Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Retiring Into the Forest

I am not happy with my parents. Or my wife’s parents. Or with your parents, even though I’ve never met them, because they’re probably like mine. 

Throughout our lives, we’re always planning ahead for what comes next. Getting our ducks in order. Then we retire and stop making adjustments. We settle into a comfortable routine, and let life go on without us. Except that life doesn’t stop changing.

Your nutrition is probably iffy. You likely have no daily exercise regimen. You’ve stuffed possessions into every drawer and closet in your house, and your food pantry has a backlog of expired food. You know that you will die some day, and you hope that this will happen in your home. But what if?

This is where I place my hand firmly on the table and take a deep breath, because neither of my parents, nor my first set of in-laws died in their homes.

Say you’re married. What if one of you needs to be in assisted living? Where do you want to go? Have you checked out retirement places and placed your name on a waiting list?

What if you suffer a catastrophic injury? Do you want to be resuscitated if only machines can keep you alive? Do you want cremation or burial, and where? What if you’re now living by yourself and daily chores are becoming difficult to do because you can’t bend over and reach the floor. Have you set up one of your children with the power of attorney in case you’re incapacitated? My parents begrudgingly did most of these things, but only after we, their children, had bugged them for an entire year. They were in their 80s and 90s. Did they expect to live forever?

I don’t understand people’s reluctance to talk about end of life matters. Do we think that by talking about dying we send an open invitation to Death? Are parents so busy in retirement that they can’t get rid of things that they never use? Or are they planning to make us clean everything up?

Retirement is supposed to be your wise time of life, not the “I don’t have to do anything” zombie zone.

In the Hindu tradition, there are four stages to life. One begins as a student (brahmacharya), learning how the world and relationships work. Stage two is living as an adult with a job and family, exploring dreams and passions and developing skills (grihastha). Stage three is when one retires (vanaprasthr – “retiring into a forest”), takes an advisory role for others, and gradually withdraws from the world. The fourth stage is spiritual (sannyasa) when one becomes an ascetic.

In western society we basically have three stages, and the first two line up nicely with the Hindu focus. We differ in our understanding of stage three. We have two ideas about retirement. One is that it is a time of finally relaxing and doing things that are fun like spending time with the grandchildren and playing as much bridge and golf as we can. The other thought is to keep ourselves active with projects so that our minds stay sharp, and we end up being busy again.

The third stage should also be a time of putting your life in order before you die, of looking back and seeing what you have done, and sharing your wisdom with others.

Neither of my parents experienced the grace of the third stage, although, in a shortened way, my mother did. She retired from nursing at age 55, returned to school, earned her BFA, and spent the next twenty years painting. This could be viewed as withdrawing from the world to enter a time of reflection and creativity. It wasn’t completely this because she stopped painting 13 years before she died. Dementia took her painting away, as well as her creativity and self.

Dad was a projects man. After his retirement he had a list of things he wanted to do, and he kept busy doing them until a few months before his death at age 94. He continued to be curious about life, and there is much to be admired about this, but he didn’t relax. He didn’t share his wisdom with us, or what he thought about his life. He just kept working on his projects until he couldn’t.

There will never be an end to work that “needs” to be done, but people, they move away. They die, are gone, and they do not come back.


In this remembrance of things future, I also realize that I am like my dad, and not enough like my mother. Let this be a lesson for me.

2 comments:

  1. "You children are gonna have to get rid of all this," my mom says. I look around at the two households, one north and one in the south, both crammed with decades of Stuff. It terrifies me. It's gotten me to start cleaning up and sorting out my own home. No way I want my poor son having to pick up after me. Cheers, Mark. I loved this.

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    1. Ha! I started to do the same thing! After working to clear out my parents' house, I came home and started to work on my own accumulation, starting with the boxes I haven't unpacked since my move 14 years ago. It's a slow process because many of the items are in good shape. If I'm not going to use them, there are others who could. And I kind of like the spacious feel as the boxes disappear.

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