Three Aspects of Loss

Published: July 6, 2023

We are enjoying a historic period of leadership succession as the Baby Boomers gradually age into retirement. Professional service firms often employ mandatory retirement thresholds when 62-year-olds need to find new career paths regardless of whether they are ready for a transition. Many of these colleagues are just reaching their peaks. The consequence is loss and change. When this unfolds, we lose much more than the person and their talent.

There are three aspects of loss: 1) the person, 2) what that person represented in our lives, and 3) the version of us we became, because our relationship with that person no longer exists now that they’re gone. The easiest loss to navigate is the loss of the person. Reflect on past contributions, imagine the new future, and say goodbye.

What the person represents in our lives is a little harder to process. Maybe they showed you that anything was possible. Perhaps they taught you how to be strong during adversity. Often, those who leave ahead of us are mentors and role models. Whatever the influence, we have to find new examples to keep those lessons alive. In time, we’ll pass this exchange on to the next generation. Our teachers live on through our sharing.

The third aspect of loss is the hardest. We alter the DNA of everyone with whom we interact through every exchange, as they alter ours. Those changes are as unique as the companion. Whatever the duration of time shared with our departing colleagues, how we show up in the workplace is, in some part, a reflection of our partner. Once we subtract a partner from the experience, we lose these inputs. The influence is delivered forward, but there are no new contributions.

In a sense, we lose a part of ourselves. Unlike the first two aspects of loss, this wound never truly disappears. It becomes the scar that serves as an eternal reminder of the trauma. An essential element of me no longer exists, but its ghost never leaves.

When you plan the retirement celebration for the outgoing colleague, remember to take stock of who they were and what they represented in your life. Celebrate these memories. But don’t forget to mourn your own loss. You will never be the same after they disappear. A piece of you left, too.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.