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Transitioning from Success in Career to Significance in Retirement: Choosing a Legacy of Service after Loss



When tragedy struck Ron Little and Donna, his wife of 44 years, the six good years they shared in retirement became even more precious. Dreams they had developed together over decades had to be reimagined.

During their marriage, Donna was a homemaker caring for the couple’s two daughters and later spending time with their grandchildren, while Ron worked for the postal service. As the Littles looked forward to Ron’s completing 30 years in his work and retiring, they were uncertain about their finances and how to invest. So the couple sought the help of a financial advisor to develop a plan.

“I knew I’d have a pension, but I wanted to figure out what to do to bolster our retirement because I was really ignorant about investments,” Ron said. “Our advisor came along at the perfect time for us. I wasn’t able to retire at 55, but I could comfortably transition from my career at 58.”

When Ron retired in 2007, the couple planned to spend more time outdoors and enjoy the country home they literally built themselves. In November 2012 — just five years after Ron’s retirement — Donna was diagnosed with a fast growing brain tumor known as a glioblastoma. Family rallied around Donna, doing everything possible to keep her comfortable. Four months later, Donna passed away at 63.

Without Donna, Ron had to reexamine his priorities and goals in retirement. He explained, “When you lose the love of your life and you find yourself alone, you ask, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I had a lot of questions, and I had to zero in on what was important to me.”

Ron realized he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren and leave them with as many positive memories of him as he could. “I bought an eight-person tent, so we could spend time together as a family,” he stated. He also rekindled his love of photography and purchased a quality camera. Ron pulled most of the family photos, usually kept in albums, and hung them throughout his home — even on the refrigerator. “Because I hung so many photos, I literally live with tons of memories,” he added.

During his grieving period, many friends were at his side giving him creative diversions. He took a trip with his financial advisor to the Holy Lands, built a church in the Marshall Islands with the villagers, began hiking again, became a lifelong learner through courses offered by The Teaching Company and continued to volunteer in a prison ministry program called New Life Behaviors.

Speaking of his ongoing work with New Life Behaviors, Ron said, “When I look out at the ocean of white uniforms, I don’t see inmates; I see students. These men are in the Honor Dorm, which means they are well behaved and agree to participate in reform programs. When Donna was sick, I received a nice, well-written letter from one of them.”

Ron keeps a regular weekly schedule, where he teaches in the prison ministry program on Mondays and at his church on Wednesdays. On weekends he travels and spends time with family. Ron dedicates his mornings to helping one of his inmate students by typing a manuscript of a novel his student wrote by hand from prison. “These opportunities have just come along; they are not things I aggressively pursued,” he said.

Ron is honoring Donna with a life that reflects the legacy they planned to leave. “Our life has had its tragedies, but life has been good,” he said. “I have very few, if any, regrets. No one knows how short his or her time is, but people should consider what is going to make their lives most meaningful to them and their families.” Ron’s retirement life is an outstanding example of how to serve others through a purposeful life, even in the face of devastating loss.