. It helps me to reaffirm my true identity.
Several years ago John and I hosted an adult reunion with John’s three siblings, their spouses, and a close first cousin and his wife. In total we were five couples. We were all in our mid-sixties to early eighties. We decided that it would be good to have a theme for our time together. We wanted our conversations to go beyond who was doing what, our children, the state of the world, and aches and pains!
Throughout our time we took turns looking back in segments of twenty years. We asked the question, “Where did you see God’s faithfulness in the first twenty years of your life?” Later we shared the second twenty years, then the third twenty years.
Our goal was twofold: to focus on Gods’ faithfulness and to get to know each other in new ways. In doing this we realized afresh that one of the joys in getting older is that it meant we had lived long enough to have a larger collection of stories of God’s faithfulness and to have seen the truths of Romans 8:28 come to fruition. It was a celebration of God’s faithfulness.
As we make many adjustments in this new season we have the opportunity to celebrate. Recently John and I realized we had fallen into the trap of working, catching up, and simply doing the same things over and over. It felt like we’d fallen into a rut. So we determined to take one day a week and have an “us day.” A day to leave behind our lists, and do something special- a hike, a meal out, an exploration, an adventure. Often we take turns planning the day. It’s a day to celebrate our marriage, to re-capture a sense of fun! And it’s a day of thanksgiving.
God’s words to Jeremiah are still true for each of us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Resources our “Oaks Folks” have used:
- Aging Well by George Vaillant
- Transitions by William Bridges
- Nearing Home by Billy Graham
- Survival Guide for the Soul by Ken Shigematsu
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.