As Joni Mitchell sang long ago, we can never stop the seasons from going round and round because we are truly captive on a carousel of time pretty much throughout our lives.
And we definitely cannot return to the past.
I mean we can through our memories, but physically we have no choice but to keep moving forward day by day with the ability to, of course, look behind from where we came in the circle game we call life until the day we die.
Last May I was hired to help declutter and organize a woman's home that was one of the most heartwarming experiences I have had as a professional organizer and, of course, I wrote a blog about it. If you haven't read it previously, I think it is worthwhile but here's the Reader's Digest version...
The woman was a caregiver to another woman with Downs Syndrome and things had gotten really out of control during the pandemic. It was a huge project that we were able to do during the course of the week right after Mother's Day while both women were away. Upon their return, we had a big reveal and everyone cried with lots of "ay Dios mios" interjected.
I found a small framed quote, "Life takes you to unexpected places; love always brings you home", on the last day we were scheduled to be at the house and made it the centerpiece of the somewhat impromptu Welcome Home sign I made...
I never imagined how truly significant it would become months later.
I tried to follow up as I always do to make sure things are being maintained and contained but never heard from the caregiver directly. I did, though, hear from the sister of the woman with Down's Syndrome a few weeks later and she told me everything was really going well. I told her to please keep in touch and let me know if she needed any additional help.
Fast forward to this past week and I received a call from the caregiver's son letting me know his mother had actually passed away over the summer. While I was aware that she had been having heart issues I guess we never want to hear that someone succumbs to any medical problems especially before an age we typically consider as "end of life".
I felt such a deep sense of sadness for the son who in the brief number of times I saw him interact with his mother I knew how devoted he was to her and how difficult it must have been to lose her so suddenly. He wasn't prepared but then again, none of us are ever really prepared to lose a loved one. It happens and then we have to deal with all of the "stuff" left behind including copious amounts of personal belongings.
In this particular case, though, a lot of the belongings we had removed from the house during the big purge in the spring and staged it all at the son's house so his mother could go through the bags and boxes one by one with the end goal being she would get rid of at least 75% of it all. According to her son, she did make it through about 25%. What she hadn't gotten to he ultimately decided to just bring back to her home since he was moving there instead of selling it and thought there might be household items he would actually want to keep.
So he needed help.
He was overwhelmed.
And he simply didn't know where to begin to get the house back to where we left it not 5 months ago.
Once I heard the desperation in his voice I knew that I would do whatever was necessary to accommodate his schedule and get #TeamIJS there with me this past Wednesday. He said it would probably take more than one day and I asked him to send me some photos so I could get some sense of what my team and I would encounter when we arrived. The photos definitely told the story of grief and I honestly thought it was going to be much worse but he really wasn't attached to 95% of the stuff. He just needed the typical fresh set of eyes, ears, and hands that all professional organizers should bring to any project.
This is what a fresh pair of eyes encountered...
Trust me, I have seen much worse than this but it definitely was not how we left it in May.
That said, it took all of 4 hours and about 6 carloads of stuff to a nearby donation center for us to get the house back in shape and left him with essentially one large but not insurmountable pile to go through along with a lot of laundry.
So two of the four areas in the photo below may look like we did nothing but I promise there was some strategy to leaving the family room and laundry room/pantry the way they were. Everything he still needs to deal with is in those two rooms so he didn't have chaos and clutter in every room. Again, it's about managing the tasks at hand, and concentrating on a smaller space that should make it much easier.
I will more than likely go back in a few weeks and help him do a little fine-tuning but otherwise, the real clearing has been completed and he can start to feel he can move on again.
BTW...I found a $100 bill mixed in with what looked like garbage. And we also came across a bag of red dice "winning" gummies, a souvenir from his mother's trip to Las Vegas where she went the week we were working on the entire house in May. It made him smile knowing his mother clearly had a presence in his life from somewhere out there.
The moral of this particular story is that we never know when any life will end so staying on top of the clutter that tends to take over our lives while, well, alive is truly the best gift any of us can give to those we will be leaving behind when we die. I preach all the time to clients of all ages how important it is to downsize before downsizing ever becomes necessary. Emotions and guilt, though, will always make it very challenging for some.
With that said, if you are suddenly faced with the daunting task of figuring out what to do with a lifetime of someone else's stuff hire a service like It's Just Stuff. I know it is easy for me to tell you that since I stand to make money from being hired but I promise that isn't my motivation. I am just a human being who never wants to see anyone suffer and there is no doubt going through this type of emotional decluttering and purging is painful, And for the record, doing it alone or even with other family members may not give you the results you want not to mention take significantly longer.
One of the biggest marketing expenses I decided to make this year was to advertise in the End of Life Directory published by Skyways Media. Yeah, I know, kind of a morbid topic but it is what it is and helping people at such an emotional time in their lives is something I take great pride in knowing I provide a valuable and compassionate service. I actually had to be invited per se to advertise since they limit how many people of a particular industry are allowed in each regional publication. Fortunately for me there were no other organizers or move management specialists that were approved for the publication I am in that serves most of the Greater Denver/Boulder area and I was asked if I wanted to write an article that ultimately was entitled "Letting Go Of A Loved One's Stuff". Due to COVID, however, there were some to be expected delays with printing and distribution but I have been introduced to several funeral home directors who are now referring clients to me and it has definitely contributed to how busy my team has remained past what was an incredibly robust summer for my business.
While the process of letting go of a loved one's stuff hasn't really changed through the generations, what we want to actually keep has changed dramatically especially as millennials continue to age and are discovering items in their parents and grandparents homes that they have no desire to keep let alone even know the purpose of a lot of things they've never seen before.
Case and point, I was recently in New York City visiting my daughter and she has a friend who had moved in with her grandmother at the end of last year right before she passed away at the age of 95, sadly after being exposed to COVID through her caregiver. She had actually started to film their conversations about the contents of her Upper East Side apartment, one filled with books, art, china, crystal, etc. and she intends to make a documentary about the importance of our "stuff", a documentary that definitely speaks to my professional organizer's heart. Her grandmother had been living in that same apartment since the early 1960s and never upgraded anything or changed a single piece of furniture or wall color.
When I opened one particular closet I suddenly felt like a kid in a candy store.
My daughter and her friend?
Not so much.
When I pulled out one item that looked like a comb but definitely not for grooming purposes they had no clue what it was.
"It's a cake comb, specifically to cut angel food cakes", I declared.
"Why would we need that?", my daughter's friend replied.
"Why do we need anything we have?", I said with both sarcasm and sincerity.
As we explored deeper into the recesses of that closet we came across a virtual history lesson that had me reminiscing about visits to my grandparents and other relatives homes during my childhood where many of those obscure items were part of a holiday table landscape including crumb "sweepers", mini silver "dustpans", individual salt and pepper bowls as well as a bunch of vintage clothing and a plethora of other things from a lifestyle none of us really have the time, desire or money to maintain these days.
My daughter's friend was pretty convinced she wasn't going to want 98% of the contents of that closet until I asked her if she had any idea what was in the boxes on the very top shelf. They looked like the type of box that you would use to preserve a wedding dress or other vintage clothing which was exactly what we discovered.
And suddenly she was like a kid in a candy store.
Yeah, I am definitely not a clotheshorse or fashionista but still can appreciate the thrill she felt.
As we continued our "history lesson" around the apartment, I enjoyed hearing more about her grandmother including learning she had worked in the publishing industry for over 40 years (hence a vast collection of books) and loved to travel.
The day before she passed away they were looking at some photos and her grandmother was able to recall not only exactly where it was taken...Tuscany...but also where her husband's sweater was from...Ireland. I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night and while I may be able to recall where most of the photos I have were taken and who is in the photos at the age of 58 I am not sure I will have that type of recall at 95 should I be so lucky to live that long and be that healthy.
Memories are important and we should never think we have to "throw them away" especially when someone dies. But carrying the burden of someone else's stuff until the day we die needs to be eliminated from our already cluttered lives.
Here's the thing...you don't have to let go of the memories. You just need to find ways to preserve them without taking up so much space. I've suggested dozens of times in previous blogs or social media posts as well as during consultations with clients that taking photos of the objects is the easiest and certainly cheapest way to keep the memories intact on some level. And there are great services like one of the IJS preferred partners, Ambrosia Archiving or Surround Us that will help you organize and preserve those photos. If you aren't someone who has an organized system for archiving digital files you will find yourself going crazy at some point in the future looking for that one photo you may want to see for whatever reason. Again, hiring a professional whether for photo archiving or significant decluttering and purging may cost money in the short run but it will be worth every penny in the long run so it really is an investment in your past, present and future.
Remember...we can't return to the past but we still have to deal with it throughout our lives. Just try to find comfort in knowing that the seasons will come and go whether we want them to or not. As fall has gone into full throttle in most parts of the country, think about how we embrace and welcome the change of seasons with all of the trees moving from green to various shades of yellow, orange, red and brown. Here in Colorado we are blessed with gorgeous aspen forests shimmering in a brilliant sea of mostly golden yellow against the amazing bluebird skies of autumn and I was lucky enough to be immersed in some major leaf peeping this weekend and take in all of the smells and sounds.
It's truly my favorite time of the year but it definitely is very symbolic in terms of it being the end of a life cycle for the leaves as they steadily drop from the trees that nurtured them through spring and summer. Winter weather will arrive before we know it and a lot of the living organisms on this planet will lay dormant for many months until spring and it's signs of renewal start to breakthrough.
Sadly, that won't be the case for any humans who breathe their last breath in the days, weeks, and months that lie ahead. It is an inevitable part of life, though. So, once again, whatever any of us can do to make what will happen after the last breath any of us take easier for those still living please have a conversation with your loved ones sooner rather than later and either start to give away the items you know they don't want or at the very least create a list for them to refer to upon your death.
The short list of items you can definitely say goodbye to without feeling any guilt
Photos that will not carry any significance to others
If I were to die suddenly I would like to think it wouldn't take my family very long to go through the contents of my apartment but I would also like to think they would spend a little time reminiscing as they come across things that I hope will remind them of me as well as themselves.
For more information about creating an end-of-life "file", I highly recommend checking out Death With Dignity's very thorough checklist by clicking HERE .
Be well, be safe and, remember to always be kind,