Organizing After Someone is Gone

This week was another great week working with people I enjoy. I am continually grateful that I have such wonderful clients! At the end of my story are some helpful tips if you find yourself faced with a houseful of items you are responsible to tend to – whether it be because of a death of a loved one, your loved one has moved to a nursing or retirement home, or because they have grown up and moved out (and you need the space). This week I worked for my client Mike in his mom’s house. Let me tell you about them.

Carmen & Mike

Mike is a wonderful man who is so easy to talk to, he reminds me so much of my dad. Our conversations always take us far off topic and deep into “what’s going on in your life?”. Never a shortage of things to talk about!

I first met Mike and his mom Carmen last fall at the Rice Harvest Festival in Katy. Mike strolled up with Carmen and after all three of us chatted a bit, Mike made sure to get my information. I came to Carmen’s house that very week to see what she needed help with. She said she needed some things unpacked that had been in boxes for far too long, and that she also wanted some art work hung. After visiting with Carmen for a while what I discovered she really wanted was a new couch in the living room so that her grandkids would have a nice place to sit and visit with her. So, off we went to shop for a new couch! Now, that’s not what I usually do for clients – shop for couches – but it is what I did for Carmen. It is what she needed, and prior to meeting with her (and every client) I asked God for guidance as to what she needed, and to direct me to do what He knew was best for her. She wanted a couch, and I was the one to help her find the right couch.

We went to a couple different furniture stores and because she was elderly and had breathing difficulties, I got to push her in a wheelchair. She liked that. While we shopped she told me all about her parents that were antique collectors, and the lovely home they had in Austin. She shared with me about her father, whom she loved very much, and who lived to be quite old.  She shared with me about how in the late 1990’s, she went to art school and got a degree in Art! She loved art school and the community of young people all around her.

I listened. I think that is what she enjoyed the most; having someone who had the time to listen. Someone new, who was curious about her life and who asked questions. I think too, she enjoyed having a woman to talk to. There is no substitute for female companionship (sorry men!). Women just need other women to talk to. We just understand each other and thing don’t need to be explained. It’s a gift God has given us – that knowingness.

Carmen checking out couches.

After an afternoon of shopping we had some good contenders, and I had taken several pictures of the couches that she liked. She needed time to think over her choices, but because she had been experiencing computer trouble, I was unable to email them, so I went and had them printed and brought them back to her so that she could make a choice.

Throughout our shopping adventure, her eye was continually drawn to the red couches, but she was concerned her son wouldn’t like it. But every time we’d pass another red couch, we’d have to stop and check it out. I would say, “Carmen, you have lived long enough and earned the right to chose the couch you want! Don’t worry about what your son thinks, he’s a guy, he will not care! Plus, he’s your son, and he wants what ever makes you happy. Get the red couch, if that’s what makes you happy!” Ultimately, she picked out a really cute couch ensemble that had a red floral ottoman and matching pillows. It was a bridge between the red couches she was drawn to, and what she knew she could live with. She had it delivered and I help her set it all up. She was delighted!

I helped her get her living room set up in a way that made her happy. I fixed a few details that were driving her crazy and I hung some pictures. I helped her make her living room, where she spent most of her time, into a place that she really enjoyed being in. How lucky am I that I got to do that? I am so grateful that I listen to what God prompts me to do. I made Carmen so happy, and I reap the rewards too.

Carmen’s new couch ensemble.

I didn’t get to work with Carmen again until 4 months later. Sadly, she had become very ill and I was asked to unpack some of her antiques and other belongings so that the family could see them. They were coming from out of state to see her, and she had asked that they come choose what they would like to have.

Shortly after that visit, Carmen passed. I was sad for Mike and his family, and I was grateful for having had the opportunity to meet and visit at length with Carmen.

After Carmen

Last week, Mike kept coming to mind. I know better than to think that it means nothing, so I called him to see how he was doing. Turns out, he needed me. Carmen’s house was going up for sale and her belongings were still inside. He was struggling to make any progress sorting them all out because quite frankly it was too difficult. What were antiques and what was regular stuff? Everything needed to be looked at.

So this week I worked with Carmen again. I asked her to guide me, and she did. Mike and I had agreed that anything that I wasn’t sure of, we would hang onto as an antiques expert would be coming to look at some point.

The process wasn’t much different than most other organizing jobs, I just set up different categories and put like items together. This time my categories were donations, trash, and antiques (keep vs. storage). We also had a category for things Mike will want to see (keep vs. give to family) like the journal Carmen wrote on her trip to Greece, or the jewelry I found in a non-descript box inside another non-descript box. It was literally a treasure hunt.

Having me enter the picture and get the ball rolling jump-started Mike’s progress as well. After his day at his job, he’d come to the house and continue going through Carmen’s things.

Organizing After Someone is Gone

If you find yourself in the position of having to sort through the possessions of a loved one, here are some tips to help you make sense of it all and make progress.

  1. As much as possible, while working detach yourself from the emotions that may hinder your progress. Chances are you don’t have all the time in the world to make decisions about everything, and do you really want to bring it all back to your house? What makes the job easier for me as an outsider is the detachment I have. I still care about the person and their possessions, I’m just not emotionally connected. I am able to approach the task from the perspective of logic and goals.

Just for today, be detached. (You can reminisce later when you bring home the box of keepsakes you have chosen to save.)

  1. Set up categories. Just like any other organizing project there are going to be categories. Instead of Keep (In this Room), Keep (Somewhere else in the house), Donate and Trash, your categories may be more like Keep (Going to Storage), Keep (Family/Friends), Donate and Trash. Your Keep (Family/Friends) may have multiple boxes for various members. As you work through a room, keep these categories in the forefront of your mind, doing your best to detach and stay focused.
  1. Get help. Even with your best efforts of detachment, it can be difficult. It may be an entire house full of stuff. Make it easier on yourself and get help. If family isn’t an option for one reason or another, ask your friends. Our friends want to do something to help us heal, this can be a way to allow them to actively help you heal. Rather than feel as if you are burdening them with your needs, know that true friends will feel blessed to have the chance to help you. God gave us friends for support, it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help.
  1. Ask your Higher Power for help. Most people do not wear their spirituality on their sleeve. Our relationships with our Higher Power are personal, and I guess that’s why most people don’t talk about it. I know for me, I appreciate when someone reminds me to ask my Higher Power for help. Sometimes I forget that I don’t have to do it alone. I know asking for help works because I ask for help all the time, and my Higher Power comes through. So here’s your reminder. Ask your Higher Power for help.
  1. Know this too shall pass. Just for today you can do this. At some point you will have gone through everything and this will be a memory. Sometimes when we realize that the task at hand won’t last forever, it helps us get through today.

What helpful tips and advice do you have for others to help them through a difficult time? Have you ever had to sort through and organize items left behind when someone has gone? What worked; what didn’t?