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 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 and trinkets into every drawer and closet in your house, and your food pantry has a backlog of expired food. Retirement is supposed to be your wise time of life, not the “I don’t have to do anything” zombie zone. Are parents so busy doing nothing in retirement that they can’t get rid of things they never use? Or are they planning to make us clean everything up after they’re gone?

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 where we have two ideas about retirement. One is that it’s a time of finally relaxing and doing activities 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 to keep our minds sharp, so we end up doing things all the time and we’re not reflective.

The third stage should be a time of putting our lives in order before we die, of looking back and remembering who we were and who we have become, and sharing our wisdom with others. 

Neither of my parents experienced the grace of the third stage, although, in a shortened way, my mother did. When she retired from nursing, she returned to college, earned her Bachelor in Fine Arts degree, 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 years before she died from dementia that took her painting, and her self, away.

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 insights 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 “could” to be done, but people, they move away, they die, and they do not come back.

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


  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.

    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.