How to Clean Out a Life

I’ve experienced very little in life that stung as much as having to clear out my mom’s storage units after she passed away.

The first time my husband and I visited the units, I was pregnant with our daughter and had big hopes for getting through them in a couple of weekends.  We lifted the door of the first unit (10’x25′) and realized that the wall of boxes, tubs, unfinished DIY projects and furniture had different intentions.  That day, we stared into the unit for twenty minutes, moved a box or two around, and drove 90 minutes home feeling pretty defeated.  It was a heaviness that is still hard for me to articulate.

My mother grew up in Pikeville, Kentucky.  She and her family experienced severe flooding and subsequent damage and loss several times.  While I can only imagine they had learned to identify what sentimental objects should be kept in safe spaces, inevitably, there was always some loss.  I attribute a great deal of my mother’s connection to material possessions to the loss she likely felt so often as a young person, and wanting to make sure she was always prepared in the future.  This woman, as I learned, kept every article of clothing (both hers and mine).  Every piece of artwork – both failed and beautiful.  Every magazine that somehow provided inspiration.  My old tests and homework.  Countless knickknacks.  More kitchenware than the finest chef could make use of in ten lifetimes. Quilts, quilts…and also, quilts.  Enough home decor to fill a dozen homes.  She had planned color schemes for rooms in houses she’d never IMG_1092-e1494511819396-605x807owned.

I knew these things about her while she was here…and it drove me insane.

Now, it breaks my heart.

I didn’t understand my mother’s need to hang onto things while she was here.  While I never said the word to her, in my mind, she was a hoarder.  I saw it as a sickness.  And it caused friction between us that I will have a hard time processing during my grief journey.  Initially, I was inclined to call a junk removal company, open the doors, and let them have at it and we’d be done in a long weekend.  But something happens when you lose your mother…any similarities or emotion or sentiment that she possessed that might also find a home in you bubbles up to the surface and decisions become a little more complicated.  Here we are nearly a year and a half later, and I still have 30 boxes in the basement that I’m a little too sad to open most of the time.  And in some way, the sadness feels like a tribute that I’m paying to her.

I think in life we all come across times where we feel guilty to move on.  The sadness that we equate to paying a tribute becomes a habit for us – a way of life.  And I believe it’s important that as we tie up the loose ends of our loved ones’ lives, we also clean out of our lives the need to feel a painful emotion to indicate we are still grieving.  I’ve come up with some daily affirmations that have helped me immensely on my “cleaning out” journey – and they’ve worked to ground me to important opportunities for reflection.

  1. It’s okay to act NOW sometimes.  Part of me thought that taking the scenic route on going through mom’s things was all a part of paying tribute.  I often caught myself thinking, “well, let me think about this item overnight, and I’m sure I’ll have an answer in the morning.”  But the truth was, maybe I would have an answer, and maybe I wouldn’t.  Furthermore, I also wasn’t going home and spending the entire night thinking about said item – I was spending the night resting from the emotional exhaustion that is grief.  What I found was that the more items I put on the mental back burner, the more likely I was to go to the storage unit the next day and get rid of EVERYTHING I saw, because I couldn’t stand being in the middle of the stuff anymore.  I had to remind myself to trust my instincts.  I had to start trusting that if I truly wasn’t supposed to get rid of something, I would have a gut reaction to it when I saw it – one way or the other.  It’s okay to know what you want to do with something, even if it means you’re getting rid of an item you know meant a lot to your loved one.  For the items that meant a lot to them – maybe don’t sell it on Craigslist or eBay.  Can you find an auction site that caters to lovers of that particular treasure?  Possibly even ask friends or family if they’re interested?  Then you’ll know it’s going to someone else that can appreciate it.  Just allow yourself the grace of knowing that it is okay that you don’t sit on that decision for weeks on end if you don’t really need to.  Don’t equate longevity with tribute, when you could be spending more of your time doing things that actually pay tribute.
  2. My decisions are my own.  I hope you have a great support system around you while you’re going through this.  Maybe you even have a support system who’s been through it before and has some tips or advice for you.  There are many benefits to having this network of care – but only one drawback I can think of:  concerned individuals have a tendency to have a LOT of opinions.  Granted, if these individuals are siblings or spouses or anyone else that also has a say, then you must find a balance.  I had the pleasure, but also burden, of tackling this all as an only child of a spouseless mother who didn’t have a lot of “assets” otherwise, so that’s my perspective.  If you are the big decision maker, then you need to remind yourself often as friends share advice that your decisions are your own.  There is no need to second guess yourself, because you’ve listened to yourself and have acted accordingly to gain the closure you need.  For whatever reason it is that the responsibility lies with you, that’s just it – it lies with YOU.  Others may have and voice their opinions, but you should be up front with them that since you are the one bearing the emotional burden of the items at hand, it is your sole responsibility to decide their fate.  YOU are the one with the connection to the lost loved one and their wishes, or your interpretations and guesses about them.
  3. Once I make a decision, I have to be prepared for it to bring closure.  As you make decision after decision, you have to allow yourself to experience the pleasure and relief of that decision being complete.  This doesn’t mean the grief goes away item by item, but it does mean that whatever element of that grief was tying you to that item, you need to be okay letting it go.  If you are not ready to let that element go, then you should consider spending more time figuring out what to do with the item.  Let me give you an example.  While I do not necessarily have a physical space to keep my mother’s nursing supplies (old stethoscope, medical bag, etc.), nor do I have a need for it, that was such a strong part of the identity I held for my mother that I’m simply not ready to let go of it.  Does it bring me joy?  Not at this moment.  They still make me a little sad. But she was my nurse.  And I can visualize a time down the road that I’ll want to show my daughter these cool things and say, “Look!  These were your Me-Me’s!”  I’m not ready to let that thought go just yet, and this just isn’t a process I’m willing to rush.  On the other hand, her teddy bear collection.  This was a challenge.  I knew it was something very special to her, but I had to make the decision on whether or not this was a part of her I needed to physically hold onto.  My worry was that if I kept it, I would feel a need to add to or care for the collection as she did.  Because it is not one of the main identities with which I associated to mom, I was okay parting with this (to an antique dealer specializing in auctioning similar IMG_1132-e1494512264388-605x807collections) and allowing myself the relief of saying goodbye to those possessions.
  4. Allow yourself to reflect throughout the process.  Remember, you can’t take it with you when you “go” either!  You can’t take any of it with you.  But you can enjoy the memories these items bring as you go through them.  Let yourself feel that.  The more you connect yourself and your emotion to a memory brought about by a treasured item of a loved one, the deeper it will sit with you.  The deeper the memory sits, the less the item matters and the more the feelings matter.  When you tell a story to your children about your lost loved one, do you tell it through describing in detail their favorite belongings?  No. You tell the story through emotion, anecdotes, quotes, and events associatedwith the belonging.  Reflection in this capacity is hard, leaves you feeling very vulnerable, and doesn’t immediately bring joy.  However, it brings deep connection, and that’s a great way to pay tribute.
  5. Ask for help.  People want to help.  People don’t know what to do when you are grieving and they are not.  So, assign them a task and let them help.  It makes them feel better, and it helps you take action rather than sitting in the middle of a mountain of “stuff” wondering where to start.  It may be as simple as them calling around to auction places or junk removal services to check hours, rates, and procedures.  Or maybe helping you find a free dumping location near where they live, so it doesn’t all fall on your shoulders. Whatever it is, assign it to them and literally and figuratively lighten your load a bit.

This is a painfully small glimpse of a big, complicated process, but I hope it gives you some affirmation that however you’re handling a similar journey is okay.  There is no rule you must follow here.  It’s a winding road and uncharted territory for most of us, so please share any tips, affirmations, or mantras you may have used in similar situations.


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