Organizing After Loss

When we lose someone close to us, the last thing we want to think about is what we are going to do with their belongings. However, at some point it is something we need to ...

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When we lose someone close to us, the last thing we want to think about is what we are going to do with their belongings. However, at some point it is something we need to deal with and take care of and the way it is done is as individual as each person and each situation. Some people get rid of things immediately, others wait years and some never do it. Sometimes it will take an event in life to push us to take care of the situation. And if the loved one we lost happened to be an organized person, it can even compound the difficulty of the situation. Melissa had to deal with the last two examples and is sharing her story with us in hopes of helping others in the same situation.

Loss of a Beloved Mother
My mother was a very organized and clean person for as long as I can remember. Her bills nicely packed in a plastic bag she kept in her purse, a filing cabinet filled with every piece of paper she thought may be of value, a closet for her "work" clothes, I could go on for a while describing how she kept everything neat, and could find just about anything at any given moment. I, on the other hand struggle to be as organized and as neat as her, so after she passed I was extremely overwhelmed with the task of going through the house that she and I lived in since I was 6 months old.

Months before she passed, she tried to tell me about things such as insurance policies and the like that I would need to know about, but I didn't want to hear any of it because the reality of it meant that she was dying. Fortunately in my avoiding the conversations I listened as I wasn't paying attention. That said, the most important documents related to the house and her wishes were easily found.

O.K., so now she's gone and I'm left with a huge house full of all this stuff (paper, clothes, things etc.) that I don't know what to do with. I was also left with a great attachment to everything that she touched, and found it very difficult to part with things. I became very sentimental about everything. I'd sit and read through old notebooks that she wrote in, pieces of paper with notes about groceries; I really didn't want to part with anything.

I think I first realized that I needed to address getting the house organized as I began to move myself into the main part of the house. As friends and family stopped by to see how I was, I felt utterly embarrassed about the mess that I had created. Thoughts of "my mother cursing me" for the mess that the house was in continuously ran through my head, but I really didn't know where to begin, and often walked in circles trying to figure out where I should start.

The easiest place for me to begin was in the bedroom that once was hers, and that I would now occupy. I found myself running endless laps from my closet two stories down to my bedroom, two stories above. I went to the store, and began accumulating clothes because I just couldn't find anything, and rather that get the closet organized I decided it was easier to purchase a new wardrobe. One day in and emotional mess I took all the clothes out of her walk in closet and crammed them into another bedroom closet, and slowly over about two weeks moved my clothes into the closet. That was one of the hardest things I had to do.

As a child I remember sitting on the floor in her closet amazed at all the pretty clothes she had, and never imagined that one day it would not be filled with her things. There are things very sentimental to me that I have yet to remove from dresser draws and in all honesty I'm not too sure if I will ever move them.

After I worked on the closet, I began to run myself in circles again not knowing where to begin because the rest of the house was, and still is, in a mess by my mothers standards. The emotional stress of all of this is extremely draining. I often began to work in one room, and would stop and distract myself with another task. So, at any given time there are a few piles of paper, clothes that appear to have to a purpose . . . . Completing each task represents some finality to mom's life. I think subconsciously I don't want to deal with it, so for an emotional break I change the task I'm working on. I have thoughts of "if she were still here I wouldn't have to be doing this" and I find it very difficult to focus on one task when it comes to her things. Only recently have I really gotten to throw anything out simply because I'm selling the house, and can't lug all this stuff from New York to Florida.

A friend of mine that lost his mother a few years ago said to me one day that I needed to get a grip on what I was doing, and realize that my mother's things were not her, and keeping her stuff wasn't going to bring her back. This hasn't made it any easier for me to get through things, but it helps me at times to really put things in perspective. The clutter in the house isn't helping my mental clutter, and my mental clutter may not go away until I fell that my home is in order. My mom will never be here again with me, but I have my memories, which I can reflect on with a few items that are special.

Helping Melissa Get Organized
When I first met Melissa and looked over her home, I did not get the impression that she was disorganized or incapable of being organized. She was intelligent, successful and knew the direction she was headed. She just needed some help getting there. It was obvious her disorganization was caused by the recent events in her life, which is a very common denominator. Sometimes life just happens and certain things fall by the wayside.

As we went room by room and she described the issues she was having, I could hear the emotional strain the whole situation was taking on her. Melissa's major hurdle was dealing with all of the emotional issues attached to her mother's possessions. I completely understood what she was feeling. How difficult it must be to make decisions about her mother's belongings and worrying if she was making the right decisions. A simple discussion regarding the state of her master bedroom closet opened up a lot of memories. Even bed sheets had special meaning to her and brought back wonderful memories of her mother. On top of that, she had to battle with her mother's organizing talents. As mentioned before, each situation is different and each person will handle their situation differently. How does someone in this situation figure out what should be kept and what should be given away?

I think the most important thing, and first step is making sure you are ready to take care of the matter at hand. There is nothing wrong with waiting until the time is right for you to take care of organizing after losing someone that is close to you. If you do it any sooner, it may cause later regret, if you end up getting rid of things in haste.

Since Melissa was ready, willing and able, I suggested she start her project one room at a time. When an entire house needs to be organized, it is easy to get overwhelmed. It is only natural for people to think of the entire task at hand and get frustrated or feel overwhelmed or even give up before trying. When living there, it is hard to get away from the daily reminder that your home needs to be organized.

I also told Melissa that she should be easy on herself as she began organizing. Many people try or expect to get the job done in an unreasonable amount of time. Or they try to do too much at once. Starting slowly, even as little as 1/2 hour a day, will show results soon enough. Once you see results, it will motivate you to do more and more until you are finished. If you put too much pressure on yourself or set unrealistic goals, you will give up on the project.

Melissa was fortunate enough to have a spare bedroom that she could use to move items into while she organized the rest of the house. I suggested she start with the bedroom, since that was the room that she was using most and it would alleviate stress to have that room organized first. I explained that she should go through each item in the room and decide if it should stay in that room or not. And if not, it should be moved out of the room into the area where it would be located in the future. In the spare bedroom she began making piles of things to donate to charity, things to throw away and things that she would keep but would go into storage. This would give her a clear view of where things were going instead of just moving them into undesignated piles.

There are ways you can organize the items from your passed loved one, without getting rid of everything. You can hold on to the sentimental items that mean something to you and store them so that they are not taking up space you may need in your home but at the same time you are not getting rid of the memories that are so special to you. And maybe as you go through these things time and again, you may find yourself freeing yourself of more and more possessions over time. The first step is finding the space for these items. Then finding proper storage containers and labeling everything for easy access for times when you feel like reminiscing. Be sure to take into consideration proper storage of delicate or valuable items. Any store that specializes in containers should be able to aid you with any questions you may have regarding the proper storage choices. There are also websites that deal with archival materials and have special packing to preserve valuable items.

The Psychology of Grieving
Many of us are familiar with some of the stages of grief which include, Denial, Anger, Guilt, Bargaining, Replacement, Idealization, Depression, Anxiety and Acceptance.

Aside from these typical stages, there is a stage known as Reorganization, which generally occurs 18 - 24 months after the loss--the amount of time it takes to stabilize after a major change. The feelings associated with this stage may include sense of release, no longer obsessed by loss, renewed hope and optimism. Behaviors may include renewed energy, stable sleeping and eating habits, relief from physical symptoms, better judgment making, and increased interest in goals for the future.

When a person reaches this stage, they will most likely be ready and more prepared for the task of organizing. Once again, keep in mind that everyone grieves differently. If you reach this stage before 18 months or after 24 months, you need to go according to your individual timetable.

Preparing for Loss
Just as we don't like to think about organizing possessions of a lost love one, we also do not like to think of our own demise and what we will ultimately leave behind. However, taking the time now will make things much easier on those that we leave behind, when it comes to the most important issues. Just like in any organizing situation, planning ahead is the key to alleviating stress in the future.

Make sure that your important paper work is in order and that someone knows where to find it. The following are the most important issues that should be dealt with and spoken about with a responsible party:

 Writing a will and letting the executor of your estate needs to know where your will is located.
 A record of all of your personal information
 If you have a safe deposit box, its location and the location of the keys. It is also a good idea to keep all of your important papers in the safe deposit box.
 Bank account information
 Insurance policy information
 Securities information
 Birth certificate
 Children's birth certificates
 Marriage certificate
 Real Estate deeds
 Mortgages and Notes
 Income Tax Records
 Military Discharge Papers
 Automobile Registrations
 Valuables such as jewelry, antiques and artwork
 Benefit entitlements for Social Security, Pension, Life Insurance, etc.

A detailed pamphlet referencing all you need to get in order can be found at your local funeral home.

Another important thing to consider is how your household functions. Do you pay the bills and your husband handles the investments? Does your husband take care of the children's after school activity schedules while you manage household matters? All of these things need to be discussed and shared. So many people find themselves in a situation when they lose a spouse and have no idea how they handled the things they were responsible for in every day life. Learning each other's roles in the household and knowing where all important papers are located is something every couple should discuss.

And as far as personal belongings, you might want to leave certain things to certain people and you should include that in your will. The more decisions you make now regarding what should happen to your possessions, the easier it will be on everyone else in the long run.

Planning ahead is the best gift you can give to those you leave behind and getting things organized in your home and life will be a great help to them as well. And if you find the task too daunting or overwhelming, ask for help. Whether a friend or a professional or a spouse; it will make the task seem more pleasant. And the sooner you get this task done, the sooner you will not have to think about it anymore!