After Helen’s mother moved into an assisted living facility, she got to work clearing out her house in preparation for sale. As she sorted, she found all sorts of things including her first pair of shoes and the outfit she wore home the day she was born.
Helen had a fleeting moment of nostalgia that was quickly washed away by the reality of how many more drawers, cabinets, and closets awaited her.
Her mother had taken what she loved, needed, and wanted to her new home, and the rest was up to Helen to handle. She didn’t have the room for the items in her home nor did she want it.
Instead of having the space to process her myriad feelings about this massive change, Helen was mired down in logistics, packing, delivering, and cleaning. She was physically and mentally exhausted and found anger and frustration taking center stage instead of the sadness she clearly felt percolating underneath.
This is not how she envisioned life at 70 years old.
Friends, family, and clients often talk about how difficult it is to go through someone’s belongings after they’ve passed. It’s an unwelcome project during an incredibly emotional time.
While no one likes to think about their loved ones no longer being here, addressing our stuff now will lighten the load on our family after we’re gone.
And it can offer an opportunity for some meaningful conversations.
One day, I was helping my mother clear out a closet. We came across a big bag of greeting cards she had received over the years from her kids. As we took out stack after stack, I suggested we recycle them.
“No, I can’t get rid of those. You kids gave them to me.”
“There are a lot of cards here, Mom. If you love them, I’d suggest displaying them so you can enjoy them, but you’d end up wallpapering your house.”
“Oh I don’t want to put them all out, but I should really keep them.”
There’s that word. “Should.”
I suggest that if there’s a special message or sentiment in a card that really warms her heart, that we could cut them out and make a collage or take a picture of the note. But when I looked at them, most of them were simply signed, “Love, <insert child’s name here.>”
“What makes you feel like you ‘should’ keep these cards?” I asked.
“Well, someday when I’m gone and you find these cards, you’ll all know how much I loved you.”
Whoa – a powerfully vulnerable invitation to deepen our conversation.
“Oh, Mom, I have no doubts about how you feel,” I responded. “You tell me all the time how proud you are of me and how much you love me. I don’t need a bag of greeting cards to know that. In fact, I’d probably feel bad that you kept them around so long, taking up space in your closet.”
I saw her body soften.
“Is there any other reason you feel pulled to keep them? Because if there is, I will happily put them back in the closet. It’s your call.”
“No,” she said. “We can get rid of them.”
I saw her energy lighten.
While this chat lasted less than 10 minutes, it’s a conversation I will always remember. And that’s because my mother was courageous enough to tell me the truth behind her thinking about keeping the cards.
Because, you see, it wasn’t about the cards.
When clearing difficult clutter, it’s never about the stuff. (click to tweet)
Working on paring down your own belongings or helping a loved one do the same can stir up a lot of emotions. When your intention (or at least part of it) is to save others the job after you’re gone, you’re faced with your own mortality and that can be confronting and scary.
But it can also be comforting.
When you make your wishes clear about what you want done with your belongings, how you want your care managed, or how you would like to be celebrated upon your passing, while difficult, it also brings a sense of peace. You get to address any fears that you’ll be a burden and you save your loved ones the stress of making these tough calls.
A friend’s parents recently told her what they would like to give to whom in the family and asked her to get rid of the rest after they’re gone. They’re already working on downsizing to lighten her load (and theirs so they can continue to travel), and they intentionally chose her (versus one of her siblings) to clear their things because they know she’ll honor their wishes and be able to let go of the remaining items with ease.
In addition to their physical possessions, my friend’s conversation with her parents included wills, estates, and funeral arrangements. Now her parents can enjoy life knowing that is all sorted and my friend can take comfort in knowing just what they want. And she could let her parents know whether she actually wanted the items they were saving for her, and if not, they could make a different decision. Maybe sell the pearls instead and add the cash to the travel fund!
We’re in a different time these days. Large inheritances are much less common and treasured family heirlooms are becoming fewer and fewer.
The new treasure is time.
Memories that last an eternity.
Special moments that live in our hearts always.
I know I’d rather my mother enjoy every day of her life than save pennies to leave an inheritance.
No matter your age or stage of life, I encourage you to take this idea into account as you consider how much stuff you have. If, heaven forbid, something tragic were to happen tomorrow, will you have left your loved ones with a big mess?
It’s an emotional time already, so minimizing the amount of logistics they need to tend to leaves space for them to feel.
To support one another instead of potentially arguing choices.
I know it’s not a pleasant topic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a loving and deeply meaningful conversation.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Join the conversation in the comments below.