What We Do With the Things Our Deceased Loved Ones Leave Behind
Deceased is such a strong word. I thought about saying “the things our loved ones leave behind,” but this could be misunderstood to mean relationships that end and lovers that move away.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what happens to the physical items after someone dies.
When my mom died, I was lucky enough that my dad was not attached to her physical items. He left it up to my sister and I. We slowly went through her clothes and decided what to keep or donate. I kept some clothes to turn into future teddy bears. The other clothes smelled too much like chemo.
When it came to her jewelry, my sister and I peacefully took turns selecting what we wanted. My mom didn’t have any jewelry worth much. It was just sentimental pieces.
This amicable parting of goods is rare.
As a therapist, I have now heard many, many stories of how contentious the dividing of physical items can be.
I have also had many more complicated experiences with physical items. After my dad remarried, my stepmom decided she wanted all furniture related to my mom out of the house. She wanted a fresh start.
Trouble was, I lived in a tiny apartment. My sister, who owned a four bedroom house, was able to take most of it. The rest had to be donated. I wasn’t in a financial place to pay for storage.
This experience showed me how the dividing of physical items can quickly become complex.
There have also been other items that make things weird. For example, my mom’s piano. It was the piano she learned on as a kid. It was the piano I learned on as a kid. My dad agreed I could have it.
Have I mentioned how difficult and expensive it is to move a piano? My dad luckily agreed for it to be the one piece of furniture he stored for me until I was ready to have it with me. When I was finally ready, it cost over $300 to move it. As I’m facing yet another move right now, I am again questioning if it is worth moving. And yet, this is the one piece of furniture I have from my mother.
My mother has been dead for almost 9 years now. There will not be any new furniture or items from her.
This is another one of the great difficulties about someone dying. We have to make decisions about their physical items NOW, when we do not know how we will feel in the future.
For example, I now wish I had kept more of her clothes. I wish I had thought more about her jewelry as I selected pieces. I am now getting married and I wish I had considered I might want to incorporate her into a ring.
I also had kept a book from my mom. It was “The Power of Now.” I flipped through it and she had written in the margins on one of the pages, “This helps me understand Jackie better.” I don’t know why, but I donated that book after a couple of years. Why didn’t I keep it? I now wish I had and I could reread that passage to understand.
As my mother becomes more and more distant, I yearn for more things with her writing, with connection to her.
And yet, I’ve gone through periods where I realized I could not keep it all. For example, I had five of her giant notebooks keeping all of her medical records about her chemotherapy treatment. I finally decided to toss them. I secretly fear I may need to reference them one day and will not be able to.
But we cannot hold on to everything forever. Maybe that is part of the tie of holding on to physical stuff, it’s like holding on to them.
I went out and bought the book “Power of Now” about two years ago. I tried to right the wrong of tossing the first. And yet, I haven’t read it. It has now sat in my book trunk for over two years.
It’s actually what inspired this essay. As I prepare for a move, I am going through my books, deciding what to keep and what to let go.
For the second time, I am letting it go.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more about my perspectives on grief, you can see my illustrated book "Grief is Mess."