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A Tale of Two Homes

As I have watched Karen and Christy take on the process of cleaning out their parent’s home, I am reminded of my own experiences. First with my Dad’s house, then, more recently, with my mother-in-law Doris’ home. It is staggering how much stuff we accumulate in a lifetime, and my Dad and mother-in-law were no different in that regard.

Dad’s House

My father lived in his home until the end of his life. Cleaning out stuff wasn’t easy for him, and things were organized in neat piles. Large stacks of magazines, shoes neatly in a row. When I think about this, I am uncomfortable about my own “stuff”. We made small attempts at cleaning out the clutter. My sister Adrienne would grab a stack of magazines and stuff it into her tote to dispose of offsite. (There were enough magazines to open our own newsstand.  In the early stages of dementia my father was convinced that he would win the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes… as long as he bought lots of magazines). No matter what we did the stacks would return.

As Dad’s health declined, the focus changed from the “stuff” to more important things. Hiring live-in caregivers, doctor’s appointments, the dissolution of our family as I knew it. I haven’t gotten into the dysfunction of our family, but it was epic. Lots of emotional manipulation, questionable legal stuff, and everyone pretending it wasn’t as bad as it was. Clearly, the “stuff” would have to wait.

Cleaning out the House By Proxy

And it did wait, until our father’s death. Dad died in late August, we closed on his house by Halloween. We planned a memorial service for my dad and argued over the disposition of our parents cremated remains. Since we were barely on speaking terms at this point, cleaning out the house ourselves was out of the question. Our realtor recommended a service that would empty the house.

We removed the items we wanted, the service went through the house and gave us a price to completely empty the house of its contents – $3000, which I thought was an incredible bargain. A dumpster appeared in the driveway. Truckloads of furniture and other items to be sold were removed (the proceeds of the sale going to the clean out service). A lifetime of stuff disappeared in less than a week.

Doris’ House – Moving to Assisted Living

My mother-in-law Doris has been living in a long-term care facility for over 6 years. Her physical decline was swift. After a serious of small strokes, Doris was no longer able to live independently. There was a short stint with a live-in caregiver (the one who showed up to the interview with a suitcase in hand). She fired the caregiver as her health improved. Ultimately, the decision was made to move her into assisted living.

With the extended family scattered, the big clean out was scheduled for (basically) one weekend. A large dumpster was procured and we basically threw out a lifetime of stuff. We gave away a lot of the furniture to family, friends, and acquaintances, the only terms were that it had to be removed, pronto. We all struggled with what to keep, what was sentimental, but this wasn’t our home and these weren’t our things.

Losing Control of Our Stuff

Doris knew about the big clean out. She had asked to be there, but we all knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. She wanted her wedding dress, which we found in a trash bag in her closet. The dress was delivered to her in assisted living. Now that she is in a nursing home with extremely limited storage options, I am not sure what happened to the dress. When we visit, she often brings up her possessions (including the dress), asks if we know about this item or that. That is her lingering trauma of losing control of her life and having her home of almost 60 years emptied out without her.

It took my husband a while to get over the trauma of that clean out. He spent several weeks throwing away things in our home, saying I don’t want our son to have to do for us what we just did for my mom. He’s right, and more of the stuff in our house is mine, not his. I have read The Magical Art of Tidying Up. I haven’t tackled Swedish Death Cleaning yet. I have a busy, full life and the weeks and months (years) fly by with little progress made on getting rid of my stuff. Fast forward 30 years and our son could be left with the task of cleaning out our lifetime of stuff.

Our parents taught us so much. They were our first examples of how to be adults. As I often tell my clients from deeply troubled families, our parents can teach us how to be, or how not to be, both lessons can be equally valuable. I think it’s time for me to tackle my stuff. I’ll let you know how I do.