What to do When a Loved One Dies


by Eva Shaw

If a loved one has died and you haven't already disposed of their belongings, it is now probably time to collect, sort through, and make decisions regarding their personal property. For some, it's so tempting to avoid dealing with this matter; others simply throw out everything that was ever touched by or owned by the one who died. 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. However, grief can be hidden away for days, months, and years, but it must be processed through our consciousness if we are to move ahead and turn the grief into memories.
When should you begin to organize and decide what to keep and what to give away? The first few weeks after the death of a loved one are probably far too soon for most of us. It is a hard job and when the death is fresh in our minds, it may be too difficult.
Your loved one's belongings do not magically disappear with death. Seeing, touching, and smelling your loved one's clothing and other possessions will bring back a flood of feelings. Whether or not you had a positive relationship with your loved one, the feelings may mirror what you are thinking - guilt, loss, anger, reconciliation, or acceptance.
For one woman, helping her mother sort through Dad's things brought tears and smiles. Tucked within pages of his favorite books, included in the paid medical bills, and even stashed in jacket pockets, Katherine's father had left notes for his daughter as they had previously agreed. He knew that she would fly to Ireland to be with her mother after his death. She found messages such as "Kate, I love you more than a father could ever hope to love a child," and "I'm very proud of you." She also found lovely poems; the scribbled words to the lullaby he had sung to her as a baby. Folded in the envelope with his will was a faded photograph taken during World War 11. It was of a smiling handsome RAF captain in dress uniform balancing a blond toddler on his shoulders - lilliputian Katherine and her beloved parent. The notes from her father were both heartwarming and heartwrenching, but she cherishes the remembrances and gifts he left for her all the same.
After helping her mother sort through her father's possessions, another woman returned to Chicago and her law practice with her father's stained and work-worn gardening shirt. "I didn't want Mom to wash it. I wanted to keep that smell of Dad and sweat and dirt and sunshine...just like he smelled when he was alive." Even now, once in a while, she'll take the shirt out of the box, squeeze it and rub it. The fragrance of her father, most likely, is gone, but the memories are there.
Unless you must absolutely sort through the possessions by yourself out of desire or necessity, it's very comforting to have a close friend or family member with you. It's often better to have only a few people. Like chefs making soup, too many well-intended recommendations can be exasperating. While you need help, too much can just cause arguments and upset you needlessly. Take breaks often. You many want to shop for lunch or dinner to lessen the intensity of the chore.
Actually, if you can do any of the organization beforehand, such as putting all important papers in one box, or washing up dishes and taking out the trash, the better you will be able to handle the task. Becoming organized about the job will make you feel more in charge, less overwhelmed as you sort through those things which belonged to your loved one.
Don't be afraid to reminisce about when a piece of clothing was worn, or how hard it was to find a particular color, or how silly some item was to you at the time as you look at your loved one's possessions and clothing. Everyone buys something silly. Maybe she had an obsession for salt and pepper shakers in the shape of cartoon characters. Maybe he loved tools and had a wrench for every possible use under the sun. And who over forty doesn't remember bell-bottoms, miniskirts and tie-dyed T-shirts?
As you begin the responsibility, allow your emotions to move through the process with you and laugh over the funny memories. Cry, if you need to, because you miss the person. And as you review the entire job ahead, decide which of your favorite mementos you want to save, and which to give to family members, close friends, charities, churches, or yard sales. After you complete the job, or the first hour of the job, you may want to reward yourself for a responsibility now completed. Do something to reaffirm live - crunch an apple, take a walk, turn up your favorite music and dance.
John W. James and Frank Cherry, authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook and co-founders of the Grief Recovery Institute, an internationally recognized authority in the areas of death, education, and grief counseling, recommend a specific plan for disposing of a loved one's clothing and possessions. They suggest that you use the ABC approach for clothing and other items that belonged to your loved one. They lovingly refer to this as the "Pile Plan," and suggest that your objective is to end up with what you really want to keep without having a lot of stuff you think you ought to keep but really do not want. Again, they suggest that you have a helping partner with you during this cleaning out and sorting process, if you want or think you may need assistance.
They tell grievers to take all the clothing out of the closet and put it all in the living room or other large area. You are to go through everything, one item at a time.
"Make three piles of clothes," they write. "If you want to talk about a memory that one of these articles stimulates for you, please do so with your partner." The piles should be grouped as follows:
Pile A: Contains the items and clothing you are sure you want to keep.
Pile B: Contains the things you are certain you want to dispose of. These are the things you will want to sell, give to other family members, or give to charity or the church.
Pile C: Contains all the things you have yet to make up your mind about. If there's any doubt regarding an item, put it in Pile C.
James and Cherry, consultants and lecturers who have been working with grievers for over ten years, say not to consider this a race. "We're employing a clear plan that works. As you stand in the room looking at all the clothes, it may dawn on you why some people refer to this as the Pile Plan." They suggest that we would dispose of the piles as follows:
Pile A: Goes back into the closet.
Pile B: Is given to individuals and groups.
Pile C: Goes into bags and boxes and to the garage or attic.
They say to congratulate yourself and thank your partner. If your partner is also a survivor, next week go to his or her house and do the same. "One month later bring all the Pile C bags and boxes into the living room and work the plan over again. Once again, never alone!
Pile A is for the few things you find that you want to keep. Pile B is for those things you are sure you want to discard. Everything else goes back in the bags and boxes and back into the garage or attic. Doing this task one more time will accomplish our goal of keeping what you want to keep and not retaining things that you don't need."
If your loved one prepared a letter of instruction, a list of how, when, and where he or she would like property given or divided, then you should follow this directive when sorting personal things and belongings.

From What to Do When a Loved One Dies, by Eva Shaw. Copyright 1994 by Dickens Press. Excerpted by arrangement with Dickens Press. $18.95. Available in local bookstores, or by calling 800-230-8158. Also available online from the publisher and from Amazon.Com.