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Opinion: Make sure you know what you’re retiring to — a son’s story

A Squamish financial planner's story of loss and finding purpose.
Mark McGrath is a Squamish financial planner.

Content warning: This story deals with suicide. If you are struggling, there is help. If you are in crisis, go to your local emergency room. You can also call 1-800-SUICIDE: 1-800-784-2433 anywhere in B.C. 


Make sure you know what you're retiring to.

This was a hard story to write.

I almost didn't write it, in fact. I've started and trashed this story many times. But I believe there are important lessons in this story we can learn from.

Warning: this does not have a happy ending.

This is a story about my dad.

My dad grew up the youngest of four siblings in Quebec. He, his siblings, and my grandparents moved to Vancouver in the 70s, and my uncle opened a tile store. My dad worked for him for a while, then eventually opened his own store.

He was a relentless entrepreneur and a good father.

He was shrewd and pennywise. I used to joke that he would split 2-ply toilet paper to save money. But he was also a savvy investor, and he did well in his business.

He didn't care about tile and saw the business as a means to an end - a way to build wealth and retire.

He was laser-focused on this goal.

He was fit, active, and a traveller. He was a scratch golfer and swam 80 laps at the pool three times a week. He was also a black belt in karate and extremely disciplined.

Like many French Canadians, he loved steak and beer. But any time he found himself getting "soft," he would just switch that off - he would diet and quit drinking for a month or so until he got his six-pack abs back.

I didn't realize as a kid how impressive that was.

He used to read books on longevity and admired the lifestyle of the people of Okinawa. Okinawa has some of the highest life expectancies on Earth and is home to one of the greatest concentrations of centenarians.

He planned to live a long, long time.

My brother and I had a great childhood. We played sports, went camping, and took family vacations. I played high-level baseball, my brother played high-level hockey, and our parents never missed a single game.

We lived in a nice house and had everything we needed.

My dad was private, and we never really knew his financial situation. Growing up, we would ask him if we were rich, to which he always said, "No, but we have enough."

Eventually, my parents split up. But they remained close and lived in the same neighbourhood.

One day he told us he had sold his business and was retiring.

We were thrilled.

All he wanted to do was retire so he could keep travelling, golfing, swimming, and enjoying his life. He booked a two-month trip to Asia to celebrate.

He was 58.

And then it all went downhill.

Within a month of returning from his trip, he was back working for the guys he sold his store to. He didn't need the money — he just missed his store and his friends. His best friend was his first employee - a man he had hired 30 years earlier.

This worked out for a while.

But slowly, he started to change.

After a few months of golfing near-daily, he got bored.

And then he got depressed.

He changed.

One day he said he didn't like steak anymore. This man had eaten steak three times a week for over 40 years.

Something was up.

He called me one day from the UBC Psychiatric Ward. He told me he was having dark, intrusive thoughts and thought he should get checked in. I didn't realize how serious this was, but I noted that he had the wherewithal to realize it and seek help immediately.

I went to see him, and he had made friends with half the patients in the ward. As we walked the halls, he greeted the patients and told me about their stories.

He told me that night he had made a mistake by going there.

That he didn't belong there.

They gave him anti-depressants, and he checked himself out. He seemed better until a few days later.

We were scheduled for dinner at my mom's house, but he didn't show.

This was not like him. After about 30 minutes, my mom panicked and said: "something is wrong."

We called the police, and they came by about an hour later. In mid-sentence, the officer got a report about a car accident in his earpiece. The vehicle involved fit the description of my mom's car, which he had borrowed.

He looked at us and said, "your dad is alive, but..."

We rushed to the hospital.

All we knew was that he was alive. We had no idea what the extent of his injuries were.

When we got there, there wasn't a scratch on him. The paramedics told us they needed the jaws of life to pry him from the wreckage.

It was a miracle.

But something was nagging at me. My dad was an exceptional driver. And the crash location was a j-curve intersection he drove through twice daily on his commute for over 20 years.

I called his best friend to get his take.

His best friend told me that my dad had called him right before the accident. He told him he had stashed his wallet and ID under a garbage can in a parkade on the other side of town. A parkade he had no business being at.

To this day, I still don't know why he did that.

My only guess is that he crashed that car intentionally. He went 100km/h through a red light straight into the j-curve. He rolled it three times. I think he didn't want his ID on him because he didn't want to be identified immediately.

But he was wearing his seatbelt.

Over the next few weeks, he was overcome with the fear that he would be arrested and put in jail because of the accident. We tried to explain that no crime was committed and that no one was hurt.

But he was adamant.

This fear paralyzed him.

Then one day, I was on the Skytrain on my way home from work. My dad called and said he had a fight with my mom, and he was going to grab a hotel. I told him to come and stay at my place for the night, but he didn't want to bother me.

That was the last time I spoke with him.

That night, on a foggy Thursday in October, I was awoken by a phone call from a private number.

I ignored it.

And they called back.

It was the police, and they told me my mom was upset and that I needed to drive the 40 minutes in the middle of the night to see her. I told them if I was driving across town in the middle of the night, I wanted to know why. He was hesitant, but I was persistent.

Then he told me, "your father is dead."

I collapsed and remember only that I kept saying, "I had so much more to tell him."

He had rented a car for some reason, drove it to the middle of the Lion's Gate Bridge in Vancouver, turned on the hazard lights, and got out.

Then he jumped.

Two cyclists - one on the bridge, and one down below on the seawall - called it in.

Why am I telling you all this?

Selfishly, because it's been almost a decade, and I'm not sure I've really had an outlet until now.

But also because I think I know what happened, and I think people can learn from it.

What I think happened is that my dad's business became his identity.

He was the tile guy.

He was the guy that sponsored all of our sports teams.

In a booming town, he was the guy you went to when you needed tile.

He was the tile guy.

And when he sold his business, he stripped himself of his identity.

Now he was a nobody. He lost his purpose, the very thing that made him who he was. Whether he knew it or not, I think he loved the business because it gave him a sense of fulfilment he didn't know he'd miss. By losing his purpose, he lost his essence, his spirit. The thing that gave him his joie de vivre.

He had surmounted his biggest challenge and achieved his singular goal.

And there was nothing on the other side.

And remember, this was a guy who had lots of friends, social activities, sports, and hobbies. And still, retirement undid him in less than 18 months.

Humans require a purpose.

And if that purpose is linked to your business, be careful leaving it behind.

As a financial planner, I didn't get any training in this. We learn about the financial side of retirement but not enough about its emotional and psychological aspects.

About how our identities can be intertwined with our careers and our businesses.

So when you think about retirement, think about what you're retiring to.

Focus on your relationships, mental health, community, and purpose.

And spend time before you retire on finding a path to fulfillment.

Mark McGrath is a Squamish financial planner.

Editor's note: This piece was first shared in a thread on Twitter and is reprinted here with permission from the author.