By Thom Dennis, LCPC
Antiques Roadshow is one of my favorite television programs. Viewers watch as antique appraisers travel across the country and spend the day evaluating the trash and treasures that people bring to them. Admittedly, this program does not offer much in the way of gut-busting comedy or high drama, but it does offer one thing: the possibility that you could be rich and not even know it. On the show, it is a regular occurrence for someone to find out that the old lamp they found in grandma’s attic was made by Tiffany & Co. or the appraiser reports that, “On a good day at auction, your father’s baseball card collection could possibly pay for your children’s college education.”
Learning about the history of things is interesting to me, but my favorite part of the program is watching the person’s reaction when the appraiser reveals how much their family heirlooms are worth. Usually the monetary value far exceeds anyone’s wildest expectation, but surprisingly few people express any interest in selling the item! They usually respond, “That’s nice to know, but I wouldn’t dream of selling it.”
When I watch this program I become shockingly unsentimental. I say to myself, “Boy if that were me, I’d only slow down long enough to cash the check on the way to the French Riviera.” However, I imagine that if I were to inherit something from a person I truly loved and respected, I would treasure that thing more than silver or gold.
As a grief counselor, when I listen to family members left with the task of sorting through a loved one’s possessions, I am reminded that the emotional value of a thing usually far exceeds its monetary value. Except for ratty old underwear and socks, most people have a hard time disposing of inexpensive personal items; his razor and toothbrush, her eye glasses or the hairbrush she used every night before she went to bed. These and other small objects vibrate with an energy that can move our emotions in ways that are mysterious and tectonic. Counselors call these things “linking objects,” because they connect us to someone who is no longer present. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they can also engage one of our other senses such as hearing his favorite song or smelling her perfume.
Sometimes I hear of well-intentioned friends and family members who rush in soon after a death and quickly dispose of someone’s personal effects. “No one is gonna want this ratty old sweater, right?” I also hear of deeply grieved individuals directing their helpers to “Get rid of it all.” The pain of seeing something that belonged to the deceased sometimes only deepens the wounds of the heart. When I can, I plant a red flag and caution these folks to consider slowing down. Decisions made in haste can seldom be corrected.
Everyone grieves differently, and some people need to be active. They need to do something, and being assigned the task of sorting through often helps them cope with their grief. However, I encourage individuals and families to take all the time they need to dispose of a loved one’s belongings. Ideally, there should be no timeframe. Usually, medications can and should be disposed of quickly. Durable medical equipment, such as walkers and wheelchairs, are always needed by a local senior center, so most bereaved people are glad to know that someone else will benefit from their use. When it comes to everything else, it is best to follow a few simple guidelines:
This is going to take some work. Extra hands and a strong back are always helpful in situations like these. More importantly, it is essential to engage the help of someone who is willing to listen to your stories, allows you to set the pace and is capable of being present to your tears.
Use a fork, not a pitchfork.
Have you ever heard the old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Divide things up into manageable pieces. It is going to take some time to sort through a lifetime of accumulated stuff. Remember that this is physical and emotional work. Do what you can, and then take a break. Deep breathing and drinking small sips of cool water are simple yet effective tools to calm yourself.
Make three piles.
• The “keep” pile
• The “give-away” pile (to charity, to friends or to family members)
• The “I’ll decide about this later” pile
The last pile may end up in a box in the basement or garage, because sometimes it is just hard to let go of some things. Give yourself time; life is a journey. When you are ready, you will know it. Like the early pioneers, at some point you will realize that you have to leave things by the side of the wagon in order to lighten the load.
The idea that the bereaved must “let go,” in order to successfully “move on,” is outdated and misguided advice. If having a few suits or dresses in the closet brings the bereaved some degree of comfort, let them keep it. If after an extended period of time, nothing has moved or changed, and the house has become a shrine to the deceased, seek out the help of a professional grief counselor. He/she will be able to help you find ways to stay connected as well as re-engage with life.
Different family members grieve in different ways. Each person in the family had a different relationship with the deceased. Because temperament differ, some will be less sentimental about certain items, and in this economy it is possible that someone in the family really needs their inheritance sooner than others. Finally, let’s be honest, sometimes greed is a factor. Patience, sensitivity to other’s feelings and a willingness to enter into dialogue are required. When all else fails, engage the services of an arbitrator. Is that old clock really worth not talking to your sister for the next thirty years?
Sorting through can be draining and time-consuming work, but for those who are willing to do it, there are treasures to be found. The lamp in your grandma’s attic may not have been made by Tiffany and the baseball card collection may not be as valuable as once thought, but every item has a story that may reveal a part of the deceased’s life that you never knew.
Before you throw out that pile of old newspaper clippings, take the time to read them and wonder what made them important enough to the deceased to keep. Before you shred those old check stubs, really take a look at them to learn about what kinds of things were valued. Your perseverance will be rewarded when you come across a drawer full of children’s drawings and twenty years of Mother’s Day cards. More importantly, sorting through all the stuff slowly, methodically, will intentionally allow you to sort through your relationship, as well. It allows you to examine the emotional baggage you carry, and it provides you with a way to decide what you want to get rid of and what you want to keep.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thom Dennis, M. Div., MAPC, LCPC has eighteen years experience accompanying grieving families as a counselor, parish minister and hospital chaplain. He is Bereavement Services Coordinator at NorthShore University Health Systems Home and Hospice Services, Skokie, Illinois. Thom is also the creator of the River Model of Grief, an innovative approach to loss that uses the metaphor of the river to describe the impact of grief over the course of the entire life span. For more information or to contact Thom visit, www.griefriver.com.
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