"...meaning is not in the thing, meaning is in the story."
~ Patrick McKenna Lynch Smith, Leaving the Life: A true story of love, loss and gratitude


While Molly Haskell's (author of Love and Other Infectious Diseases) husband lies in the hospital, "as close to death as a person can come without actually dying," she envisions the mess in his closet as the "quintessence of Andrew." Haskell writes that "the dozens of mismatching tennis shoes, the scuffed loafers, ties fallen from the tie rack, the hangers tumbling out" take on a "holy glow." She likens it to "the still-warm relic of a saint."

This is funny because it's so true. I think most widows and widowers put their dead spouses in the saint category. (See my attempt at realism under Sainthood - Not.) We also probably struggle what do to with all their stuff after they are gone. (It's funny - when we are younger, we want more and more stuff. The older we get, the more we realize we need to minimize stuff. Doug knew this - he usually said "We don't really need that.")

Some people just close the door on a dead child or parent's room and leave it for a long time. I know of one family who shut up their parents house and left it (and the refrigerator full of food) untouched for years. They find it is too painful to touch the things their loved ones touched, to make decisions, to give or throw their things away. Maybe because it feels as if we are throwing away their life, or our love for them.

Some of it is really just junk. If it were our own, we might toss it casually in the Goodwill bin. But because it connected to or all that is left of our loved one, we cherish it and have trouble parting with it.

Here is my advice on how to deal with all the "stuff" left behind when someone dies.

  • Decide whether to do it yourself or get help. (I felt I was the only one who knew what I wanted to keep, and what things meant, so I went it alone.)
    • I heard the story of a widow who went to the funeral, and returned to find her husband's closet emptied by well-meaning friends.
  • Decide when you are ready. Unless you are moving or leaving town, there is no need to do it the day after the person dies. Give it some time. Allow the pain to soften a bit. (I tried to go through my husband's clothes too soon, and ended up a hysterically weepy mess.)
  • Get a box of tissues (see above.)
    • Be prepared for waves of pain and/or sadness, and some surprises. Handling and going through personal belongings can be like digging up the body. ( I found a large unmarked manila envelope among Doug's things. It contained every card and letter I ever wrote him during our lengthy courtship and our marriage. I never knew he had saved them.)
  • Rent a dumpster if you are going through a whole household.
  • Do one room at a time to avoid being overwhelmed.
    • Start with the one that you think might be relatively easy. (In my experience, none of them were easy, but some were harder than others.)
  • Create five piles: Trash, Not Sure, Give Away, Sell, Save. Take your time. Don't do anything rash you will regret later.
    • TRASH:
      • Be careful not to throw out important papers (e.g. property deeds, etc.)
      • Papers with financial information, social security numbers, etc., need to be shredded, burned (not in the fireplace! More than one person has started a chimney fire burning papers), or brought to a secure destruction facility to avoid identity theft. (Yes, the identities of dead people can be stolen. Someone filed a false federal tax return in Doug's name the year he died, delaying processing of my return by months.)
    • NOT SURE: If you are not sure, put it in the "not sure" pile so you can decide later. Throwing it out is irreversible. You probably already have enough regrets.
      • I put some things in this pile that I wasn't quite ready to let go of. I will store them, and deal with them later (or let someone else deal with them when I am gone.)
    • GIVE AWAY:
      • Friends and family members may want a personal item(s) as mementos.
        • If gifts were not specified in a will, you will have to make some difficult decisions. With family members, you can do a round robin. Draw straws to decide who goes first, and then allow each person to pick one household item in turn; then go around again.
        • You can ask close friends if there is something in particular they would like. You might be surprised by their requests, but be able to honor them.
        • Don't forget work colleagues. Some of them spent five days a week for years with the person who died. (I took all of Doug's ties and brought them to a memorial gathering, and let his co-workers each pick one.)
      • Things that are no longer needed (they ARE gone and they REALLY DON'T need them anymore) can be given to others to find new life. As they say, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." You can donate items to needy people and charitable organizations. The Salvation Army and Goodwill take clothes, furniture etc. There are also local agencies that can use donations: homeless/battered woman shelters, groups that hold fund-raising rummage sales (churches, 4-H clubs), etc. Some will come and pick up items. If you don't want to deal with selling them, you can donate vehicles to a worthy cause. Take photos of valuable items that are donated, and ask for a receipt for tax purposes.
    • SELL: You can sell things at a tag sale (which is a lot of work), through your local paper, eBay, or other auction sites/houses, or arrange for an estate sale. If you don't need the money, you can donate the proceeds to a charity associated with the deceased.
    • SAVE: Remember that whatever you decide to keep will have to go somewhere. Consider whether you REALLY need it and whether it is REALLY special. If you're not sure, put it in the "not sure" pile. Some people rent a storage facility where things sit unused until THEY die.
    • Be gentle with yourself. This is hard.





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