Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Survivors faced with decisions about disposing of a deceased loved one’s belongings needn’t face the pain alone.
Inside the Colonial-style, two-story brick home in west Little Rock, it looks as though the owner is merely preparing for a move.
The elegance of the green-and-burgundy-decorated living room is broken by the intrusion of two oblong portable tables bearing pieces of cut glass, ceramic pottery, dishes and figurines.
In the comfortable den, things are not as neat. Several women sort through boxes, piles of clothing and other belongings. As they go through the items, they price them.
Actually, it is a moving day – of sorts. The belongings in the recently sold home are being prepared for an estate sale. The woman who lived in the house died in February, only three months after her husband’s death. The family, currently struggling with the added hardship of losing another loved one, has commissioned Nancy Franzke of Little Rock to conduct the sale.
Franzke, who has been in the business 14 years, knows what will sell best. The cut glass will be popular, she says.
“Another item that’s very collectible is military clothing,” she adds, pointing out a brown leather bomber jacket. Other popular items: old musical instruments, old toys.
Items such as these must be dealt with by the relatives of those who have died.
Deciding what to do with the belongings left behind by a deceased loved one – whether it’s a much-worn blouse, a silver tea set, a French Empire table, a shag rug or an automobile – can be an added challenge in a time already weighed down by grief and stress.
“That is the most difficult thing – having to go back home and be faced with (the deceased’s) belongings and their clothing,” says Christy Best, a nationally recognized organizer based in California.
It’s a situation that Bonnie Jacobsen, a professional organizer in Little Rock, has seen many a baby boomer face.
“One of the heartbreaking things is, it really gets people stuck because there’s so much grief involved with it,” says Jacobson, owner of Let’s Get Organized. “If the family has not started passing on some of the treasures before the parents are gone, it’s very very painful to let go of the things after theyr’e gone.
Many survivors make the mistake of taking the items from the home of the deceased to their own homes, where they sit for a long time, Jacobsen adds. “They end up with sort of layers of generations of clutter and so it becomes a multilevel problem. They cannot make decisions on any level – and then they get stuck in the pain and the grief and the memories.”
But while some struggle with clutter – or leave their loved one’s home intact, paying extra utility bills and worrying about the vacant home being robbed – other survivors make the mistake of trying to get rid of things too quickly.
“The temptation to get rid of everything stems, many believe, from that illusion that if you can deal with and dispose of the possessions, you will make quick business of disposing of the pain and hurt of grief,” writes Eva Shaw in her 1994 book What to Do When a Loved One Dies: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Dealing with Death on Life’s Terms (Dickens Press, $18.95).
Sorting Stuff of a Lifetime
Are you the survivor of a deceased relative who left no instructions or provisions on how to dispose of his belongings?
Don’t try to dispose of the items hastily.
“In my opinion, that causes psychological scarring,” says Christy Best, an nationally recognized organizer based in California. Give yourself some time to grieve, and deal with the situation only when you’re ready. If it’s a parent who has died, Best adds, “Don’t let the children start coming in and grabbing things.”
Best’s website, www.clutterbug.net, gives numerous tips and advice on how to deal with too much stuff.
Seek objective professional help.
“The bottom line… is that you don’t have to do it alone.” says Dana Estill, a mental health therapist in Asheville, N.C. But the help doesn’t have to come from a therapist. Bonnie Jacobson, a professional organizer in Little Rockm works with bereaved clients to establish what type of value a possession may have for them – monetery, sentimental, historic – to help them pare down the belongings.
Don’t sort through the things alone.
Ask for help from no more than one or two close friends.
Sort the items into three piles of things, labeling them Pile A, Pile B, and Pile C.
Place into Pile A the things you definitely want to keep. Pile B should contain the things you feel you can stand to donate or dispose of. Pile C should be the “I don’t know” pile. And that might be all you do,” Estill says. “You don’t have to do anything else with those piles.” After the sorting is over, reward yourself in some way.
Resist the temptation to throw out items you think are junk.
Old newspapers, documents, letters and notes may provide genealogical information and insights about the deceased’s life.
Make memories space-efficient.
Smaller keepsake items can be organized into a shadowbox or collage, or be photographed before disposal. Fabric items can be remade into a quilt.
Don’t keep things out of a sense of obligation.
If the deceased was an avid reader with a book collection you do not wish to keep, consider donating the books to your local library. Donate old military photographs or other historic memorabilia to a museum.
Donate to a charitable organization that was important to the diseased.
Give clothing or other possessions to that organization, or sell them and donate the proceeds.
Share with the friends of the deceased.
Best recalls an instance in which a teenage girl died in an accident. Afterward, the girl’s friends were allowed to go through her possessions and choose a memento. That’s good for adults, too, she says. “Maybe his best friend played golf with him and maybe his best friend would like a golf club.”
Use your loved one’s possessions to honor them or your relationship with them.
Estill tells of taking the bars from her father’s police uniform and giving one of them to a friend who had exhibited bravery.