The Stuff of Life
What will happen to all your stuff when you die?
I hope this is something you’ve never considered before. But if you have lost a loved one, you already know: for those surviving, “stuff” can be an incredibly difficult and complex part of grief.
I've been thinking a lot about stuff after my brother and I spent a week going through our late great aunt's house in England. It’s forced me to reflect on my other experiences going through stuff when I've lost people, and why I do the stuff with stuff that I do.
When my mom died, I went through her stuff as a 13 year-old girl. I remember choosing jewelry and purses I liked, with my father's help. With his encouragement, I remember trying to forecast how my tastes might change as I got older. I wanted to keep basically everything because who knows if I would like something or not someday? It was so hard to look through her belongings without her there, her jewelry spread out over my parents' bed. I didn't want to look at it. I wanted to box it up and think about it later...or never.
My father was really pushing for closure in going through my mother's stuff, which I didn't understand at the time. He asked me to make hard choices. He said we could not keep everything— he wanted to clear out her closet. It felt harsh at the time: how could I possibly decide? I remember feeling anxious that I would lose something I would've loved to hang on to. (I ended up keeping so many beautiful things of my mother's, my favorite probably being her silk scarf collection, and I'm certain that the rest of her things were put to good use by wonderful people when they were donated. Do I wonder if I missed out on anything? Yes. But I kept plenty.)
I am my father’s daughter in a lot of ways. One of them, apparently, is how I seek closure after a death.
After my dad died, the only thing I could think to do was clean, organize, and donate his stuff. It was a productive way to spend my time. Within a week of his death, I emptied a storage unit he kept with all kinds of things in it, and asked my brother to get on Zoom with me every day (remember: this was right at the beginning of COVID) so we could sort through the items. What to keep, what we could donate, what could be thrown away.
My brother wanted more time. He wanted to keep more things than I did, and I couldn't understand why. I pushed for closure, for moving forward. I was harsh. Just like my father.
I've learned that people can grieve very differently when it comes to going through stuff. I am a viewer of things, and then a throw-awayer or a donator whenever possible. I feel like I am being productive in my grieving by eliminating items down to those that are most treasured and essential. Others might see me as unsentimental, but I don't see myself that way. I feel like by sorting through items I get the chance to reminisce, feel, and move on by not keeping everything. This is how I grieve.
Others grieve by keeping more things than I would. I'll be the first to admit that I've felt frustrated at this mindset and have seen it as denial of grieving or a delay of moving on…but that's not really what's going on, here. People just don't all view stuff in the same way, with or without grief—grief just adds to the complexity.
At some point in the process of going through Dad's stuff, I put a wobbly looking round metal tray in the donate pile, not thinking much of it. We didn't know anything about it, and my brother didn't want it either. In speaking a few days later with my late father's wife, she asked if I'd happened to see a metal tray while I was going through the storage unit. I said I had. She said, "Your father was so proud of that tray! He made it in shop class when he was in high school!"
Whoops! I scurried over to the donate boxes sitting at the door, grabbed the tray out of it, and immediately put it out on the counter for display. I felt so guilty.
That's the thing about things: we assign them value…it's all made up, completely subjective. Without value, they're just objects. Junk, even. My brother and I didn't know the story behind this one metal tray, so we didn't assign value to it. But once I knew the story behind it, it became a treasured item of my late father's on display in my home. Before that? Just a weird looking old tray I didn't want.
Going through someone's stuff when they die is something that has to be done by every family. And it's gut-wrenching—you live with the worry that you'll get rid of something you'll regret. Honestly, it's a guarantee. You WILL get rid of something you'll regret, especially if you're a Productive Post-Death Organizer Harsh Lady, like me.
So when we agreed to both go to England to sort through our late, great aunt's belongings, my brother and I braced ourselves for our approaches on stuff to be in conflict. We'd been through this together before, and knew I would want to throw away everything and he would want to keep everything. Genetics are complicated; my brother and I are very different people even though we look a lot alike.
Unlike going through my mom or my dad's stuff, going through our great aunt's stuff felt different. We had a finite period of time to complete the task at hand as we'd traveled across the ocean to clean out the house.
I didn't spend much time with my great aunt over the years, though we spoke on the phone on birthdays and other important occasions. She lived far away, and for most of my childhood we didn't travel much at all because my mother was so sick. I had met my great aunt a total of one time…ever. But we loved each other. And my brother and I are her closest relatives, along with our grandmother. In going to her house, going through all of her belongings, seeing all the photos of her great niece and nephew all over the place, I gave love and felt love. There was so much love jam-packed in that little house full of a TON of stuff.
Did my brother and I have conflict nearly immediately when we got to England on the first day of going through our great aunt's stuff?
We were each making character judgments about the other's approach to stuff and grieving. How could he want to keep so many things? Why would he want that? He keeps everything—he's in denial! How could she get rid of that? Why doesn't she want to keep anything? Doesn't she care at all?
Death and grieving strain even the best family relationships.
My brother and I hashed it all out that first day of going through her stuff. It wasn't easy, but we got ourselves to a good process/cadence of my brother getting a first look at items to decide what to keep, and me taking it from there to either keep or donate. But I was not allowed to judge his Keeps, and he wasn't allowed to judge my Donates anymore. We just needed to do our own thing.
There is no right way to go through a dead loved one's belongings. The process just sucks: there's absolutely no way around it. And the least we could do was not be shitty to each other on top of what was already so shitty.
So, we spent a week going through every single thing in our great aunt's house. In between boxes of (literally) every greeting card she and her late husband ever gave to each other, as well as unthinkable quantities of bedding that made no sense for a house with two bedrooms, we found old family photos and heirlooms belonging to our great grandfather, our grandmother and our late great aunt's father. He was wounded in WWI, and we found medals and other items thanking him for his dedication and service.
What that meant is, as much as I hate to admit it, my brother was exactly right to want to look at every item a little more closely than I would. Family treasures would pop up when we didn't expect them to. And it was ok that my brother thought maybe just a few more things were treasures than I did.
You know what I'll always treasure, though? That time I got to spend with my brother, grieving this unique loss together.