Life’s Endings and How We Make Sense out of Them

At life transition points, it’s your sense of self that counts in the end

Posted Aug 01, 2015

Transitions in life involve endings as well as beginnings.  In the early days of a new job, relationship, or even a short-term event such as a vacation, there’s a sense of anticipation about what the future will hold. The honeymoon period, whether in marriage or work (after you take on a new job), is filled with hopes for the future.  Each day brings with it a new understanding that you didn’t have before, and as you adapt to that life change, you start to adapt to that knowledge.

Endings, on the other hand, require a different mindset. Think about what happens when a popular television series comes to an end, whether it’s MASH, Cheers, Breaking Bad, or- most recently- Mad Men. People become obsessed with the various theories about what those final scenes might be like and what will be the fate of their beloved (or hated) characters.

Similarly, the early games in a sports playoff series garnish far less attention than the later ones, and the first few moments of a final playoff game are often less memorable than the last few seconds.  You may remember those seconds for years, if not decades, relishing the joy of victory or re-experiencing the pain of having your hopes dashed.

In part, it’s the suspense factor that accounts for why endings absorb so much psychological energy.  You can spend considerable time and effort speculating on possible scenarios that might unfold and then try to predict which is the most likely.  Once you’ve passed the end point, and the outcome is known (the final score or the death of the lead character), you may mull it over, but with the question mark removed, you won’t have to wonder anymore.

Endings in your personal life are perhaps a different story. This is not a matter of learning how a plot line finishes or who wins a game. You now must reconcile yourself to the fact that an experience is over.  Even if you looked forward to that ending, once it’s passed, you may find yourself missing it or just not knowing how to behave. The patterns you established are disrupted, and the shuffle of reorganization requires that you build up new patterns. Even if you’ve been looking forward to an ending, you may still find the transition to be stressful because of the reorganization it requires in your everyday behavior.

Retirement is one such transition point in life. University of Cincinnati’s Heather Vough and colleagues (2015) proposed that this particular ending creates psychological challenges because it forces us “off script.” This is an intriguing idea and relates to that concept of reorganization. You have a daily script that dictates much of what you do- wake up, eat breakfast, get out of the house or start you daily tasks at home, eat lunch, and so on. Although specifics might vary from day to day, there’s a certain predictability that can prove comforting. You don’t have to invent your schedule anew each time you get up in the morning because it’s been largely set by your various role obligations and your body’s need for food and sleep.

When people retire, or leave their place of employment, that script must be rewritten as they have to find a new way to organize their days. At a deeper level, though, they must also try to formulate an interpretation of this life transition. Vough and her team describe this as “sensemaking,” which they define as “the process through which individuals create explanations for experiences” (p. 416).  The event becomes a part of their life narrative, or the story we write about the events in our own histories.

In the case of retirement, people must come up with a new identity that doesn’t revolve around work. Furthermore, in terms of sense-making, we write our narratives around the sense we make of the reasons for this change. Are you being forced to retire, did you do so voluntarily, or were there ways in which you felt no longer needed? What story will you write about how this transition reflected on your worth as a member of your organization? 

You can relate to this idea even if you're decades away from retirement. Whether a change is forced upon you, or it was the product of your own decision-making process, the circumstances of an ending make all the difference in the world.

The University of Cincinnati researchers drew on the interviews of 48 Baby Boom Canadian retirees all employed in companies in the private sector, spanning mid-level managers to CEOs. From these interviews, Vough and her team identified these 6 career-ending narratives among the interviewees that varied in how the narrative impacted the individual’s sense of self.

Following a script: These individuals used their age or length of employment as triggers to the retirement decision.
Identifying windows: A new project was coming up, and the individual felt it was a good time to leave.
Cashing out: The retiree was offered an incentive or wanted to get out before the company reorganized.
Being discarded: These individuals felt that they were no longer needed or were actually laid off.
Becoming disillusioned: Feeling that the company’s values were going downhill, these individuals decided it was time to leave.
Having an epiphany: Through illness, death of a close family member, or other major life event, these individuals felt that there were other things in life more important than the job.

In Paths 1 and 2, people could maintain or even enhance their sense of self. By choosing the circumstances of their retirement, which was generally under positive conditions, they were able to feel good about the change and themselves. Path 3 also allowed the individual to maintain a positive self-view promoted by what was often a generous retirement package.

Starting with Path 4, the situation becomes more ominous. People who feel they’re being discarded must find some way to maintain a positive sense of self; the obvious way to do so is to cast aspersions on the company. Unlike Path 3, the Path 4 individuals could no longer attribute the decision (which was outside their control) to a voluntary choice so the only way they could still feel good about themselves was to denigrate the organization.

Paths 5 and 6 involve, in contrast, the most identity change, which Vaugh et al. call “identity restructuring.”  Path 5 was the route taken by those who engaged in values clarification; they realized that they couldn’t go along with company policies that was counter to what they saw as ethical or moral. In Path 6, the restructuring involved a new sense of understanding. These individuals may decide that they only have so many years left that they can spend in travel, with family, or on their avocations.

Endings, then, give us a chance to explore our identities if we use them for this purpose. Moving from work to relationships, for example, the ending that’s forced upon you by your partner (like a company reorganization for a retiree) may lead you to gain greater understanding of your own priorities and values in life. Conversely, you could go through the “being discarded” script and cope by derogating the partner who left you.

Understanding the importance of life’s endings, both those that you choose and those that you didn't, can give you the opportunity for new self-understanding. With the ending in the past, you have the opportunity to find fulfillment in those openings that yet await you.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Vough, H. C., Bataille, C. D., Noh, S. C., & Lee, M. D. (2015). Going off script: How managers make sense of the ending of their careers. Journal Of Management Studies, 52(3), 414-440. doi:10.1111/joms.12126