Emotional Preparation for Retirement – Adjusting to Civilian Life for Public Safety Personnel

by Chaplain Jim Burns

Chaplain Jim Burns

Those of us in public safety careers – law enforcement, fire service, are usually gung-ho, Type A personalities, self-reliant, confident and sometimes even a little cocky. We love excitement. We feel there is nothing we can’t do; we’re self-important, helpers, fixers, we need to be needed, and we enjoy being the front-line of defense and first responders when something goes terribly wrong in our neighborhoods, our districts and our jurisdictions.
In the academy. we learn to be tough, to be a team player, to follow orders to the letter, to fit into the chain of command, to practice our particular skill sets until they become second nature. During our years of service, we continue to train to be the best police officer, firefighter, or chaplain that we are capable of being. We learn about critical incident stress and how to manage it. We practice working under extreme stress. We train, train, and train some more. We are among the best of the best at what we do.

But have you thought about what you will do when you are no longer firefighter Jones, or officer Jones, or Chaplain Jones? Public safety careers are lifestyle careers. Many police officers and firefighters die in the line of duty or die of other causes while still serving and protecting their constituency. Some, however, will outlive their career. One of these days those careers could come to an end and we could still have life left at the end of the career. What then?

What about retirement?
This is not a word most of us in public safety like to think about. Most of us would rather talk about death than retirement. We are firefighters, police officers, public safety chaplains. We are concerned about one thing and one thing only – how to be the best we can be. We signed on to do a job and we are going to do that job to the very best of our ability. We’re going to train, train and train some more so when the call comes, we’ll be ready. We’ll get the job done. We’re a “git’er done” bunch.

Even though we don’t like to think about it, there is an age at which we are expected to retire. What will we do then? I know you don’t want to think about that now, but it’s either think about it now while you have some time or think about it later when you might not have time to think about it. I’m not talking about your retirement benefits. You have probably taken pretty good care of that with your departments and your unions. You probably check up on those benefits fairly often. You want to make sure you have a retirement income. That’s not what I want to address here.

I want to talk about YOU – You the person! I want to talk about the psychological and emotional aspects of retirement. What will you do when you retire? How will you handle the changes of retirement? How will you handle the change of identity? The change of your Status? Being needed?

You have some choices to make about what YOU will do when that dreaded day comes:
1) Keep working as long as they’ll let you;
2) Retire and remain as a volunteer firefighter, reserve officer, or volunteer chaplain;
3) Keep your word and retire, pride intact, and be miserable.

Many public safety people retire only to be miserable because:
1) they miss their job (you don’t do these jobs for years and just walk off them);
2) they don’t have anywhere to go (no job to go to, no runs to make, no training);
3) don’t have anything to do (no more apparatus to check, no firehouse to clean,
no patrols to make, no more arrests, no fire or police personnel to counsel.

The biggest challenge for retired police officers, firefighters and public safety chaplains is the challenge in their minds.

It is too easy for us to forget how much we love being needed until we are no longer needed. In retirement, we may no longer know who we are. We’re so used to being a police officer, firefighter or chaplain that our identity is tied up in our career.

Loss of Status and Identity
There’s a lot of status in being a firefighter, police officer or public safety chaplain. We’re important people; we save lives; we’re out there on the front lines serving and protecting our citizens. We’re known in the community as Chaplain Jones, firefighter Jones or officer Jones. We’re the center of attention everywhere we go. We love the attention, positive or negative. We’re like a celebrity (without the security and bodyguards, of course).

When we retire, suddenly we are no longer officer Burns, firefighter Burns, Chief Burns, Captain Jim or Chaplain Jim. According to Bobby Smith, “We have to use the name our mama gave us.”I’m suddenly Jim Burns; no title, no rank, no identity that I have lived with for years and am so used to. You walk into your favorite coffee shop and order “the usual” and the waitress looks at you like, “What tree did you just fall out of?” Who are you?

Suddenly you realize you don’t have on a uniform and she doesn’t know you from Adam’s off ox.  You’ve lost your identity. You’re no longer firefighter Jones, officer Jones or chaplain Jones. You’re just another customer. Just plain old John Jones, and she doesn’t care who you are.

You drop by the fire station to see the boys. They say a cordial “Hi,” and continue with their work, or watching TV, or doing their reports. You suddenly realize you are no longer one of the boys, you’re just another visitor to the firehouse.

Loss of Family
It can be depressing to lose your status and identity. But your visit to the fire house made you realize you have lost much more than your status and identity. You’ve lost your family. You often feel left out and even ostracized by the group that was your second family for 20 or 30 years. Two of the tightest brotherhoods that exist on this earth are the police and firefighter brotherhoods. These brotherhoods are forged in the fire over the years. Such bonds of brotherhood are not easily given up

You miss being in the know. Who’s stealing from whom? Whose house burned? What VIP was run in for corruption? How many times did EMS go to Mrs. Jones’ house last month? You’re no longer in the loop. You’re just another citizen in the district now. Wow, what a sober thought. All that I worked for all these years is suddenly gone. Who am I now? What am I now? Is there life after retirement?

You are likely to feel rejected. Nothing hurts your heart like rejection. One of the most painful wounds you will ever feel is rejection – whether it is real or imagined.

The voices of your brother and sister firefighters, officers, chaplains are likely to linger on in the recesses of your mind, repeating – through whispers and shouts – “You are no longer wanted,” “You are not welcome,” “You are no longer worthy.” “You no longer belong.” “We don’t have time for a has-been.”

 What exactly is rejection?
Rejection is to be cast aside, cast off, and cast away – to be thrown away as having no value or worth, like an old pair of shoes, or an old rickety piece of furniture, or an old gum wrapper. When you feel rejected you think of yourself as useless, abandoned, or worthless. When you experience rejection, you feel unloved, unwanted, or unaccepted

Often times the unseen pain of rejection can sabotage us. The darkness of rejection can discolor our perception of others and do great damage to our relationships. The unseen pain of rejection can manifest itself outwardly in a number of destructive ways.
The saddest part of feeling rejection is that rejection breeds rejection.

Some of the outward symptoms of rejection are: 

  1. abuse –mistreating others and even yourself (after all you are now worthless)
  2. addiction – alcohol and drug use in an effort to numb the pain
  3. anger – feeling bitterness toward others, toward your old agency, toward yourself
  4. apathy – giving up on life, not caring about anything
  5. arrogance – acting superior to others
  6. competitiveness – assuming you have to be the best
  7. critical spirit – being condescending toward others
  8. isolation – becoming a loner as a means of self-protection
  9. rebellion – resisting the authority of others (especially your former agency)
  10. vengeful – trying to get even with others (you perceive to have done you wrong)
  11. other outward reactions to feelings of rejection?

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Retirement
Retirement, for the public safety person, is likely to do a real number on our self-worth. Worth signifies the value, merit, or significance of a person or a thing. Self-worth is the belief that your life has value and significance. We in public safety are likely to judge our self-worth based on our job – firefighter, cop, chaplain.  And, when we retire, we no longer have the job upon which to measure our self-worth.  Does that suddenly make us worthless?  No. We just need to adjust our means of measuring our self-worth. We do not have positive self-worth because we are a firefighter, a police officer, or public safety chaplain; we are these things – firefighters, police officers, chaplains – because we have positive self-worth. That assessment does not change just because we no longer wear a badge. We are still the same person of worth we were when we were wearing the badge.

A right belief about our self-worth must be adopted. My self-worth is not based on my position in life but is based on the person who lives inside my skin.

1) I still have the same character I had before.
2) I still have the same passion for helping people that I had before.
3) I am still highly motivated by internal factors – goals and objectives
4) I am still the risk taker I have always been
5) I am the action-oriented, highly dedicated rescue personality I’ve always been
6) I still have a strong need to be needed

Nothing much has changed except I no longer go to the place I used to go to for work, and I no longer do the kind of work I used to do on a daily basis. I need to see myself as a person of positive self-worth and move on with my life, just as my brothers and sisters have moved on in their lives without me. But this won’t happen overnight. You will grieve your loss.   You will grieve over the loss of your job, your identity, your status in the community, the loss of your family – your fellow firefighters, police officers, or chaplains. You have a lot of grieving to do. So, take time to grieve. Grieve in the way that is right for you.

“Grief is the painful emotion of sorrow caused by the loss or impending loss of anyone or anything that has deep meaning to you.”Your job as a firefighter, cop, or chaplain had deep meaning to you. So, you will grieve. Grief begins in your heart as a natural response to a significant loss. We need to take the time to grieve. How long does it take? It takes as long as it takes. There is no set amount of time for a person to grieve. Every individual grieves differently. The key is to take the time necessary to do the grief work. To short-circuit the grief process is to pay a high price later down the line. As public safety persons we take this grief stuff with a grain of salt.

We are conditioned not to show our emotions.
For those of us in public safety, allowing ourselves to be open and honest about our sorrow takes great courage, but it is vitally important that we have the courage to grieve properly. For some of us, our reality of personal pain has been buried so deeply for so long that our ability to express grief has been blocked. We public safety types have perfected our abilities to camouflage or ignore our grief so that we don’t have to acknowledge and deal with it. However, quoting Bobby Smith again, “You cannot heal until you feel.”2 We must deal with our emotions. We must allow ourselves to feel our emotions and express our emotions if we are to work through our emotions. It has been pointed out many times that we can’t climb over our grief, we can’t dig under our grief, we have to work our way through our grief. Working through our grief involves both our minds and our emotions.

Some things you can do to aid the grieving process:

1) share your pain (tell someone or an empty chair how you feel)
2) recall your loss by writing about it
– remember significant events in your job and write them down
– look at photographs and recall
– write “I am grieving over….list all the things you can think of
3) allow yourself to shed tears (tears help you to heal)
4) join a grief support group

Some other things you might do to adjust to retirement:

1) Get on a department as a volunteer or reserve officer, if they’ll let you.
However, don’t be too disappointed if they don’t let you. I moved to a small town after retiring and immediately offered my service as a volunteer chaplain to the local sheriff’s department, the local police department, the local fire department and the local emergency preparedness agency. I felt that I have a great deal to offer these agencies, but they didn’t see it that way. Maybe it’s because I came from a larger area, that I had a great deal of experience and training that can be intimidating in a small-town setting, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t born there, and lived here my entire life. At any rate, none of the agencies in town have picked up on my offer to serve.

So, don’t assume that you will be accepted with open arms. It might take a major tragedy in the community for you to prove your worth, and get the attention of these local agencies. Then there’s the possibility that they may never invite you to become a volunteer or reserve. If this is the case, then you might want to do some more soul-searching about you as a person. You might consider doing one or several of the following:

2) Go back to college and study something you’ve always wanted to know more about but never had the time to study
3) Get involved in a charity – feeding hungry children, helping the elderly; join a volunteer with the Red Cross
4) Join a service club like Lions and get involved in service projects

It really doesn’t matter what you do, just do something.

You’re going to miss the fire service, law enforcement, the ministry of the chaplaincy. That is a given. There’s no way around this reality. But remember, life goes on. There’s more to you than a firefighter, a police officer or a public safety chaplain.

In my case, after living in that town for almost four years, the sheriff called me one day and said can you come to my office. Would you meet with my detectives? They’ve just had a very bad experience. They worked a child suicide.  I did not get an appointment or a badge, but I made a difference in those officer’s lives. As long as I lived in that town and ran into any of those detectives, they recognized me as part of their family. Two weeks before I moved, the sheriff asked me to come down and do a class on stress management for his deputies, staff and police officers.

The only way you’re destined to be really miserable in retirement is to sit down in your recliner and do absolutely nothing.  A hobby will help, but only if it gives you the feeling of productivity. By the very nature of your personality and character traits, you will have to remain productive. It’s who you are; it’s what you do.

One of the things I recommend is finding a group of people who like to do the things you do. Whether remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, doing flea markets and antique shows, collecting memorabilia, a community Bible study, you can find people who are interested in you and what you do, and start building new and satisfying relationships.   These new relationships will carry you far in adjusting emotionally to retirement from a public safety career.

You are Who You Are
You will always be a firefighter, cop, or chaplain in your heart. As they say, you can take a man out of the job, but you can’t take the job out of the man. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you jumped on a piece of fire apparatus and raced off to fight a structure fire, jumped in your unit and chased after a crook, answered a distress call to help survivors of a homicide, suicide or other traumatic loss, you will be a firefighter, police officer, or chaplain (at heart) until the day you die. 

The Importance of Family
There is another thing we need to do. We shouldn’t neglect our family in all of this. We may no longer be a firefighter, cop, or chaplain, but we’re still a husband/wife, dad/mom, grandpa/grandma, brother/sister, son/daughter, niece/nephew, uncle/aunt, or cousin. Use this precious retirement time to connect or reconnect with those dearest to you.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that people may move away from home and work in faraway places all their working careers, but when they get older, they tend to move back near their families. I remember one of my cousins who worked away from home his entire working career, but when he retired, he moved back near relatives. My sister, who was married to a career military man, did the same thing. Then, I did the same thing. I did not move back to the place in which I grew up, but I am within an hour’s drive of that place.

What drew us back to Louisiana; the economy; the cost of living; the beauty of the area; the climate? None of the above! The one thing that brought us back to this hot, sultry climate, a poor economy, a shortage of jobs, less than desirable educational systems, high taxes and above average poverty was – you guessed it, family. We are reconnecting with relatives we haven’t seen in years and some we’d never met before.

Family ties are important. Being here for my wife’s mother in her last days was a real comfort to my wife and me. We recently moved from a thousand miles away, to a little less than a two-hour drive from my wife’s folks, when we learned that my wife’s mother had inoperable cancer and had a short time to live. She made the decision to die at home with her family around her. I had no badge, no title, no pager, no radio; I was simply James doing what came naturally for me to do. I was there to bring whatever comfort I could bring, but mostly to remind her over and over again that I loved her. I am thankful that I was there for a person that meant so much to me. I am thankful that I was there for my wife and the other members of her family during those difficult days. I believe that my being there helped make her last days a little less difficult, but I benefited more than she. Being there with her helped me grieve the loss of my position as I pre-grieved losing her, helped build my sense of self-worth as a person who no longer held a position to serve and protect. I was being who I am and doing what I do, badge or no badge, and guess what, the satisfaction was the same as if I had had the badge. My mother-in-law’s death helped me over the hump in my own grieving process. I can’t tell you what my being there did for strengthening family ties. I had the privilege of officiating at her funeral. What a privilege to help celebrate a life well-lived. I am grateful.

Side note: Less than a year later, Susan’s father, a 65-year veteran minister, had a heart attack and passed away. Being there to minister in this sad time for many was a great privilege. Being there, listening, and loving is one of the greatest things one can do for another person.

I am finding other opportunities in a town with few opportunities of any kind; a town that has been all but dead for years, but no one has bothered to tell it so. I don’t have an office or a title, but I joined the Lions Club and got involved. When I joined the club they were all but dead. Nothing much was going on. Just a handful of old guys like me sitting around waiting for the Club to die. As a means of survival for my own self-worth and a need to do something productive, I mentioned that we might want to consider a Fire Alarm for Senior Citizens project; that we could seek donations from businesses to purchase the alarms and the members could install them in the homes of senior citizens in the area. They picked up on it; asked a few questions that I thankfully had answers for; then they backed the project, appointed someone to head up the project who was a long-standing member (Be prepared for this. Don’t assume that you’ll be picked to head up the project just because you recommended it and know-how to carry it out), and away we went with the project. I sat in the background and gave my expertise to the project without receiving any of the limelight or getting any credit for the project, but guess what, I got my “green stamps” by being one of the volunteer installers. I met a number of senior citizens in the community, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing something helpful for the senior citizens of our Parish (notice I did not refer to myself as a senior citizen).

The whole idea was to hopefully save lives and property. I felt good doing it. It fed my “public safety personality” need to be needed, to do something that would make a difference, my passion for helping people, my need for pro-active action. It felt good! I was a person of self-worth after all, even if I no longer had a badge. Wow!

And, as a side benefit of the project, the Club now has a new vision for life and growth. They are now looking for bigger and better service projects to get involved in. There always seems to be a double-edged sword, cutting both ways in these things. When we are who we are, doing what we do, those we serve benefit and we benefit, as well.

Look around and find something that will help fill your need to be needed, to do something worthwhile that will make a difference to someone. You, too, will feel good!

I am currently in my second retirement home. I offer volunteer chaplaincy services to the local fire and police departments where I live. I currently volunteer as Executive Secretary/Treasurer for theLouisiana Fire Chaplain Network, and teach fire chaplain essentials, sometimes 3 or 4 at a time. Anyway, find something to help make a difference.

©Jim Burns 2008; revised 2010

Bobby Smith, The Will to Survive, page 256
ibid page 78
June Hunt, How To Handle Your Emotions, page195

About the Author: James Jim” Burns discusses Emotional Preparations for Retirement for Public Safety personnel from a background of many years of training and experience. He is a retired minister and public safety chaplain who spent almost 57 years working with people going through some terrible storms in their lives, as well as weathering many difficult storms in his own life.

As a public safety chaplain, he has ministered to thousands of individuals having the absolute worst day of their life. He ministered to people in all kinds of crises and disasters. He has ministered in incidents of homicide, suicide, terrorist threats, victims of violence and abuse, and first responders in the fire service and law enforcement that see more disaster and death in a single day than most people can imagine seeing in a lifetime.

As a pastor, he has spent countless hours with people working their way through anxiety, anger, resentment, hopelessness, doubt, temptation, prejudice, misunderstanding, shame, serious illness, death, and grief. He also served as a facilitator for an area-wide Grief Support Group for several years and has done many seminars on grief, comforting those who mourn, ministering to survivors of violent death and suicide, caring for the terminally ill, adjusting to loss, preparation for retirement, servant leadership, how human behavior influences organizational behavior, and others. His best credentials are that he has walked through the emotional storm of retirement himself.

In addition to his ministerial training (BBS, ThM, PhD), Jim has received hundreds of hours of training in critical incident stress management, pastoral crisis intervention, grief counseling, sudden death and suicide grief, trauma loss, disaster response and recovery operations, etc. He holds a Basic and Advanced Fire Chaplain Certificate from the FFC [Federation of Fire Chaplains] Training Institute, is a Certified Master level IV Instructor; Certificate of Basic Law Enforcement Chaplaincy from ICPC; Certificate in Clinical Hypnotherapy;  holds a certificate in Weapons of Mass Destruction and Anti-Terrorism, and has 14 certifications from FEMA.  Jim still offers volunteer services as a chaplain with the closest fire/police departments he moves to.

Among the awards for leadership and service he has received over the years are:
Liberty and Justice Award of Merit from the National Association of Chiefs of Police for his service to the community, 1986.
Outstanding Community Service Award from KNOE, 1987 in community service.
Order of the Pelican (highest award) given for service to people of Louisiana, 1987
Letter of Appreciation for Devotion to Department, Chief Bob Rehfus, SCTFD, 2004
Outstanding service to the Katrina/Rita Hurricane Relief Effort from ARC of NELA, 2005
Commendation for Hurricane Relief from Federation of Fire Chaplains, 2006
Commendation for Distinguished Leadership & Service, Indiana Fire Chaplain Corps, 2008
The Founders Award by the Federation of Fire Chaplains, Ed Stauffer, 2009
Commendation of Distinguished Service Award, Federation of Fire Chaplains, 2010

Jim is married to Susan (Elmore) Burns, BA, MA, MEd, HFA. Jim has two sons, Chris and Joel, three stepdaughters, Heather Stuart, Jill Crocker and Liza Richardson, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, a dog and two cats.

Jim and Susan now live in O’Farrell, Texas, near the famous O’Farrell Winery near Atlanta, TX.

During retirement, he has served as volunteer Chaplain with City of Ruston Fire Department, Ruston, LA, Rapides Parish Fire District #2 Fire Department, Alexandria, LA, volunteered with Grant Parish Sheriff’s Office, Colfax, LA and eight years as Command Chaplain (CEO) with the Louisiana Fire Chaplain Network (retired in July 2019) and volunteered with his therapy dog, Miss Dolly, in nursing homes around the area.

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