Did you ever listen to a speaker or read an article and think: “I never thought about it like that before”?
Well, that’s what happened when I read the Barbara Karnes article about cleaning out the belongings of a deceased family member.
BK Books | Something to Think About
Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death
Why? Because her advice is the anthesis of what I would do—and actually have done. It’s against my nature. I’m a minimalist—the kind of person who is always paring down, cleaning out, and organizing.
I used to teach in a prison and there was a video I would show to my class with the coolest down-to earth counselor who had a way of explaining things in a way that just “hit it on the head”. The video featured this little girl who was like a “little mother”—always cleaning up. The counselor explained the child’s behavior by pointing out this was her way of trying to exert some control in her life. It was a coping mechanism to counter the uncontrollable situations in her environment.
For me, this counselor’s explanation was an “AHA” moment. It brought some light to my own behaviors.
Barbara Karnes received a letter asking for “guidance to family members who have lost a loved one regarding how to manage the process of cleaning out the residence of the person who passed away.”
The approach I have personally taken—one which I have often recommended—is to do it ahead of time. I have addressed this issue in my book, What to Do about Mama? by saying “I will not leave my children the burden of my messes.” (p. 332).
As my mother-in-law would say: “There’s always mañana.” She left the daunting task of downsizing and distributing her belongings to her children—a process that happened several times as her circumstances changed.”
As with everything, I suppose, there are different ways to look at the chore of having to allocate and dispose of your parents’ belongings. Depending on how they confronted that task, you will most likely have to deal with it, at least to some degree. That process can be formidable to be sure, but it can also be meaningful and healing from a nostalgic point of view.What to Do about Mama? pp. 221, 303-304
In light of my own caregiving experience, I am determined not to leave my children the remnants of my life in a state of disarray. I have always appreciated that my mother did not do that to my brother and me, and I was never happy about the fact that my mother-in-law did exactly that.
So, downsizing became the first project on the top of my list. David and I went through all our storage areas and closets, paring our belongings down to whatever we truly needed or wanted.
Next, I made a detailed inventory of our belongings. An appraiser came over one evening and gave us a verbal appraisal of many items on the list. Then, I distributed the inventory to our children so they could express what they were interested in having someday. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do it. I found it impossible to make hard-and-fast decisions but did manage to come up with a system that I think will make it easier for our children to distribute, donate, and dispose of our belongings. “
I have also blogged about the topic, previously:
Barbara Karnes recommendations, are quite different:
- First, if you don’t have to clean out belongings, don’t for awhile, wait even months if necessary. There can be great comfort seeing and holding something they treasured or used. In the early days of grief, their belongings can bring comfort and will help you.
- Second, don’t make any major life decisions, like selling the house, moving in with family, spending large sums of money, or investments for at least a year. That year will give you time to think with your mind not your emotions.
- Now, some people can’t wait months, even weeks, let alone a year. Decisions have to be made right away. If that is the case think of what you can keep, even if the material items aren’t needed but have sentimental memories—-keep them for awhile, you will know when you can let go of them. Err on the side of keeping.
- Adult children often rush in and organize us elderly, thinking they know best. This is a reminder to you adult children to be gentle, try to put yourself in your loved one’s situation and ask how you would feel and what would you want if it was you living this life challenge of releasing a lifetime of memories and often independence.
- There are companies you can hire that will help you downsize, relocate, organize the “house item releasing.” These people are sensitive to the emotional needs and experience of having to part with possessions accumulated over a lifetime–or not.
- When moving in the time of grief, letting go of material items is like letting go of the memories those items hold. It is an added burden to an already emotional assault on our idea of living.
I live in a condominium community which—though not specifically a 55+ community—is largely a 55+ community. In the year of the pandemic, our neighborhood has found itself in a state of transition, with some of the residents leaving to progress up the ladder of senior living options, and others passing away. One gentleman sold his home, downsized, and moved to a nearby assisted living facility—a difficult relocation during the coronavirus. Though admittedly of advanced age, I was still surprised when I saw his obituary in the paper only a few weeks later.
Now I wonder:
What treasures were left?
Has COVID-19 had an impact on your sense of purpose? In her March 15, 2021, article A Reason To Get Out Of Bed, Barbara Karnes discusses this issue in terms of how purpose impacts end-of-life.
Barbara reports that when she awoke the other morning, she began to think: Why not just stay in bed all day? Why do I NEED to get out of bed? What do I NEED to do? It was then that she realized that because of COVID, her sense of purpose had vastly diminished. Something that Barbara already knew, something she had learned through her profession, was that having purpose is needed to move forward into living.
This, too, is my experience. When the time came that my mother-in-law could no longer live alone and the choice was made for her to move into our home, she was in very poor condition due to advanced COPD, falls and fractures, as well as a number of other serious disorders. We didn’t expect her to live much beyond two more years.
What we hadn’t considered was the strong sense of purpose that still burned within her. She got up each morning insisting to get dressed first thing. She set goals—one of which we helped her meet—which was to see her last grandchild graduate from college. (This meant procuring a special oxygen system to enable her to flying to Colorado for graduation.)
The woman not only had goals, she verbalized them vociferously.
“My goal is to live to one hundred.” “It’s all in your attitude.” “I don’t want to miss anything. “I just keep plodding along.”What to Do about Mama? pp. 30-31
In my book, “What to Do about Mama?” others reported similar stories about the longevity of seniors living life with a purpose.
I recall an assessment I administered with a woman well over ninety. She said that her son was a widower and remarked that I reminded her of her deceased daughter-in-law. Later in the assessment, she asked me, “Are you married?” Afterward, when I was walking to my car, I burst out laughing when it suddenly dawned on me that she was exploring my status of availability for her son. I think it was important for her to know he was taken care of before she was ready to depart this earth.
And here is another reason one senior is motivated, just like the Energizer Bunny, to keep going and going and going . . . Her mother hadn’t “planned” to live past eighty-five. But once Patricia’s siblings began to compile a family history, she expressed the desire to see the work completed. It gave her satisfaction that her children, who hadn’t always gotten along, were cooperating on the project.
Peter told us that because the Germans had shot at him with “88s” during the war, it was his goal to live to be eighty-eight years old. He and one other man in his platoon had been the only two that were not wounded or killed by the German artillery.What to Do about Mama? pp. 227, 306
In her article: Barbara Karnes concludes that “The year of 2020 changed everyone’s sense of purpose, made everyone question their reason for getting out of bed each morning. The pandemic did end a way of life we were living. It stopped our routines, our habits of daily living and forced us to reexamine how we are living our lives, what is important to us, how do we just survive.”
So true. I find that I am filling my days with “busy-ness”—various projects, some that I like, some not so much so. Why?
Unlike some people, such as the healthcare workers who are pushing their purpose to the limits, there are others who have been stopped in their tracks—forced to shelter, to disconnect, to stop what we were doing. We ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” But as Barbara Karnes suggests, maybe it would be preferable to rethink our question and ask, “What can I do while this is happening.” In that way, we may be able to better-establish our sense of purpose and our reason to get out of bed in the morning.