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Retiring from public safety: The big breakup

Leaving the occupation you love is hard to do

Broken paper heart on blue background, top view

Sign of divorce. Broken paper heart on blue background, top view, copy space

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“Retirement might initially seem like you’re escaping from the daily grind, but this sense of relief can be short-lived.” … That’s an important observation from my friend Gordon Graham, who apparently flunked retirement because he’s still as active as ever.

In many ways, working in public safety is one of the most rewarding careers. With it comes the chance to serve others, save lives, protect property and help prevent tragedy. Every day brings a different set of challenges, providing a wide variety of opportunities to help those in your community.

Additionally, there is nothing quite like the camaraderie that comes from belonging to an organization where you eat, sleep, live and work together. You learn to rely on others while also learning to be a person others can rely on.

Lastly, you serve a community for 20 to 30 years. You get to know the citizens you serve like they’re part of your family. You know every part of the city — just like you know your own home. And since you spend more time with your co-workers and the community you serve than with your own family, the people you work with become extensions of your family.

Breaking up is hard to do

It’s no wonder “breaking up is hard to do.” Retiring from public safety can be more difficult than anyone expects it to be. Let me explain.

I have a friend who recently retired after 30 years with his local fire department. While he was still in the fire service, when I asked him how he felt about retirement, he quickly said he couldn’t wait to get out. The leadership was terrible, he said. Budget cuts were impacting readiness, and old apparatus and equipment had become a major liability. These were just a few notable reasons he gave me for why he couldn’t wait to retire.

Several weeks later, I saw him in the gym. I asked about retirement life and he said he was having a difficult time adjusting. He said he missed the job, the camaraderie and the work he used to do. “But wait a minute,” I said. “Just a few weeks ago, you said you couldn’t wait to leave! Now you’re saying you miss it?” Snapping back, he admitted he’d thought he wouldn’t miss the work, but now that reality had set in, he really did. My heart went out to him. My friend wasn’t just in a funk; he looked like a lost soul.

Sadly, this is not uncommon. I have witnessed similar reactions from many of my brothers and sisters both in the fire service and law enforcement. Leaving the occupation you love is hard to do. There are a lot of emotions associated with retiring from public safety because it’s not just an occupation — it’s your family and your way of life.

Escape … or prison?

Retirement can initially seem like an escape, but like Gordon says, that feeling can be short-lived. Believe it or not, retirement can hit a lot like the breakup of a personal relationship. It’s not uncommon to experience a wide range of emotions, including anger, frustration and despair.

Your pain and confusion become all-consuming. The breakup is all you think about or talk about. You may find yourself struggling to understand what happened, at any cost, and your desperation to make sense of something so jarring may lead to you lashing out at friends, family members, former coworkers or even strangers, anxiously trying to figure out why and how it ended.

Whether we’re talking about the breakup of a personal relationship or a “breakup” from your department, both signify a change in roles and routine. Both can throw your life into chaos. Both can cause you to question your values and wonder who you really are.

The emotional impact of retirement

Gordon Graham, co-founder of Lexipol, provides some valuable insight on retirement in one of his popular Today’s Tips. “Retirement,” he says, “is a richly deserved reward for years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Most of us will spend a lot of time thinking about the logistics of retirement — downsizing, relocating, getting our finances in order. But have you thought about how life-changing retirement will be — and how you might react to it emotionally?”

After retiring from public safety, many former first responders feel like they’ve lost their identity. Instead of feeling free and fulfilled, they end up feeling bored, unimportant and isolated. They also may also experience resentment that all their years of service have gone unappreciated. As the saying goes, “45 minutes out the door and you don’t matter anymore.”

Preparing for retirement

What can you do to prevent a personal crisis when you retire? Start getting ready now. Explore opportunities to broaden your social network so you have support outside the workplace. Join clubs or civic organizations such as the Lions, the Kiwanis or the Jaycees. If you attend church, find ways to get more involved in activities there. As you near retirement, make plans to stay in contact with work colleagues — especially fellow retirees.

Also, now is a great time to explore physical activities that can serve you well in retirement. Take up a new hobby such as golf or pickleball. Go hiking or mountain biking with your spouse or friends. You may not be able to do these things frequently while you’re still employed, but trying them now will give you a better idea of what you can do when you’re no longer working.

Finally (and this is really important) foster an identity that goes beyond your role in public safety. Set new goals to achieve. Consider where you might work part time or volunteer after retirement. Take some classes and learn something new.

Other ways to prepare

In her article, “4 Tips for Successful Public Safety Retirement,” Lexipol’s Shannon Pieper provides some additional perspective on how first responders can prepare for retirement:

1. Be prepared for an identity crisis. It’s common for public safety retirees to face an identity crisis due to the loss of camaraderie and purpose. Preparing for these feelings, and making a real effort to develop outside interests, can help ease the transition.

2. Do your financial homework. It’s crucial to understand your pension and health insurance options after you leave your department. Consulting a financial advisor can help ensure you are financially prepared for retirement. Make a budget you can live with and give it a trial run to ensure you can live with (and on) it.

3. Prepare for satisfying post-retirement employment. Like my friend Gordon, lots of first responders “flunk retirement” by transitioning to another area of work after they leave their public safety jobs. If that’s your plan, preparing for fulfilling post-service work is important. This might require additional education or training before you pull the pin on retirement.

4. Leave the job better than you found it. Ensure a smooth transition by preparing your successor and leaving the organization in good shape. This can include updating policies, training your replacement(s) and mentoring future leaders.

Don’t let retirement catch you off guard

As Gordon notes, “Retirement should be a journey, not a destination. Give yourself the grace to expect an emotional response. That’s the first step to experiencing a healthy, happy retirement.” When you take responsibility for your emotional reaction to retirement, you can begin to reunite the pieces of you that were shattered by the “breakup.” You also come to terms with the faulty dynamics of the relationship and any misunderstandings that occurred as a result. This kind of personal ownership helps you develop the power to move forward.

It might sound strange, but consider discussing your upcoming retirement with a qualified therapist, psychologist or other individual who specializes in post-career acceptance and development. You’ll likely get some great suggestions on other things you can do to prepare your mindset for what’s to come. Also, if your agency subscribes to Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution, you’ll find great resources in the app to help with your retirement.

When we fight a fire or work a medical call, we let our dispatch center know we’re available again as soon as we’re ready. This means the current call has been successfully handled and we are now open for the next challenge. It’s a lesson that should be taken to heart: Make yourself available for the next call.

There’s plenty of important work and service out there for you if you make yourself available emotionally and mentally for retirement.

The issue of age isn’t a simple problem to solve, particularly in the volunteer fire service that’s struggling for members

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, California. DiGiovanna also serves as executive vice president of fire operations for Cordico, which provides access to critical mental health information and resources to help those on the front lines best take care of themselves and ensure they are best prepared to serve others. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in 2020.