Cleaning Out Parents’ Home Painful, Valuable Process
I should have known better. I’ve been grieving long enough to know. But because I didn’t think ahead, I planned the last grand sale of my parents’ belongings right before Father’s Day.
And right before “death month” – July. Both my parents died in the month of July, three years apart. Every year I march toward the month and replay their lives and my loss. I go over to their home on the anniversaries, go through their things and decide what to keep and what not to keep.
It’s a common ritual for the living, that of deciding to do with what the dead left behind. For some, the task is too painful. They assign the job to a friend, or even hire out the work. Others madly toss stuff in boxes that get put into storage. They put their grief behind lock and key.
And then there’s me. I have been doing this job on site, off and on, for eight years next month. I loved my parents’ belongings jogging my memory and filling in the parts that time blurred. But it’s also has been a very difficult job. I bawled my head off. There are things I just could not throw away. That suited me. Their things made the house feel lived in. Like they were there.
One of the things I left was the garment bag that hung in my father’s closet. Having things hanging in the closet is one of the single most things to personalize a house.
Yesterday, I was selecting the last things for this weekend’s yard sale and decided it was time to sell the bag. I clipped off the paper ID tag that identified Dad’s ship date as 9-2-1995. I lifted the brown vinyl bag and walked into the hallway. Tears pooled in my eyes. I didn’t expect this.
Dad and Mom had won the cruise. He’d climbed slippery Dunns River Falls in Jamaica on the trip. (He was 56-years-old. I only appreciated his accomplishment after I climbed it later at age 42 on my honeymoon.) In a few short years, he’d shuffle. He’d shake. Parkinson’s chipped away at his quality of life, and then a heart attack took him.
The luggage was a remnant of his last few healthy years. He loved going on that cruise. I didn’t want to disturb that moment. He’d come home, hung up his bag and talked and talked about that trip. So I left his luggage hanging in the closet for eight years.
It’s OK to be attached. Really. Our society thinks we’ve got to clean out those closets as quickly as we hold the funeral. What it really wants to get rid of is our tears. We can’t have any triggers around making us cry. Well, I’m here to say that tears are OK, and it’s OK to work out your grief, and that’s what tears do. That’s what memories do. That’s what belongings do.
I don’t recommend holding onto a house eight years, but I do recommend going through a loved one’s stuff. I won’t hold anyone to a timetable, but don’t abdicate this work to someone else.
Going through each box, closet, drawer and file was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The process led me through emotions like regret, sorrow and anger, and I came out on the other side with perspective and with new perceptions. I saw my parents, myself and God in a new way. My timing hasn’t been that great, but my effort has been invaluable to my soul.
How did you handle the clean out? Did you wait? Did a friend help? What did you learn about your loved one and how did your perspective on the loss change?
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