Does death make it any easier?

I’ve heard it said some of the most emotionally taxing moments in life include moving, divorce and death.

The dark irony, is that for many family caregivers the ‘moving and death’ parts can end up going hand in hand. Just call it stress x 2!

A loved one dies and survivors are left with the sometimes overwhelming task of coping with loss, then sifting and sorting a lifetime’s worth of possessions and closing up shop on a home. Yeah…in my book, that’s stressful!

Because I’ve always been rather practical in approaching life events, I suspected the process of going through my mother’s things once she passed would take some time, but otherwise I did not give it much thought.

Check out this earlier post – Did you just call me cold and distant? and BE SURE TO SUBSCRIBE TO KEEPING IT REAL CAREGIVING so you don’t miss any part of the journey…

Turns out, I had no idea just how emotionally draining it would be. The reality is the job is more than just boxing up belongings. It is also facing the very real and tangible acceptance that your loved one really…truly… is gone. And they are not coming back.

Pieces of a dream

Years ago, a friend of mine lost his father to a long and painful illness. He insisted he immediately go through his father’s belongings even ‘before’ his mother could do so.

His reasoning? There might be some piece of paper, or document, or small keepsake his father had kept tucked away; one his mother knew nothing about.

Courtesy: Adobe Stock

He said it would be hard enough for his mother to cope with losing her life partner; let alone having to say goodbye to her husband’s items. And then if she were to find anything that could even remotely make her question the life and family she had built with her husband…??? No… he would not allow that to happen.

At the time, I probably just rolled my eyes and thought… it’s just stuff. What does it matter?

Thankfully, my friend did not find anything that could shatter the story of his parents’ life together. I’m sharing that little nugget of wisdom with you for future reference.

Downsizing and decluttering

Now, with a bit of hindsight and having laid mom to rest… I have discovered something quite powerful. It is not just stuff. Those items equate to the person who was and what was important to them.

Death has a way of forcing you to downsize. Depending on how many belongings your loved one had it can be a herculean task. So take note:

  • Brace yourselves…

  • Pace yourselves…

  • Be prepared to have emotional meltdowns…

That’s my advice to any of you who are family caregivers…take on the work of downsizing, decluttering and sorting before you have to.

Let’s face it… we can do everything we can to keep the Grimm Reaper at bay but eventually he/she is going to come calling.

(The joke I had with my mom, is that when GR showed up, she would throw something at the window and say, ‘Get the hell out of here…I’m not going anywhere with you!’ And yes, she laughed when we talked about this eventuality)

The work to clear my mother’s items has been more challenging than I could have ever imagined. To be honest, I am still months from finishing! And here’s why:

  1. As with much of the care for my mother, the back-end work has fallen squarely to me and no other family members. That is not a slam of anyone; it is just a fact. More often than not if you are the child caring for an elder parent, there’s a good chance you will also be the one wrapping up everything at the end. It is time consuming and emotionally exhausting.

  2. Despite me fussing at my mom for years to regularly sort, sift and donate, she was not the type to willingly give things away. And can you blame her? I believe it was a generational and economic thing. When you grew up not having a lot and you were raised at a time when consumerism wasn’t running rampant… well, you kind of hung on to what you had. Hence, while I have cleared two entire closets of clothing and some personal items, there are more than a dozen boxes stacked in the garage that I have not even come close to dealing with.

  3. It will take time. Time to emotionally face the reality you have to part with items and time to move through said items. You’ll need to decide what, if anything to keep and where to put it if you do. If you plan to give it away, what agency or service will you use? If you plan to try and sell anything, you must budget the time to organize everything and get it listed.

My personal choice was to find an agency that not only took donations but also uses those items to support a women’s shelter. It meant a long drive to Sacramento, but it was worth it. Made me feel better and I think mom would have approved.

Where does the time go?

Did I mention it will take time? You see, there’s a good chance you will get sidetracked going down memory lane. Family photo albums or small items your parents may have kept from your childhood (I think parents have some special gene that allows them to keep every single little piece of anything their child has ever created throughout time).

And finally … it takes time because if you have any kind of heart, your emotions will get the best of you.

I set aside a Sunday afternoon and told myself, ‘You will get through this closet today!’

I did, but there were many tears shed. And what shook me the most were not the big items one might think would trigger crying. No. My floodgates opened when I found, for instance, a piece of napkin my mother had kept from a luncheon she attended. What must that moment have meant to her to keep such an item?

I found postcards sent from me and my siblings over the years, postmarked from exotic far-off places. Some of my own trips I didn’t even remember. But yet…there it was. A memory jogged, from a piece of paper sitting in a box.

Time and again as I sorted through such items, I found myself crying. Items that seemed to hold so little importance on the surface, had been in fact, something precious to my mother. I cried more.

As I folded piles of clothes; placing them in bags for donation, the tears kept coming. It was if I was saying goodbye to Miss Nellie all over again. There was an emptiness that took hold in realizing, my biggest fan in life…was gone.

Parting thoughts

Is there an easy way to move through this phase of caregiving; the epilogue so to speak? I’m not sure. I suspect it is different for everyone.

But I will say this and it is something I believe. Do everything in your power to help your elder or loved one downsize their belongings while they are still healthy and mentally capable of doing so.

If nothing else – it will allow them to have a say over the pieces of their lives that meant something to them.

And for us? Take the time NOW to declutter and downsize. Do it for those who love you and for yourself. Go ahead… do it NOW!

I would love to hear some of your experiences. Email me at [email protected].

This topic fascinates me and so I also put a question to the KIRC family on social media. The feedback is already proving valuable – not only for someone about to face this but also, for me. I no longer feel bad about having barely scratched the surface of sorting and sifting.