Monday, February 28, 2011

Holding On, Letting Go

You can't take it with you. This means it's all left behind for someone to manage.

When someone dies, it generally goes one of two ways- either there are surviving family members living in the home, or someone has a full house to empty. This can be a herculean task. It's not just a physically demanding job. It's an emotional minefield. Everything you touch is a reminder of the person who has died. It can be overwhelming to deal with your grief while tending to the business of death.

Notify friends and family, call the insurance agent, get the death certificate, plan the funeral, etc., etc., and then face reality. You will have to dismantle their environment. Their house is not a shrine. It has to be sorted through. This means moving their glasses from where they were left by the bed. Finding a new home for their pet. Disposing of their medications. Soon, it no longer smells like them. You stop listening for their car in the driveway. You remove the tape from their answering machine because hearing their voice on the greeting is more than you can take. It's no longer their house. It's your job.

Now you must make the same decision for every single item in the place- to keep, or not to keep? My father died as I was getting ready to move 2,000 miles away. This meant I had a short time to deal with two houses. Ultimately, I whittled my father's belongings down to 10 boxes, 2 crates and one large trunk full of letters, pictures, and books. I'd ship it all to our new home and deal with it there. Well, that was almost ten years ago and I still haven't finished. In fact, I've barely started.

Without the deadline looming overhead, I guess I've found it easier to procrastinate than finish. To make it even more complicated, much of what I saved belonged to my father's grandparents. It's like a time capsule from Portland, Oregon, circa 1900. After one aborted mission to donate much of it to the Oregon Historical Society, I once again packed it up and vowed to "get it done" another day.

That day has arrived. To begin, I am separating personal items from historical items. This means keeping certain letters and pictures and ebaying the rest. Simple, right? Not so much. Let me tell ya, it's one big gray area. Even when I do determine which is which, it still presents certain challenges. For instance, last week I put a postcard from 1907 on ebay with a starting bid of $5. The next day I noticed another seller with the same card had his up for $150. Sigh.

I am DETERMINED not to give up again, though. I remind myself that nothing is to be gained by hanging onto all of this. It doesn't prove how much I loved my dad, it's not a sign of my loyalty or respect, and it doesn't guarantee my children will appreciate it one day, either. I keep in mind the risks of water damage, fire, and theft. Nope, holding on is not a good plan. I renew my resolve to showcase the most meaningful pieces and sell or donate the rest.

It's not easy, but I know it needs to be done. After all, if I don't, my kids will simply take my place in this dilemma.

What have you kept? What was hardest for you to give up? What advice do you have for others in this situation right now?


  1. Great post. Of my brother I have a jumper I gave him one xmas that I still wear, a photo album full of photos that I never really look at, a piece of the melted pavement from where his car burned out and a CD with his funeral songs. Everything else I gave away when I moved to Spain. Nothing was really hard for me to give up. I quickly realised that they were only physical things and that it's the meaning attached to them that have significance. What I've found ultimately more helpful is to create a new relationship with my brother based on the love we shared, the memories I have and find a way to use rituals that keep me connected to him. 9 years on I still feel close to him. He may be physically gone but he's spiritually and mentally still very much a part of my life.

  2. Tabitha, your kept items sound like moving reminders of your brother and how you lost him.

    I agree that our memories are the best connections. Without a doubt!

    BTW, I enjoyed your interview on I feel like we've met now:)


When someone dies, (other than attending the service), I do this for the family-