As you might guess, I have been doing some research about retirement. I came across a couple of resources featuring the thoughts of author and educator Parker Palmer (who also has written some helpful essays on aging in a book, On the Brink of Everything). He talks of retirement as a “little death.” Often a sense of identity, purpose, routine and community appear to be lost in retirement. But our lives contain other little deaths- the loss of relationship, the loss of a dream, stinging criticism, job transition, and betrayal are among those I can name from my own experience. Palmer says that the key is to fully embrace the deaths as opposed to denying or avoiding them. He recommends adopting the motto, “if you can’t get out of it, get into it.” He also uses the metaphor of winter as well to talk about loss, citing the advice often given to newcomers about dealing with the harsh winters in the Midwest- “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to go out in them.” When the winter of loss hits our lives, we head into them seeking to learn the lessons they have to teach us and the opportunities they present to us.
I noted two of the advantages he saw in embracing our “little deaths.” First, he says that rather than breaking our heart apart, facing loss makes our heart more supple so that our hearts break open with compassion for others. Secondly, if we face our little deaths fully, we will be better able to face our own death when the time comes. It appears that retirement, health issues and other transitions may yield surprising blessings to those of us who face them openly and fully.