Dealing with a loved one’s things after their death

 

Wohnungsauflösung

I confess. I am attached to my material possessions. It’s very important to me that I live in a beautiful environment and that means being surrounded by beautiful things. I have had the good fortune to inherit lovely things from my deceased in-laws. Their various art collections grace my walls and I enjoy them. But actually, at this stage in my life I would prefer to live more simply in a small, uncluttered home where I don’t need an alarm system to provide peace of mind that my beautiful things will be forever guarded and safe.

Now that my mother has passed away I have more beautiful things. But this time around, as I weathered the storms of her many health crises I was able to think about the things I would like to keep and visualize what it would actually be like to clear out her apartment. I contemplated the reality of having to face the thankless task of going through her top drawer and disposing of her most intimate things: eye glasses, hearing aids, medications, bras, and underwear. I think this exercise helped me to get through the actual tasks required after she died.

Creating a safe space for family

I invited my adult children, my brother’s wife and their daughters, my mother’s sister and husband, and a few cousins to my mother’s apartment the day after she was buried. Since everyone lived at least a thousand miles away, the “farewell party” had to be expedient. Most people were flying home that afternoon.

I asked everyone to browse through the things I had laid out on the couch and the many items, including a collection of paper weight and Lladro figurines, that were displayed in two large glass showcases. Next, we took turns choosing what we would like to take home as a remembrance of our mother, sister, grandmother, and cousin. It worked beautifully because my mother’s family happens to be one of the most “normal” families I know. No one fights, everyone gets a long–usually. And that’s how it went without petty arguing or bickering.

But my mother had a will in which she specifically indicated that I, the only daughter, was to inherit her jewelry. A couple of years before she passed, we went through her jewelry together and picked out pieces for her granddaughters and daughter-in-law. And then I found four small pinky size rings with various precious stones that were perfect for her four little great granddaughters. The will made this task easy.

Many years ago, when my mother-in-law died it wasn’t as easy. One family member got greedy which led to some bitter feelings. The key is to make a plan ahead of time. Encourage your loved ones to designate in a will who they want to inherit valuable and sentimental items.

10 tips for making a difficult, emotional process a little easier

  • Consider how much time you have. Do you need to vacate the apartment or house in one week or one year? Personally, I am glad that I had a time limit of one week. Even though the job was exhausting, I’m glad to have it behind me. Dragging it out month after month would seem to me to be even more exhausting, both physically and emotionally.
  • Get help! My aunt, her daughter and my partner, who stayed with me for the entire week, helped tremendously. I could not have done it without them. After everyone pulled out the items they wanted, it was easy for my helpers to go through things and determine if they could be sold or if they should be donated.
  • Find a non-profit agency such as Goodwill to pick up a truckload of furniture. I was shocked when several very nice pieces of furniture were rejected because of a stain or slight crack. These non-profit groups have become very picky, so be sure to ask on the phone if they will accept imperfect furniture pieces. Set a time for pick-up and ask if the items need to be disassembled before pick-up.
  • Bring miscellaneous items such as pots and pans, dishes, books directly to a non-profit organization in order to clear the space for when the bigger items are picked up, if you have the time and energy.
  • Nursing homes and continuum care facilities sometimes have a “store” on the premises that accepts used items. They often are eager to accept artwork and medical supplies such as wheel chairs, walkers, commodes, etc. If not, give these to someone in need. You might even find a neighbor on the same floor as where your loved one lived.
  • Take photos of photos to save money and space. My parents kept dozens of photo albums from their many trips. I shipped home some albums that included family life cycle events and gatherings. My brother, however, wanted all the travel albums. Instead of spending a fortune on shipping heavy albums, I removed the photos and put them in shoe boxes. My daughter took photos of the special family photos to archive.
  • Keep important papers: insurance policies, birth certificates, car titles, etc.
  • Don’t stop and read every letter or card that you ever sent your loved one. Box them up and bring them home to read when you aren’t as emotional.
  • Do not flush medications down the toilet! They get into the water supply. Boulder County’s website says: Pour liquid medications over cat litter or other absorbent material, and seal it in a plastic bag before placing it in the trash. Fill pill containers with household glue, remove all personal information from the container, and place it in the trash after the glue has dried. Cut trans-dermal patches into small strips, place them in a container, and add glue or mix them with coffee grounds or used cat litter. In some areas, you can bring medications to the fire or police station.
  • Don’t feel guilty about getting rid of stuff. The objects meant a lot to your loved one. But your memories are not contained in the favorite necklace your dad gave to your mom. Your dad’s favorite golf clubs that he won several trophies with don’t hold the same meaning for you. Your spouse’s slippers are old and ratty and it’s time to get rid of them. As we reminisce and go through our loved one’s material possessions, it is a good time to start downsizing our household and to think about our own mortality and how we want to live the rest of our life. The memories of celebrating your loved one’s life will always be held close to your heart. As you go through their items, remember the saying “You can’t take it with you.” It might just help, at least a little.

“Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on AmazonBarbraCohn__

What special item will you keep when your loved one dies?

Green shirt with long sleeves

Of course, I kept the recipe boxes that contain the directions for the foods my mother loved and made for us: noodle kugel, apple pie, Mandelbrot, eggplant Parmesan, and sour cream coffee cake. When I look at her handwritten recipe cards I can almost feel her gentle touch. What is it about someone’s handwriting that seems to reach out and explain exactly how they feel at the moment they wrote the line? If the curve of a letter such as B or C swings too far to the right the person is said to be very generous. If the letters are straight and stiff and lean toward the left, the person is supposedly self-centered. My mother’s handwriting speaks to me of kindness and femininity and I find myself luxuriating in her handwritten notes until my eyes well up with longing for her or even for just a taste of her eggplant or the banging of her pots in the kitchen.

When I was clearing out my mother’s apartment this past August, a mint green, cotton button-down shirt with three-quarter length sleeves begged me to take it home. It looks like my mother in her younger years when she was passionately interested in health matters. Mom was one of the first New Age people to juice carrots, eat granola and take nutritional supplements, and she was overly interested in her friends’ and family member’s health issues. It made perfect sense. She loved the color green, the color associated with health. And green perfectly highlighted her green cat eyes, dark brown hair, and fair complexion.

The cotton green shirt is crumpled now. It rests in the ironing basket where it will stay until I’m able to caress it, iron the wrinkles out, and hang it in a place where I can look at it without weeping for my mother. The green shirt will hide in the bottom of the basket under clothes eager to be worn, until I am ready to wrap myself in it and feel comfort, not the grief that accompanies the inexplicable feeling that a daughter feels when she has lost her first friend, her best cheerleader, and her devoted goddess who implored the moon and stars to enchant her girl’s life. When I finally iron the green shirt, it will hang limply reminding me of the voice that I can hear as clearly as if my mother were standing next to me, reminding me of who I am and where I came from.


“Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on AmazonBarbraCohn__

12 ways to ensure end of life peace for our loved ones and ourselves

White Bird in Clouds

A couple of years ago, Mom and I talked about facing the end of her life. I asked her if she had a good life and she said, “yes.” I asked her if she had regrets and she said, “yes.” But she didn’t want to talk about that. I told her I would do my best to be with her at the time of her passing. I was, and I am thankful that I fulfilled my mother’s wish and my promise to her.

Just two weeks ago my beloved mother passed away from pneumonia. Pneumonia has traditionally been called “the old man’s friend” because a frail elderly person typically loses consciousness and passes fairly easily in sleep. Although it was not easy watching my mother drown in her own fluid, she appeared to not be in pain. Her breathing was labored for hours, and then she sank into a state of peaceful acceptance as her last breaths came in whispers until the last tiniest breath sealed the finality of her life. 

I’m relieved that I had made the funeral arrangements with my brother a year ago. At least I didn’t have to deal with that on the day that the earth stopped spinning and I forgot to drink water as I faced a new reality of living in a world without a mother. I am also relieved that I made arrangements with Chevre Kadisha, the Jewish Sacred Burial Society. Many religions have complex codes of conduct for survivors and very specific rituals and customs that have been carried out for centuries. Harvey Lutske writes in The Book of Jewish Customs that the practices and customs rabbis established for survivors to observe following the death of a loved one help the survivors “cope with their loss, continue with their lives, recover emotionally, pay respect to the dead, and perpetuate the memories of those who have gone before us.”

Final gift of love

My mother’s body was lovingly washed by a group of women in a ritual called Taharah. This cleansing requires several people because the entire body must be washed and moved from side to side in a specific way according to Jewish law. Afterwards, a huge amount of water is poured over the body and passages are read from the Song of Songs. The people performing the Taharah ask for forgiveness in case they performed some indignity. The body is then dressed in a cotton or linen shroud and put into an unadorned, pine coffin. Typically, someone sits with the body or “met” until internment. This is called sitting Shimira, and it is often done in two-hour shifts around the clock. The person reads psalms or prayers silently or out loud, or meditates while a candle burns continuously at the head of the coffin.

Buddhists also incorporate a cleansing of the body and a vigil into their mourning ritual. Families are often invited to wash the body of their deceased loved one. Washing a corpse enables you to become intimate with death in a way no other thing does. It’s hard work, but it’s an important way to honor the dead, said one Buddhist minister.

Death is the great equalizer

To the question, “What is the value of death?” the Jewish rabbis answered, “If nothing ever died, we, the human race, would not learn how to value time. Life’s finiteness is earmarked, and ended, by death. And learning to face death may be life’s greatest challenge.”

As hard as it is, we can take control and manage the death and dying of our loved ones. We can do things that make sense to us and provide us with comfort. Kim Mooney, the Board President of Conversations on Death, and Director of Community Education for Tru Community Care, Colorado’s first hospice, says, “The more you’re involved in the death and grieving process, the more we’re able to be in touch with that innate place in ourselves that tells us how to live. It’s the fear of death that makes us live. And it’s the terror of death that makes us run from the experiences that will teach us.”

As painful as it is,’ says Mooney, grief work and dealing with the death of a loved one guides how you’re going to live your own life. “We’ve skewed our relationship to death in this society,” she says, “but we can’t walk away from it. If you don’t do the work around it, you will somehow diminish the quality of your life. Grieving is a life-long process. Our lives are a series of gains and losses. Learning how to grieve, and incorporating a loss and moving on is critical to being able to become a mature, spiritual person because it implies an acceptance of what life is.”

I am an expert at grieving because of my significant losses. But this time will be different because I lost my mother, my primary connection to the world. This time is especially profound because no one can replace a mother. It will take time before I don’t have the thought to call her, to check in with her, to make sure she is okay. And even though I have children and grandchildren, I will always ponder the profoundly unique love that binds a mother and child in remembering my own sacred relationship with my mother.

In listening to the sweet words and stories that so many people told me after learning of my mother’s passing, I am reminded that it is how we make people feel—not what we accomplished—that is what we remember about a person. Death once again serves as a teacher to remind me that we are here temporarily, and that as my teacher loved to say, “Do not trust the time. Life is short, make it sweet.”

These personalized rituals can provide comfort and ease the intense pain that accompanies death, dying and grieving:

  1. Have a heart-to-heart talk with your loved ones before they get too ill. The Five Wishes is an easy-to-read end-of-life document that helps makes the difficult discussion about what you would like your end of life to look like.
  2. Hospice is a free palliative service offered by Medicare/Medicaid that supports the dying patient as well as the family
  3. Play music that the dying person loves, sing hymns, chant, etc.
  4. Dress and wash the deceased and dress the body in a white linen shroud
  5. Muslims typically share their prayers with the person who is dying before encouraging the dying person, if possible, to say or listen to the words, “I bear witness that (there is) no god except Allah; One is He, no partner hath He, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger. Once the person has passed away, the next step is to perform the ghusl, (similar to the Jewish taharah) or the washing of the deceased’s person body. The ghusl can can be done by most adult family members of the same sex as the deceased. After the body is washed, it is then enshrouded, typically in plain, white cloth.
  6. Have a meaningful farewell service
  7. Honor the loved one at different times during the year
  8. Build memory books
  9. Finish what the deceased person didn’t
  10. Write letters to the deceased and writing them back to yourself
  11. Donate a toy for the age of a baby or child who died to “Toys for Tots
  12. Write a life story

 

End of life rituals: A final gift of love

faith in handsWaiting for someone to die is like waiting for a new baby to be born. And I’m waiting. . . waiting for my mom to pass. My daughter gave birth last month. . .so I waited anxiously to greet the newborn babe. I was anxious because any number of things can go wrong during a birth. I cried with relief after my daughter pushed out her perfect baby, who entered the world with the wail we expect and cheer.

Now I’m crying because I’m losing my mother, a little bit each day. As her energy fades, her mind fogs over, and her physical form diminishes, I hold onto the last thread of communication that we have. “I love you, Mom.” I tell her over and over again. She hears me, but she doesn’t hear much else because she is severely hearing impaired . . . and her cognition is fading.

A couple of years ago, Mom and I talked about facing the end of her life. I asked her if she had a good life, and she said, “yes.” I asked her if she had regrets, and she said, “yes.” But she didn’t want to talk about that. I told her I would do my best to be with her at the time of her passing. And now I am preparing to go sit by her side and wait until the last breath escapes her lips.

I’m relieved that my brother and I already made the funeral arrangements. At least we won’t have to deal with that when the time comes. I am also relieved that I made arrangements with Chevre Kadisha, the Jewish Sacred Burial Society. Many religions have complex codes of conduct for survivors and very specific rituals and customs that have been carried out for centuries. Harvey Lutske writes in The Book of Jewish Customs that the practices and customs rabbis established for survivors to observe following the death of a loved one help the survivors “cope with their loss, continue with their lives, recover emotionally, pay respect to the dead, and perpetuate the memories of those who have gone before us.”

Final gift of love

My mother’s body will be lovingly washed by a group of women in a ritual called Taharah. This cleansing requires several people because the entire body must be washed and moved from side to side in a specific way according to Jewish law. Afterwards, a huge amount of water is poured over the body and passages are read from the Song of Songs. The people performing the Taharah ask for forgiveness in case they performed some indignity. The body is then dressed in a cotton or linen shroud and put into an unadorned, pine coffin. Typically, someone sits with the body or “met” until internment. This is called sitting Shimira, and it is often done in two-hour shifts around the clock. The person reads psalms or prayers silently or out loud, or meditates while a candle burns continuously at the head of the coffin.

Buddhists also incorporate a cleansing of the body and a vigil into their mourning ritual. Families are often invited to wash the body of their deceased loved one. Washing a corpse enables you to become intimate with death in a way no other thing does. It’s hard work, but it’s an important way to honor the dead, said one Buddhist minister.

Death is the great equalizer

To the question, “What is the value of death?” the Jewish rabbis answered, “If nothing ever died, we, the human race, would not learn how to value time. Life’s finiteness is earmarked, and ended, by death. And learning to face death may be life’s greatest challenge.”

As hard as it is, we can take control and manage the death and dying of our loved ones. We can do things that make sense to us and provide us with comfort. Kim Mooney, the Board President of Conversations on Death, and Director of Community Education for Tru Community Care, Colorado’s first hospice, says, “The more you’re involved in the death and grieving process, the more we’re able to be in touch with that innate place in ourselves that tells us how to live. It’s the fear of death that makes us live. And it’s the terror of death that makes us run from the experiences that will teach us.”

As painful as it is,’ says Mooney, grief work and dealing with the death of a loved one guides how you’re going to live your own life. “We’ve skewed our relationship to death in this society,” she says, “but we can’t walk away from it. If you don’t do the work around it, you will somehow diminish the quality of your life. Grieving is a life-long process. Our lives are a series of gains and losses. Learning how to grieve, and incorporating a loss and moving on is critical to being able to become a mature, spiritual person because it implies an acceptance of what life is.”

I am an expert at grieving because of my many significant losses. But this time will be different because I’m losing my mother, my primary connection to the world. This time it  will be especially painful and profound, and I’m a little scared about facing the final letting go of having a mother and how it will affect me. But death will once again serve as a teacher to remind me that we are here temporarily, and that as my teacher loved to say, “Do not trust the time. Life is short, make it sweet.”

These personalized rituals can provide comfort and ease the intense pain that accompanies grieving:

  • Dressing and washing the deceased
  • Having a meaningful farewell service
  • Honoring the loved one at different times during the year
  • Building memory books
  • Finishing what they didn’t
  • Writing letters to the deceased and writing them back to yourself
  • Donating a toy for the age of a baby or child who died to “Toys for Tots”
  • Deciding what to do with your wedding ring after the death of a spouse
  • Writing a life story

*Segments of this post were originally published in an article I wrote called “Caring for our own at death.” It appeared in the defunct “Nexus : Colorado’s Holistic Journal” (Nov/Dec 1991).