Three years into her seven year battle with breast cancer, my then 40-year-old sister Paula climbed Mt. Whitney. The cancer had already begun to metastasize to her bones and yet Paula was able to make it to the peak, setting the pace for her two co-climbers all along the way. This was typical Paula: determined; boundless energy; never met a physical challenge she could not master.
Until she met cancer.
Paula called mountain trails and hiking paths “my cathedrals,” places of worship where she knew and felt God’s glory and presence. Every footfall, she said, was a kiss on the forehead of Mother Earth, every breath a salutation of joy.
After she died, my sister Anita and I cleaned out personal items from the small rented home Paula had shared with her long-time boyfriend. It was a four-day task we undertook with a determination not to cry (and cried throughout the process anyway) and also gladness that we could take care of this one last thing for our beloved sister.
As we cleared away Paula’s clothing, Anita and I would comment on how pretty Paula had looked in this dress, or how we had been with her when she bought that pair of shoes. The story-telling seemed necessary – a healing step on our individual and shared grief journey.
There were no big surprises until we got to a buffet-style dresser at the front of the house. The top drawer was stuck requiring several hard yanks to open; as the door released a cloud of feathers floated into the air. We were shocked to see that the drawer was stuffed to overflowing with feathers. Thousands of feathers - mostly hawk and eagle tail feathers - mementos from Paula’s cathedral walks. At the sight, Anita and I burst into tears; it seemed to us each feather was a hope and a prayer and an inner struggle connected to Paula’s cancer. Although Paula had assured us throughout her cancer journey that she would live, the feathers told the story of a premonition of death. As hard as it was to see those feathers, Anita and I were glad we now knew something more about Paula.
After a loved one dies we are often assigned the task by circumstance or desire of clearing out their home and getting rid of their things. The task can seem overwhelming: What do I do with all of this stuff? How do I know what to keep and what to get rid of?
According to Cathy Schaefer, a retired professional estate consultant, there are several factors that weigh into how you will decide what to save for yourself, save for others, sell, donate or throw away. And often the biggest determinate is timing and emotional and mental readiness.
“At the beginning of the process, it is not so much about keeping or throwing away stuff,” says Schaefer. “Rather, it’s about understanding that once someone dies all of the sudden their things have new meaning. Things like rosaries, or cards, or pictures or books you never gave a second thought to are now hard to part with. People unconsciously feel, ‘if I can keep this stuff, I can keep this person.’ It is a sign that they aren’t ready to let go just yet.”
Some guidelines Schaefer recommends for getting started and moving forward:
Abide by wishes expressed prior to death. Abiding by your loved one’s verbal or written instructions regarding who should receive what will make sorting and clearing easier.
Acknowledge any unresolved issues. Sometimes when a loved one dies there are unresolved hard feelings, regrets and issues of forgiveness that can impact not only your feelings about parting with their belongs, but also how to go about it. When that is the case, Schaefer recommends hiring a professional consultant or asking a friend or close family member to help with the organizing and sorting process. Getting outside help will afford you a balanced second opinion and allow for breathing space around any old hurts.
Consider what others might want. If the other beneficiaries of your loved ones belongings cannot be present for the clearing away process, do not assume you know what might be important to them: ask them what if any specific items they want to keep.
Consider yourself, too. Keep what you want and then ask yourself: Do I really have space for this? Do I already have more than one of these at home? Schaefer says that in the midst of cleaning out belongings you might want to keep everything that has a story attached to it, "but don't."
"This isn't practical," says Schaefer, "and at some point what you’ve kept will become burdensome. Instead consider taking items that you can display together in some way – for example pictures, books, religious items – that will serve as a reminder of your loved one, the life you lived with them. The story of you together."
Don’t throw away, donate. Every community has organizations that help those in need. Donating to those organizations rather than contributing to landfills can give a sense of purpose and meaning in the grieving process.
"I’ve witnessed this over and over again," says Schaefer. "Donating a loved one’s belongings rather than throwing them into a dumpster helps people to feel lighter – less burdened – because now their loved ones past isn’t being turned into garbage but rather is being given new life."
Every organization posts its own guidelines regarding what it needs, wants and will accept in terms of an item’s condition. Schaefer recommends donating to organizations you or your loved one supported or in your opinion does “good work in your community."
What to throwaway, what to sell. Schaefer recommends two approaches to determining when an item you think might have value should be thrown away or sold: hire a consultant or do an on-line search for the value of like items. A consultant or an on-line search can help you to see beyond the memory you have associated with an item to the real value an item might have in the current marketplace of rummage sales, estate sales or on-line sales venues.
Says Schaefer, "I’ve seen it happen time and time again. A family will tell me ‘we already threw away Dad’s old junky fishing rods’ and then they want to sell the family’s old Encyclopedia Britanica set because it initially cost a lot of money and so must still be very valuable when the fact is that old fishing rods are sought after – go for big money – and nobody wants old encyclopedia sets.”
If possible, pace yourself. The circumstances of your loved one’s death, as well as the circumstances of your own life can help determine the pace at which you organize, sort and clear away your loved one’s belongings.
For example, if a loved one’s death is anticipated and you live nearby, you might be able to do what needs to be done at a slow methodical pace on weekends or days off of work. However if you live out of town and have limited vacation time or bereavement leave then doing what needs to be done might need to be done quickly or with help from a consultant, friend or family member.
Another consideration is whether or not your loved one’s home needs to be sold quickly or estate settled within a certain time frame.
And finally, pacing might be an emotional issue – a part of the grieving process – that requires not months but rather years to resolve. If this is the case, Schaefer suggests:
- Don’t put your loved one’s belongings in a storage facility – the items will most likely languish there because the thought of taking action will become increasingly overwhelming or paralyzing.
- If possible, do try and store a few item-filled boxes in your basement or garage, especially items with sentimental value that were too painful to part with right after your loss; then revisit those boxes every few months or yearly to see if you are now ready to let go of whatever is inside.
“Over time,” says Schaefer, “the things you thought were precious will eventually just appear to be things – things that others might be able to use. Or they will become things you are now ready to put in your home as a reminder of your loved one and what I call ‘the story of us.’”
Here is a small sampling of organizations that give a second life to items once owned by you or your loved one. Donations aid those in need within your community and also prevent adding to landfills.
- Habitat Restore (will pick up your items)
- Salvation Army (will pick up your items)
- Disabled Vets (will pick up your items; especially in need of beds, dressers, chairs)
- Consignment shops
- Women’s shelters
- Community service organizations
- Women’s care centers
- St. Vincent de Paul (will pick up your items)
- St. Vincent de Paul
- Community service organizations
- Purple Heart
- Various resale shops
Tools, Garage Items, Cabinets, plumbing supplies, light fixtures, hardware etc.
- Habitat Restore
Blankets, Coats, Assorted Clothing, Medical Items
- Homeless day and night shelters
Old Towels, Blankets
- Humane Society
- Food pantries (food cannot be expired; no fresh food)
- Metal, aluminum, copper and brass items can all be recycled by a metal recycler for cash.
- Hazardous household waste can be collected or exchanged at community collection or exchange points. Contact your local waste disposal center for details.
- Prescription drugs and needles can be taken to your local police station or disposed of at a community drug drives.