Deconstructing A Life

So it’s been a couple of days since I’ve last been here. What, you think it’s been more than a couple of days? Really? Maybe you’re right. I’ll have to count on my fingers to check. Sometimes life gets in the way or I get distracted.

My mother in law passed away this past fall at the age of 93 and so we spent the rest of the year going through her home and preparing it for sale. Not an easy task. My father in law passed away twenty-six years ago and so she’s lived in this home for the last sixty years. Up until recently she was able to take care of herself but the last year and a half required some help. Her home was always meticulous, even at the very end. The only problem was, she never threw anything away. I think that’s somewhat common for that generation, who came from a time when everything had value. Nothing was wasted or discarded needlessly. Nothing had a shelf life. It’s something I understand but it didn’t make the process any easier.

We sometimes didn’t know, going through her belongings, what had real value, sentimental or otherwise. Did it have special meaning to her, was it worth something, or was it an item that was given away for free at gas stations back in the day. Some things were obvious, some not so much. And what about the photos of people from so long ago that we didn’t recognize. Did the people in the photo hold special meaning to her? Did they remind her of a special time? What do we do with them now?

And here’s where deconstructing a life comes into the conversation. Here are the decisions we had to make, whether they seem logical or not. We kept quite a few things, as did our children, who wanted remembrances of their grandmother. We donated quite a bit to various charities. We sold a few things. And unfortunately, we ended up tossing some things. For some reason, the photos were sometimes the toughest decisions to make. It seems sacrilegious to throw them out but why keep photos of people we don’t know, and if we do keep them, you just leave it for the next person to deal with when we’re gone.

The whole thing was just so surreal. I’ve known my wife since third grade and have been going to that house for over fifty years. I spent more time there over the years than in the home I grew up in. I knew every corner and almost every story. To take it apart seemed like a violation of her life. Every day another piece was gone, until nothing remained but the shell. Until the home became a house. A property to be sold.

But it seemed even more than that and I’m not sure it’s easily explained. It’s like someone who existed a short time ago, no longer does. Her “stuff” is gone. I understand about the memories we”ll have to hold onto and the items we have to remind us of her life, but there is a big difference between the body and the soul of a person. In certain homes, filled with years of love and memories, I believe the same holds true. Strip away what made it special, and the deconstruction is complete. Emptying that home was like emptying a life. It’s a strange feeling and I’m sure many of you have gone through similar moments over time.

When we were done, I joked with my wife about what our children may think or say when their time comes to do the same thing. What questions they’ll have that may remain unanswered. What photos they’ll find and wonder who those people were. What decisions they’ll have to make and if sentimentality or practicality will be the deciding factor. Probably a little of both.

I just know that a few days after we finished up we started going through our own home. If we can make it a bit easier for our children when the time comes, all the better. I just don’t want to make it too easy. After all, what fun is life without leaving  some mystery and unanswered questions about your parents. I might even plant a few things around just to keep the conversation interesting. I wouldn’t want them to forget us easily.

It’s nice to be back.

 

62 thoughts on “Deconstructing A Life

  1. oldmainer

    It’s nice that you are back. And this post typifies why we have missed you. I have been deconstructing my own home since the loss of my wife a year ago, and I struggle every day trying to put value, be it personal, practical or just sentimental on her “stuff”. Photos are tough. A lot of her ancestors that remain nameless to me appear in old black and white mementos of another generation. But they were her family, her relatives, her memories. I know when I die, they will die with me. No one else will place even the value in them that I do. But that is life. You (I) will take our best shot and that’s as good as it gets I’m afraid.

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    1. George Post author

      Thanks so much, Bob. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you to go through those items and make those decisions each day. Especially when the relatives and memories in some of those photos are not yours. But you are right… we make the decisions we think are best at the time, knowing those items and memories will probably not live past our own lives. Great hearing from you, as always.

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  2. Kate Crimmins

    I did this when my mother passed many years ago. Unfortunately, I transferred far too much stuff to my basement and it took me a long time to let go of things I’d never use but were remembrances of my childhood. The pictures were the hardest. We circulated a box among a few relatives and threw out the ones that no one could identify. Like you, I’ve been simplifying ever since. It’s never easy but my survivors won’t have 50 buckets of old hard paint to get rid of!

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    1. George Post author

      I understand. My wife did the same thing and we brought quite a bit back with us each day we went. But as the emotions ebbed over several months it because a little easier to part with some things. She did the same thing and asked relatives who some of the people in these photos might be but many didn’t know. It’s a difficult process, but a lesson for us moving forward in our own lives.

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  3. Wendy

    I get this completely. It’s tough work, but how do we learn how to leave, except by how our parents leave us? The best lessons I’ve learned in life is how I consider what my children will have do deal with when I go. Then it’s the reconciliation of what my parents were aware of and capable of doing. My whole goal in life, is not to burden my children.

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  4. quiall

    When someone you love dies, there is a hole that is difficult to fill. What is even more difficult, is to go through what they have left behind. We did it for my father and we did it for my mother. It was difficult, it was eye-opening and it was touching. My parents will always be near in my heart and in my memories and in those artefacts I can touch. My heart goes out to you. And I’m glad you’re back.

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you. You’re right, the tangible items that remain are a help and reminder of another time. In some ways, the process, though difficult, is almost therapeutic. It’s all part of grieving.

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  5. Chronicles of a Blogaholic

    So sorry for your loss. Having just done this painful exercise with the recent death of my husband, I can relate with you. Unfortunately, I was in the process of scanning his photo albums for him when he unexpectedly died. I still haven’t been able to finish the photo scanning. Not only because I can’t accurately document each photo, but it’s just too painful of a process. If there is such a thing as a bright side after losing a loved one, it is exactly what you pointed out. Cleaning up your own messy lives in more ways than one. Which helps you and your grieving family.

    For me, after the loss of my husband, I found writing and blogging extremely cathartic.

    Thanks for sharing and welcome back.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. George Post author

      I’m so sorry about the unexpected loss of your husband and can’t imagine how difficult it must be to move through this process. Every day. Going though a parents home is a different kind of tough than doing that same thing with a spouse. Prayers for all of you.

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  6. John W. Howell

    Hi George. I am sorry for your loss and the duty that fell to you and your wife. I like your discussion about deconstructing. I think I have accomplished that and what remains are the few things that mean the most. My kids will have no problems deciding what to do with them. I intend to give them these treasures before I go on. What is really left is my digital life which I have to believe will exist in the ether forever. No one will have to put it in their basement or garage.

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    1. George Post author

      Hi John. I love the idea of passing on your treasures to your children while you are still alive. I’ve begun to think about the same thing. There is a joy to having had some things in your possession for so many years, but I think an even greater joy in passing it along while you are still alive and able to see the happiness it brings to those you love.

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  7. Nancy

    I remember my sisters and I going through the same thing after my mom passed away. There were so many things that we didn’t recognize and couldn’t figure out why she saved them. What I found most interesting was what each of us chose to take with us, what meant the most to us and reminded me the most of her. For me it was some of her older books and photos. One sister chose pieces of jewelery that were not expensive but sentimental and the other chose some of the older Christmas decorations, ones we had when we were kids. We sent my brother a plaque with the family name since he is the last to carry it. Odd the things we hold most dear. I like your idea of leaving some surprises for you children.

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    1. George Post author

      That’s interesting, Nancy, because the same thing happened with all of us. The items we all gravitated toward had more sentimental value than monetary. I remember my aunt had this everyday candy dish I always went to when we visited. There was always something in there and I always told her that was the only thing I wanted. To this day it has a prominent place in our home. It’s my reminder of her and another time.

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  8. murisopsis

    I’ve been through that too. When my grandmother died and when my husband’s grandmother passed. There was so much that had to be sorted and distributed. We all laughed about the collection of margarine containers (some with and some without lids) that took up an entire closet. Every time I see one I think of my grandmother!

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    1. George Post author

      Lol…margarine containers. That’s funny. We had items that fell along the same lines, and we just kept shaking our heads and laughingly as we continued to find them.

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    1. George Post author

      It really is a conundrum because for me, photos are like handwritten notes. Very personal in nature. It’s tough to just toss them out but what else can you do. Sooner or later someone will do it.

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  9. Dale

    George!

    So happy to find you in my inbox. Very sorry for your loss though at 93, it can be considered a life well-ived.

    Stuff. It’s amazing how much of it we can accumulate. I had to clear out my mother-in-law’s apartment and it was not pleasant. Photos are the things that drive me nuts. Even within my own family – people! Write who is who on the back! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you, Dale and you’re so right! Why can’t we just put dates or names on the back to give us some sort of reference or direction to move onto.
      I know you’ve been this and can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you.
      It’s great to hear from you. Hope you are doing well in your new, or not so new now, digs..:)

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  10. Lynn

    Oh George, I can relate to every single word you have written here. We lost both my father-in-law and my mother-in-law within 3 months of each other this past year and went through the same exercise in their home of almost 60 years.

    It is a very difficult & emotional task to sort through the lives of those we love so dearly, determining what to keep, what to gift & what to toss. I remember sitting amongst a whole bunch of stuff on their living room floor one day and saying, “this is just so sad, this is someone’s life, accumulated treasures that meant something to them but has little mean8ng to us.” Pictures are the hardest, again representing a lifetime of relationships & treasured adventures, so hard to dispose of.

    Our children all came through a few times, taking away bits of their grandparents with them, pieces that often had little value, but held meaning to them in some way. I recall the last time my daughter went in, the house was almost empty and when she came through the front door, she literally had a catch in her throat, letting out a sigh as the starkness of the home she spent so much time in as a child, so full of love, took her breath away for a moment.

    It is a lengthy task to get through everything and requires time and patience to complete.

    We too, learned a very valuable lesson through the process. We swore we will not leave this to our children to undertake although I love your idea of planting a few things to have them question🤫😂.

    I am so sorry for your loss, regardless of the longevity of life, they are missed tremendously. I have no doubt you will carry them in your hearts through your own life as time moves forward. Take good care my friend, so lovely to hear from you💕

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. George Post author

      Hi Lynn..it’s so nice to hear from you. I’m so sorry you had such a difficult year. Two losses so close together much have been very difficult.
      So strange, we had the very same reaction as you did surrounded by so much stuff and wondering how this happens. How do you dispose of a lifetime of memories. It was something that had to be done but seemed wrong on another level.
      Like yours, our daughters came through a couple of times and I always smiled at the things they decided to take…things that seemed so inconsequential but in their minds were reminders of their grandmother. And when the house was empty and they came through a final time their reaction was similar to your daughters. So many memories gone.
      Hopefully we can learn from the process though I know some of it will be necessary and in some ways therapeutic.
      I hope you are doing well and 2020 is a much better year. Prayers for all of you.

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  11. Jennifer Kelland Perry

    Condolences on the loss of your mother-in-law, George. We’ve been where you are with the deconstructing, but due to illness Mom made it easier by downsizing from the family home to an apartment several years before she passed. There was a lot less to sift through, yet I know where you’re coming from and it’s never easy.
    Welcome back!

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you, Jennifer. Downsizing probably helped a lot but it sounded like you went through the process twice. I’d probably feel better if we could ask her some questions and know that she made some of these decisions on what to give away and what had value. It’s certainly a lesson.

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  12. Helen Devries

    Very sorry for the loss of your mother in law….a part of your life for so long.
    My mother died last year at 102, but she had taken steps to streamline things while in her nineties, giving away things that she thought friends and family would like. What was left reflected her core and I found it very hard to go through it all.

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you, Helen. The streamlining process probably helped some but I never thought about what you said until I read it. What was left was her core, things that were most special to her. Knowing that had to be terribly difficult. All the best.

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  13. Ann Coleman

    Welcome back, George! I’ve missed you. I’m so sorry about your family’s loss. Losing a mother or mother-in-law is so hard.
    I do know what you mean about how hard it is to go through the house after someone you love dies. We had to do it when my mother-in-law and father-in-law died withing five weeks of each other, and they had lived in that house for over fifty years at the time. Last Fall, we also had to clean out my mom’s house when she chose to move to an apartment in a retirement community. I thought that would be easier since she’s still with us, but it wasn’t. Mom had a huge houseful of stuff, and had a hard time when she realized that some of it was going to have to be given away, and a little of it was even going to be thrown away. Luckily, she’s now quite happy in her new home. But believe me, I understand what you went through!

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you, Ann. Losing two family members so close together must have been terribly difficult on many levels. Cleaning out your moms home while she was offering her own thoughts and opinions had to be tough for both of you. I don’t think throwing things away is part of their thought process or vocabulary.
      It’s always nice to hear from you, Ann. Hope all is well.

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  14. The Coastal Crone

    And happy to find you back in my inbox. Life has gotten in my way also and it was in December when I last posted. Deconstructing a life is a good description of what you had to do. It must have been even harder since you knew the house so well. She was fortunate to have been able to stay there for so long. I try to keep the clutter from growing and have given the kids some things already, but like you I want the kids to have some fun and perhaps some surprises when we are gone. I always told them to look in my books for money. I am sorry for your loss.

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you. Unfortunately, clutter grows quickly when we’re not paying attention and is slow to correct after it’s there. Sort of like gaining and then trying to lose weight🙂
      We are getting better. It still have a ways to go but like the idea of giving things to the kids while we can watch them enjoy the gifts.

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  15. Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

    Good to see you back in the blogger sandbox! You are experiencing what so many of us have gone through. After cleaning out my father’s home (the house I was brought home to from the hospital and subsequently grew up in), my husband and I felt them same need to declutter our home. We don’t have kids, but certainly the burden of clearing our home will fall to someone. What we can get rid of now will not only make our lives easier but will ease the job of someone in the future. And, yes, pictures can be the hardest items to let go (even those whose subjects we no longer know).

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  16. roughwighting

    So good to have you … and your thought-full words … back. Yes, deconstructing a life is hard and sad. Sometimes one feels like “is that all there is?” when a soul is gone and just “stuff” remains. That’s why I follow Henry David thorough‘s words: “simplify, simplify, simplify.” Some people think that their existence is proven by their materialistic goods. I think it is the opposite. I send you compassion and sympathy on the passing of your mother-in-law.

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  17. Ilona Elliott

    It’s such a shock when in the blink of an eye, a loved one goes from a living breathing present human being to an empty shell. I remember feeling it almost violently in the first minutes after my Dad took his last labored breath. There are so many little things we become accustomed to–from the smell of their hair to the tone of their voice over the phone to the way their hand feels when we hold it, and it is all gone, with nothing left when they remove the body, but their earthly belongings. The stories are there in those belongings, but it really does feel like unfinished business to sort through it and not have their input into every little thing.
    I feel for you George. None of this is easy. All of it is nearly universal. I hope it helps to know that we all share your feelings about that uneasy emptiness that takes the place of that very special person. My sympathies to you, your wife and your family. And welcome back.

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you very much. I’ve always struggled with the abruptness of it all, even when it might be expected. You describe it perfectly. We tried on occasion to slowly thin things out but she never liked getting rid of anything so it was difficult.

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  18. Al

    Judging from the number of comments here, George, I would say you have struck a chord for sure. So many of us have been through this. When my mother passed 12 years ago we were under great pressure from the apartment complex where, she lived nearby, to get moved out so they could rent it. We just sent everyday things like clothes, shoes furniture, kitchen stuff etc. to Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity or others. Fortunately, she was an accomplished artist and we have kept much of that because so many of her works were of family members, pets, etc. One has to decide what the important memories are for one’s self.

    Lo and behold, two years later my older brother died. He was also living by himself. We had to go through the whole thing again except two thousand mile away. As his only sibling there was no one else.

    In time, the photographs won’t be as much of a problem for surviving family since mostly they will be electronic and easy to keep/store. But for us “seniors” it’s a different story. Loads of albums and unknown photos to deal with, as you said.

    Good to see you back.

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you and I’m so sorry about you losses. Having the art work from your mom must be a wonderful keepsake and memory to have. Going through your brothers home so far from home and being the only sibling must have been very difficult. So sorry.

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  19. candidkay

    It’s good to have you back! I was worried. I’m glad to hear all is well. The photo bit. Sigh. I am the youngest of six daughters and somehow got saddled with the box of photos from my parents’ basement after they passed on. And I’m feeling the burden. Feels like I’m throwing away parts of their lives . . . but no one left who knows the people in the photos and shares the memories . . .

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    1. George Post author

      Thank you, Kay. How did the youngest get left with all the photos. That’s thought. But you’re so right…it does feel like we were throwing away parts of her. It felt wrong but I suppose it’s part of life.

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  20. Book Club Mom

    First of all, welcome back, George! I always look forward to your posts. This one, especially, hit on everything I’ve been going through. My mother passed away in October at age 94. My father died at 92. They were married 70 years and lived over 60 years in the same house. My siblings and I are in the process of going through everything and your description is exactly like ours. There is too much to keep, so we have decisions to make. Plus, as you say, it feels like a violation. She was just here and he isn’t long gone and now we’re going through their stuff. Very difficult, but it has changed how I view my own things. I like your idea about planting some interesting things around your house for your children to find. Looking forward to your next post.

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