On Death and Dying: It Takes Time! Learning to Let Go

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I received a call recently from my friend, Debbie. The purpose of the call was to wish me a happy birthday, but the call morphed into a discussion of love, loss, and moving forward.

    First a little background - Debbie and I became friends more than 25 years ago when we discovered similar passions in movies, books, the arts, travel, and one particular exercise class that we both attended regularly. We stayed in touch after I moved, and even were part of the same book group for several years.

    In the 1990s, Debbie increasingly became the caregiver for both of her parents. (I wrote a sharepost about how Debbie served as one of my caregiving mentors who helped me be proactive in caring for Mom.) An accountant by training, she organized her frail parents’ care as the family decided to keep both parents at home instead of placing them in a nursing home. Debbie lived at home with her aging parents and took care of the bills, scheduling the in-home caregivers while regularly taking one of caregiving assignments herself (so she knew what to do and also could evaluate the staff), and keeping her brothers and sister informed of all health issues.

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    Debbie’s mother passed away first; her father continued to live for several years afterwards. When Debbie’s dad eventually died, Debbie worked with her siblings to deal with her parents’ possessions and sell the family home. She moved to a place in the country where she started putting her life back on track, but that also meant going through lots of stuff that had accumulated when she was swamped with caregiving.

    So let’s fast forward to this week’s phone call. Debbie has gotten rid of a lot of the left-over “stuff” that had accumulated during her long caregiving experience. However, her father (a decorated Army general) had subscribed to one magazine on guns. Debbie wasn’t interested in the magazine’s topic, so she offered the copies to one brother who often hunts. He wasn’t interested either, but instead of cancelling the subscription, Debbie let the back issues stack up.

    Recently, Debbie finally made the call to cancel her dad’s subscription. “After I hung up the phone, I found I was so sad,” she told me. That statement led our conversation to a new topic - how some remnants of a loved one’s life that seem so mundane can cause such emotional reactions when we try to remove that item from our lives, even after the loved one has been gone for many years.

    I told Debbie that I was experiencing the same thing myself since I finally have been going through Mom’s clothes. Mom, who co-owned fabric stores with my dad, loved to sew so she often made her own clothes. I find that certain pieces of clothes (especially those that she made or often wore) were the emotional equivalent of TNT and had to be dealt with gingerly. That process took time.


    From 2006 to 2009, the plastic boxes of her clothes remained in my garage, even after her death in 2007. Then over the winter holidays, I had the time -- and the emotional reserve -- to start going through them. The clothing items that were mundane (t-shirts, sweat suits, etc.) that I wouldn’t wear went to Goodwill. That part was easy.


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    Then I reached the plastic tubs holding Mom’s professional clothes, many of which she made. After much soul-searching (and trying on her clothes to see what fit me), I decided to give these clothes to Dress for Success, which helps women receive appropriate outfits before their first professional job interview. Part of the reason that I was able to move forward in getting rid of these clothes is because I knew Mom would wholeheartedly approve of that non-profit’s mission. And I did keep a few clothes, like Mom’s favorite blouse that she had had since the 1950s, that I can wear and so I can remember her.

    Letting go of a deceased loved one’s possessions takes time and emotional stamina. Eventually, you become ready to make these decisions and to move forward. Rehashing a previous discussion, Debbie and I agreed that sometimes you need to get rid of the old stuff (thoughts, habits, perspectives, and stuff) that you’ve outgrown in order to open up room in your life for new beginnings to start sprouting. I found that once I was able to emotionally let go of Mom’s stuff, I felt sad for awhile, but also lighter. Debbie said she was starting to experience that feeling too, now that she stopped to think about it. With only our deceased loved one’s memory and a few carefully selected personal items in tow, both Debbie and I are making the necessary room to see where life starts taking us.

Published On: April 01, 2010