Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One Possession

After the death of someone we dearly loved, whether it’s a spouse, child, parent, or grandparent, we’re faced with cleaning up and disposing what she or he left behind.

Although there are some possessions we wish they could have taken with them, their possessions are what we physically have left – their coffee cup with the stain, the tools they used for their hobbies, even the scent in their clothes. There are also their ashes, and I will write about that separately.

After Ev died, I wanted to keep everything, even her handwritten notes identifying food in the freezer, and the to-do list on the board, with smiley faces indicating her preference for which tasks we should tackle next. I didn’t want to lose anything that reminded me of her personality, her laughter, or her sense of style.
As the survivor, I became the gate keeper of her life. Some memories I welcomed, others I put off, hoping that they wouldn’t slip away before I was ready to deal with them. I had a recording of her voice on the answering machine, but part of me was afraid to listen, worried that it might drag me back down into death’s hole. To be safe, I recorded a new message on a second channel, but during a power outage several months later I lost her voice.

Not all of her memories had possessions to remind me, like how we would cuddle in bed, the look in her eyes when she woke in the morning, or her hand in mine as we walked around town doing our shopping. I didn’t know what I could do to ensure that I never forgot them.

There came a time, however, when some of these reminders began to get in the way, like the bathrobe on the back of the door. After a year of taking it down every time I took a shower, I felt annoyed that I had to put it back up. Which, of course, I didn’t. It was an old habit that no longer had a purpose, other than keeping her close. I began to realize that I had shifted from living with a real person to living with her shadow. I also realized that if I didn’t get rid of some of her things, I would never be able to reset the house for the living of one, and begin constructing my new life.

Possessions are hard to dispose of because of the emotions involved. Each item tells a story about our loved one that we don’t want to forget.

I began by culling out items I would never use, like her dresses and shoes. Her business clothes were taken to a place that helped low-income women acquire the outfits they needed to interview for good jobs. A few clothes I kept for sentimental reasons, like her ruby red dress. Some I kept because they were tactile, like her nubby black sweater and her silky blue slip. I also kept the round onyx box that held her rings.

Most of her hair care products went, as did her brushes and combs. I had no affinity for the ceramic bells she collected, and checked around to see who might appreciate them. Her teaching supplies were boxed and carted to one of her teaching friends. Photos were taken of what I gave away to remind me in case I make a mistake.

After several months of sorting what I found in drawers and closets, then in boxes in the garage and boxes in the storage shed from our last move, I’d pared, tossed, whittled, pruned, given away, and shared on perpetual loan most of her things. I was down to several boxes that would travel with me wherever I went.

If I eventually get down to one possession, I think it will be something that she never owned.

Shortly after she died, I saw a red alabaster heart in a store that was large enough to fill my hand, and I bought it. Her heart is what I treasure and miss the most — her love for me and her great compassion for anyone who was suffering. This I never want to forget.

Over the years, I’ve also kept one possession of other people I’ve loved to remind me of them. From my grandmother, I saved her letter opener because she loved to write letters, and expected you to write a letter in return, a discipline I honor by getting out pen and paper whenever someone takes the time to write me an actual letter. From my grandfather I kept a deck of worn playing cards. In his years of retirement I imagine him leaning back after a day working with the other apple pickers and playing a few hands before going home. I don’t yet know what I’ll keep from my parents when they die.

These treasured items are only symbols, of course, but symbols can hold the spirit of the people we’ve loved.

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