Loss and Simplification in Later Adulthood

In my last post, I introduced the idea that the main psychological task of late life is to mourn our losses. I ended by suggesting that such grieving does not mean that we older adults are constantly in a state of sadness and mourning. Proper grieving in fact relieves negative emotions and leads to peace. In addition, grieving helps us mature. We benefit greatly by the process of letting go.

Catholic priest Ronald Rohlheiser states that good grieving “consists not just in letting the old go but also in letting it bless us.” Rolheiser suggests that mourners are blessed when they accept every aspect of their lives—their origins, decisions, dispositions, relationships, and experiences—rather than rejecting or hiding those things that now seem wanting. For example, he distinguishes between his childhood companions who did and who didn’t accept their origins in a poor community comprised mostly of Eastern European immigrants to Canada. Some who grew up there never visit and are ashamed of their humble backgrounds. Others are proud of their roots, recognizing that the hardships they faced early in life prepared them for later successes. The latter group are those who are blessed by their origins.

Like Rolheiser, Lewis Joseph Sherrill also thought that the main task of late adulthood is letting go, but he conceived of that task not as grieving losses but as simplifying one’s life. Sherrill (1892-1957) was a professor of religious education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and later a professor of practical theology at Union Seminary (New York). In his book The Struggle of the Soul (1951), Sherrill proposed that human psychological development consists of five stages, each of which is characterized by an inward propulsion to grow or achieve some goal. He thought our inclination towards growth is similar to the propensity of a seed to germinate or a young bird to learn how to fly. Unfortunately, our proclivity to grow is in tension with another tendency: to fear growth, to shrink back “from the hardships, the risks and dangers, the suffering.” When we shrink back, we fail to mature.

The five stages Sherrill lists and the goals associated with each are:

• becoming an individual, characteristic of childhood
• being weaned from the parents, characteristic of adolescence
• finding one’s basic identifications, characteristic of young adulthood
• achieving a mature view of life and the universe, characteristic of middle adulthood
• simplification of life, characteristic of old age

file cabinet CoolClips_busi0347The simplification of late life consists of “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action.” So simplification is a pruning–we’re cutting away the weaker branches so that the rest grow stronger. Or, to use another analogy, we are going through our overstuffed file cabinets to discard records we no longer need and rearrange the rest so they are more useful. I have actually been culling out old files recently. I had saved so many records that I no longer need! I’ve had fun finding important files that had gotten lost in all I had accumulated. I’m seeing firsthand the benefits of simplifying!

Some of us are hesitant to move forward with simplification. We shrink back during this stage of life if we cling to what is no longer important and don’t recognize what we most need going forward. Those who shrink back are living in the past. They can’t imagine letting go of anything.

In a subsequent post I’ll describe more of what Sherrill has to say about simplification in late adulthood.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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