Change. For some of us, the word alone can send a wave of panic. And it’s no wonder. Any change means transition, and any transition—whether happy or sad—begins with an ending. In all cases, something or someone fundamental in your life is gone. Marriage brings the end of complete independence. Retirement brings the end of decades of camaraderie, achievement, and a steady paycheck. Divorce brings the end of a relationship, and often years of hopes and dreams. Death of a loved one brings the end of companionship and a huge shift in how you live each day moving forward. Sending a child to school brings the end of one phase of parenting. While every stage of life has its own of transitions, for many women, it’s the 40s that seem to bring on the perfect storm.
In my own life, my 40s were an utter whirlwind. Jamie and Adam both graduated from high school and moved out of the house. Both of my parents died. My husband had a major stroke. And I lost my job. All in a tiny, 5-year window of my life. And like anyone facing such transitions, I didn’t know which way was up. In his seminal book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, Bill Bridges talks about the period following a significant life change as our “time in the wilderness.” I was the perfect example. As Bridges explains it, it’s a time when we’re forced to separate ourselves from the everyday and digest and respond to the immense change within us. And all of this must happen before we can return to the world, transformed.
While you’re in the wilderness, it’s normal to feel off-balance and uncertain. It can feel like survival is impossible, and the unending stream of questions won’t stop flooding every thought. How will I live? How will I pay the bills? How can I move on? While it may seem impossible at the time, it’s important to recognize that you will find your way. But even as you’re struggling, you must make sure the rest of the pieces of your life don’t fall apart.
I often say that when it comes to your money, there’s no such thing as an unexpected expense. The same is all too true when it comes to “unexpected” changes. Once you reach your 40s, 50s, and beyond, big changes come flying at you, fast and furious. Your children grow up. Your parents get elderly. Your aging body begins to throw you curve balls. You get sick. Your spouse gets sick. Life happens! The good news is that because you know all these things are going to happen, you can prepare for what’s to come—long before you’re thrown into the wilderness. Here’s how to start planning for tomorrow’s changes today:
- Identify your “person.” In times of crisis, it’s vital to have someone who can give you an outside perspective and help guide your way. It may be an adult child, a colleague, a neighbor, a family member, or a best friend. Whoever you choose, your person is the one you know you can trust to be there when you need help and is the one who makes you feel safe—even when you’re in the wilderness.
- Create a solid financial plan. All transitions create an imbalance in your life. By working with a trusted advisor now to create a solid financial plan that is stress tested for change, money will be one thing you don’t need to worry about when life happens. Even more, you won’t be starting from scratch after the storm. Instead, you’ll know precisely what your resources are moving forward. That alone can help breathe easier throughout the transition process.
- Prepare for the inevitable. Like it or not, change is going to happen and your life will be filled with a series of transitions. The kids grow up, move out, get married, and have babies of their own. Parents get old and pass on. Jobs come and go. Marriages shift. Be honest with yourself about what changes you’ll face in the next decade… and the next… and prepare yourself emotionally and practically for what’s to come.
- Create a community of friends. Emotionally you may feel isolated in the wilderness between the end of one thing and an eventual new beginning. Isolation leaves you vulnerable, so prepare now to engage in community by being a friend, a volunteer, or a member of a church, book club, or card group. The circle of friends you build will be your emotional life raft in the future.
Of course, you cannot anticipate every transition. The worst day of my life was when my first husband left me. My kids were three and five years old. I was a recent West Coast transplant and a stay-at-home mom. I had no job. I had no future. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t swallow. I had been thrown into the wilderness and trapped inside a bell jar. When my attorney Sheila Sonenshine told me to breathe, I listened. I inhaled. I exhaled. Again and again. She told me to get a haircut and get a job, and I did that too. Before I even realized it, I was putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. With her guidance, I found my way out of my wilderness.
When the big changes hit—whether you’ve prepared for them or not—remember to make these your top three priorities:
- Breathe. You’ll feel stuck. You’ll feel blinded. You’ll feel off-balance. But if you can remember to keep breathing, you can (and will) keep moving forward.
- Identify what’s urgent. Pay your bills. Be realistic about your finances. Take care of the necessities and put everything else on hold. And wait to make any irrevocable decisions until you’re able to see straight again.
- Get “up on the balcony. ” Count on “your person” to help you scan the environment, see the realities of your situation more clearly, and keep you rooted in what’s real. Don’t forget about your financial advisor. She can help you circle back to your plan so you can rise above your emotions and make rational decisions.
No matter what life throws at you—and no matter how unexpected the expected can feel—you too will find your way through the wilderness. The best thing you can do until you get to that next fork in the road is to put plans in place that help make even the toughest transitions easier. And when life happens and you need a guide to help find your way, we’re always here to help.