For many of us, it seems to all happen at once: Our kids grow up; we are finally financially stable enough; for some, our marriages have ended; and over time we come to believe our job defines us, just as our awareness is incrementally increasing that we are approaching the age of retirement.

Now what? If we retire, what will we do? If we are not a spouse, a parent or an employee … who are we?

Yikes! No wonder so many of us have FOR, or Fear of Retirement.

I took the plunge on Jan. 4, on what would have been my mom’s 100th birthday.

I did it in part because, while watching my husband die, I became acutely aware that life does in fact end — which led me to finally accept that my life would also end.

What I could not accept was that it would end on a “work day.” I wanted it to end when I was doing “something else.”

But I had no idea what that something else would be, and that scared me.

My plunge into retirement turned into a belly flop when I realized that, for me, having a healthy and happy retirement would take some work.

Wait! What? Work?

I just left work.

What I soon learned was when I had a demanding job, I could ignore some of life’s big questions. But once that job ended, those questions tenaciously and relentlessly pursued me, like a large group of annoying little court jesters (pun intended).

So, I did what I always do — I ordered a book to help me figure it out.

The back side of the book promised to teach me how to happily retire or, more important, 501 things to do in retirement. Once the book was in my hands, I committed to reading a chapter a day and making lists of things I would try.

As you can imagine, I had a long list; and so I began my journey.

Most of the ideas on my list did not work out, but I was always glad I tried them. I’m about a third of the way through my list now, and a few have in fact brought me sustained happiness.

Beyond that, the book taught me to apply its philosophy of trying new things to my everyday life.

Independent of the book, I also began to develop a new relationship with time.

As a working mother of four, every moment was pre-owned. Now that I was retired, I could stop fighting time and indulge in it.

Thankfully, my journey has finally begun in earnest because I am no longer as afraid as I once was.

My advice to my fellow FOR folks is to start by asking yourself: Would you be happy if your last day on earth was a day at work?

Do you think you are still doing an admirable job at work, or might someone else bring about some positive changes?

And finally, are you not retiring because you are afraid of the unknown?

I humbly suggest to you that if the answer to the first question is no and the answers to the last two questions are yes, then you just might begin to consider retiring.

I deeply appreciated my former job and colleagues, and I also cherish my new life and the new friendships I have formed.

Still, I am acutely aware I am a work in progress in that my goal is to make each day as loving, meaningful, and joyful as possible.

I am now “living as if I will die tomorrow and learning as if I will live forever.” *

It’s not always easy, but it is always worthwhile.

Carpe diem!

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

Joyce Dudley is the retired district attorney of Santa Barbara County. The opinions expressed are her own.