Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Clutter Makes a Mess of Grief: How to Help!

[Source: Erika Mlejova, Openphoto]
Few people will admit that their possessions have crossed the line from "a little messy" to big problem. From time to time, we may all experience the problem--often in small doses:

  • The tee shirt drawer doesn't quite close.
  • The coat closet has no room for a visitor's jacket.
  • It takes significant excavation to unearth the potato peeler from a tangle of kitchen tools.
  • The garage workbench has lost its usefulness, covered with parts, packaging, and paraphernalia.

Fixing Small-Dose Clutter

A small-dose clutter problem can be resolved in fifteen to thirty minutes, restoring functionality to a space. Common sense consigns the torn and broken to trash; goods that have fallen out of favor become a bag welcomed by a charity store. Some of us logon to craigslist or ebay and turn stuff into cash; freecycle facilitates a feel-good way to connect with someone in your community who can use what you no longer need (craigslist also has a "free stuff" category, and my household has enjoyed many grateful handshakes.)

Heavy Environments

[Source: Kash, Openphoto]
Over the years, I've been in many homes bearing a lifetime's accumulated property. These environments bear a weight that exceeds the measurable:  
  • A burden of confusion.
  • An expense of duplication.
  • The distress of indecision.
  • The demand of nostalgia.
I have known people who's estate planning included diligently purging excess "to make it easier for my executors." And I have known folks who become infirm, look around their rooms packed with possessions and say, "the kids will sort it out." 

What is it like to die in a messy room?

No one comes back to complain, but Megory Anderson, founder of the Sacred Dying Foundation, encourages "establishing a sacred presence." She and her team offer many excellent resources for lay and professional use. In her free booklet of vigiling tips, De-clutter the bedside area is number 1! If you believe that death is not a medical event but a spiritual one, the simple practices that invoke honor, respect and sacredness are rich in love but trimmed of turmoil. During active dying, remove from the bed's radius those piles of medical and hygiene supplies, displaced household goods, and even beloved room decor that distracts and act like guy-wires holding tightly to the person who must detach and leave.

When grieving is literally 'a mess'

The time and process of sorting through the belongings of a loved one can be comforting and surprising. "I didn't know she still had that", "She really liked purses!" "Those cases of cereal in the basement are all expired." "Look what he stashed in the crawlspace." Understandably, we will all leave some degree of stuff to be dispersed or disposed of. The window of time to empty a room or residence can depend on a number of things:  policies of a skilled care facility, avoiding the cost of another month's rent, and whether a home will be sold or remain in the family. If your acquaintance with a survivor is familiar, consider offering assistance to sort, pack, and disperse property. 

Sympathetic support: a condolence 'gift'

It is imperative that your assistance be grounded in trust, and a plan of action that is acceptable to all legally responsible survivors. Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant and author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Spark Joy has some interesting tactics for decluttering that can certainly be applied to an entire home clean out.
  1. Tackle categories, not rooms (focus reduces the burden)
  2. Respect your belongings (take care of what you keep)
  3. Nostalgia is a trap (time spent in reverie and sentimentality blur good judgment)
  4. Dedicate efforts to the life of the decedent (express this out loud)
  5. What you keep you must truly love ("like" or "useful" don't make the cut for a legacy item. See my post on Keepsakes)
Whether your assistance is presented first, in your condolence note or, in a later companionable visit, your offer qualifies as a remarkable condolence gift.

Thank you for caring!

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