Cleaning the House Pictures
The sound of my cell phone this morning startled me as I was still a bit shaken by the death of my niece following a three-month battle with cancer. I had forgotten that I had agreed to be interviewed by Nancy Comiskey, a journalism lecturer at Indiana University, who is examining how to find "meaning, hope and even joy ten years after losing a child." The project is inspired by her article "Dear Kate" published in Indianapolis Monthly. The story now has more than 52, 000 Facebook shares and was selected as a best essay of 2014 by the editor of Longreads. This year, Reader's Digest has republished it in more than 20 languages in Europe.
As often happens during the interview, I found that there were many things that I had forgotten and other insights that I had gained over the thirty years since my son and his cousin died in a tragic fiery auto crash. We talked about dealing with belongings, cleaning out the bedroom (or as I like to say "repurposing"), keeping reminders, and dealing with pictures. As a result of this interview, and the fact that I am in a grieving space for my niece, I wanted to share a few thoughts.
What About Belongings?
One might say it is only logical that the parents of the deceased have all the say of when, where, and how to deal with their deceased child's personal items. There lies the rub; it is parents, plural, not one person but two people making the decision. Death does not happen in a vacuum. You handle grief the way you live. One person may be a natural hoarder while their spouse may be a neatnik. How do you decide when and where? Compromise, compromise, compromise. Try to slow down decisions. There is no hurry. Your child unfortunately will still be dead tomorrow.
Also what about the siblings, those often forgotten mourners? When our friend Mitch Carmody's twin sister died he saved her purse with all its contents, and gave it to her daughter when she turned sixteen. Mitch told us on our Open to Hope radio show that his niece was thrilled when she opened the purse and found a lipstick and perfume. For some of you this anecdote brings tears to your eyes, while others appreciate the gesture but wonder why someone would keep an old purse? This makes my point we don't all share the same worldview. To complicate matters, the bereaved also have the challenge of dealing with blended families and stepparents. I know one mother who put her baby's unwashed blanket and clothing in a garbage bag with a tight tie so they wouldn't lose her daughter's sweet smell. Kind friends and extended family of course are anxiously awaiting the time when they can empty the bag for a quick wash.
When Do You Clean Or Repurpose The Bedroom?
When out seventeen-year-old son's friends came to the house after his death, I invited them to go in his room and allowed them to take a few items. My three daughters later complained that they wished his room had been as he left it so they could have said goodbye on their own time. I was fortunate that my husband loves organization and was happy to give some reminders to friends. It is not always the case. I have told my daughters that you can't go back in time, but I do see their point and I am sorry that I acted in the haste of the moment. Waiting may not change the outcome, but it can ease the pain of change.
A friend, whose son died three years before Scott, complained to me that her husband refused to change her deceased son's room. His car keys remained on the desk. In looking back and interviewing thousands of bereaved parents I believe that his reluctance may have had something to do with the fact that he was suing the company who manufactured the boat in which his son was killed. Those involved in lawsuits, including Candace Lightner, founder of MADD, say that litigation and promoting legislation can sometimes distract one from doing personal grief work. Wanting to hold onto things may also represent a natural desire for control when so much has changed.