‘I am a firefighter, now retired’: Defining yourself post-retirement
Retirement is often difficult for firefighters, unprepared for the sense of identity loss
By Larry Baker
Retirement is close! You’ve waited at least 25 years for this moment, and the day is fast approaching.
You’ve been to the pension board – all looks good financially. You and the spouse have talked about a trip and a new boat. Great! You even have decided to get a part-time job. Also great.
The excitement has reached peak levels. Then the big day comes and suddenly you don’t feel quite so elated. It dawns on you that your whole world has changed. After more than two or three decades of dedication to the fire service, it’s gone.
“What is going on with me?” you might ask.
Who are you now?
There is this useful tool called the Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory, essentially an assessment of the stress in your life. The inventory looks at 43 life stressors, each with a stress score. Retirement is the top 10 life stressors. (Note: Number 1 is death of a spouse, and you are finding that retirement feels like the death of a career.)
Are you surprised? Sure you are; no one prepared you for this aspect of retirement. Lots of people said to make sure you have enough money and square away your pension. A few even reminded you to have your will and insurance in place. But not a single person mentioned the emotional impact that such a life-altering event might cause. Think about it for minute – your whole life, daily activities and way of functioning has suddenly changed.
In fact, this realization often does not settle on us right away; it is a gradual creep into our lives. The first weeks are filled with activities, parties, catching up on chores at the home, and maybe a quick fishing trip. But then one day you are introduced to a stranger who asks, “What do you do?” It is then you have to decide how to respond:
- “I am retired” – sounds bland;
- “I was a firefighter” – sounds like you died; or
- “I am a retired firefighter” – whoops, forgot all I ever knew.
Of course, you could always just say, “I’m a greeter at Walmart.”
You begin to realize the loss of identity. What you do (fight fires) is a very integral part of YOU as a person. So how do you describe yourself now?
My personal suggestion is, “I am a firefighter, now retired.”
Find positive engagements
I work as a fire chaplain, and I continue to serve as a chaplain for those who retire.
Many tell me how tough it is to suddenly lose that fire service identity. Some never walk back into a fire station again; it is just too painful. Think about that. The fellow firefighters who were like family to me are suddenly not in my life anymore? That sounds a little like death. Some even avoid retiree groups because they just can’t handle the emotions that arise when Joe retells (maybe for the 100th time) the run at Elm and Maple where three children were rescued.
This is a form of grief. Instead of turning to alcohol or other unhealthy outlets, consider more positive options that can help you reaffirm your identity in your new chapter in life. Two options to consider for the hardest parts of the transition:
- Talk to a counselor or a chaplain; or
- Take part in small-group therapy;
Either of these options can help you work through your grief following the shift in your career and lead you into that happy retirement time you had first pictured.
Additionally, consider all the new activities that await you. Focus on the future with great respect for the past. Pursue a hobby. Retirement will give you more time to fish or golf. Volunteer at the fire museum, hospital or church. Get active in a new group, like a retiree organization. Whatever you do, avoid the couch!
Preplan your future
I urge firefighters who are approaching retirement to PLAN ahead for this change and the associated emotions that will arise. That does not mean it will be stress-free. But it does help to be prepared to handle the emotions and the stress. We too often ignore our emotions. We did it our whole career and, in some cases, paid the price (think PTSD). So get ready for retirement. Anticipate what lies ahead (think preplan), and get the tools you’ll need to confront the stress that will come.
About the Author
Chaplain Larry Baker is a retired fire lieutenant and paramedic as well as an ordained clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He has served as a hospice chapin as well as chaplain to two suburban fire departments.