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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

In keeping with the theme of coping with grief for deceased parents, I'm focusing on the emotional pain of clearing out your parents' home after they die in this article (see my articles: Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both Parents and Grief: You Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents Even After They Die).

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

Going back to your parents' home after they died can be a very difficult experience, especially if you grew up in that home or have an emotional attachment to that home.

Many people describe the experience of going back to their parents' home after their deaths as being somewhat surreal.

Even though you know logically that your parents are dead, on an emotional level, you might feel that either your mother or father will be entering into the living room at any moment.

You're surrounded by all the familiar things that you've always associated with your parents--their furniture, their pictures, their clothes, their keepsakes and all the memories that this home holds for you--and yet, they're not there.  On an emotional level, it just doesn't add up.

Sometimes, adult children have to clear out their parents' home before they're psychological ready to do it.  There might be pressing financial, legal or family issues that compel them to clear out the home soon after their last parent dies.

Generally, it's better to undertake this task with a supportive and understanding friend or relative rather than someone whose attitude is, "Let's just get this over with" and who lacks tact and sensitivity about what this process means for you while you're grieving.

Before you even start, it can feel overwhelming, especially if your parents accumulated and had difficulty letting go of many possessions.

It's not unusual for elderly people to hold onto possessions that have no sentimental value and have no monetary value.  Their holding on is more about a fear of letting go and, in many cases, a sense of loneliness.

For most people, going through the process of clearing out their deceased parents' home brings up many memories and can deepen your grief.  This is, after all, part of the grieving process.

During this time, it's important to be kind to yourself and not to rush through this process as if you're running a race.

In Joan Didion's book, A Year of Magical Thinking, she writes about going through her husband's possessions after he dies and hesitating about throwing out his shoes in case he comes back and needs them.

When she had this thought, she wasn't delusional.  She knew, on an objective level, that her husband was dead.   But this is the kind of thought and emotional response that many people have when they're clearing out a deceased loved one's possessions.  It's part of the grieving process.

The mourning process has different levels, and everyone has their own subjective experience of it.

You can know objectively that your loved one is dead but, on an emotional level, it can feel like s/he is still alive because the loss hasn't sunk in yet.

A Fictional Vignette About Clearing Out Your Deceased Parents' Home

Beth
Beth's parents died within a year of each other.

Her mother died as a result of undiagnosed cancer, and her father died several months later of a heart attack.

While her father was alive, he continued to live in the same house where Beth and her older brother grew up.

Her father took her mother's death hard, and Beth and her brother, John, worried about him.

Even though he knew how to cook for himself and he was still physically capable of taking care of himself, he hardly ate and he was beginning to hoard mail, newspapers and other things that were getting in his way.

Beth visited him once a week, cooked nutritious meals for him that he could heat up, cleaned the house and generally took care of things.  But when she came back the following week, she noticed that he barely touched the food and he began to accumulate mail and papers again.

Although she felt exasperated, she tried to be gentle with her father because she knew he was suffering emotionally.

When she went to her parents' bedroom, she noticed that he was keeping things on the bed that belonged to her mother--scarfs, a blouse, a pair of gloves.

When she asked her father about it, he told her that it comforted him to have these things around him and he felt less lonely with them around him (see my article: Comfort Objects From Infancy Through Adulthood).

Two months after her mother died, Beth broached the topic with her father about going through the mother's clothes and giving things away, but her father wouldn't hear of it.  He wasn't ready to let go of the mother's possessions.

He talked about how close he felt to Beth's mother when he went into her closet and smelled her perfume on her clothes, and he wasn't ready to give that up.

Beth suggested that he could decide what to keep and what to give away.  She said that maybe he wanted to keep a few items of her clothing until he was ready to let go, but he refused to budge.

Soon after that, Beth moved in with her father because she feared for his health and well-being.  She also knew that he was very lonely.

With Beth there, her father started eating more and they often watched TV together.  Her father also began showing interest in doing gardening again, which Beth thought was a good sign.

Then, one morning, when she went to her father's room to wake him up for breakfast, she was unable to wake him up.  She immediately called 911.

Within an hour, the doctors in the emergency room pronounced him dead.  They thought he probably had a heart attack in his sleep.

Both Beth and her brother were shocked and grief stricken.  Their father seemed to be doing well, especially compared to how he had been when their mother first died.

A week after the funeral John called Beth and said he wanted to go through their parents' possessions as soon as possible, "Let's get it over with."

Beth knew she wasn't ready to clear out their parents' house.  It was too soon for her, and she told John this.

John agreed to wait a few more weeks, but when Beth went to visit her parents' home a week later, she found John going through her parents' things and she felt enraged.  She couldn't believe he didn't keep his word.  She also felt like John was violating a sacred space.

John was stunned by Beth's reaction.  From his perspective, he was only getting a start on the process while Beth readied herself to join in.  He thought he was doing Beth a favor.  He didn't see it as any kind of violation.

Beth looked at the piles of things that John made of her parents' things--what to keep, what to throw out and what to donate.

John assured her that he wasn't planning on getting rid of anything before she had a chance to look at everything.

Beth knew that John loved her parents very much and, in his own way, he thought he was being helpful.  But she also knew that John tended to be uncomfortable with his own emotions, and clearing out their parents' home was a way to do it quickly with the least amount of emotion for him.

As they were standing there confronting one another, Beth had the sense that her parents would come into the room at any moment and say to John, "What on earth are you doing!?!  Those are our things. Put them back."

Beth was taken off guard as to how strong this feeling was and she wondered if she was losing her mind.  Of course, she knew her parents were dead, but her sense of their presence was very alive.

After they talked it over, John put everything back in its place, and they agreed to meet in a month to go through their parents' possessions.

When a month had gone by, Beth still didn't feel ready emotionally to go through her parents' possessions.  Her grief was still fresh and, on an emotional level, she could hardly believe that she no longer had parents.  But she wanted to keep her word to John so, at the appointed time, she met him at their parents' home.

John's idea was that they would go through all their possessions in two days, but after a few hours, Beth was exhausted and she had to go to sleep.

When they resumed the process the next day, they agreed to go through the things that had least sentimental value first:  Old mail, newspapers and other similar things.

With that behind them, they started going through their parents' clothes, which was much more difficult, especially for Beth.

As they were going through their mother's clothes, Beth remembered how her father cherished them and wouldn't let go of them.  She had this nagging feeling that her father would suddenly come into the room and be upset with them--although she knew, of course, that he was dead.

The process was much slower than John would have liked.  He would have liked to plow through their parents' possessions to make decisions about them, but the process made Beth so sad that she couldn't spend a lot of time doing it.

By the end of the week, Beth contacted a psychotherapist because she was feeling worse than the day her father died.

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

Beth learned from her therapist that everyone grieves differently, and she was having a normal reaction to losing both of her parents.

She also told Beth that, even if it seemed that John was avoiding dealing with his grief at this point, he might feel it much more acutely later on.

Gradually, Beth and John went through their parents' possessions.  As hard as it was for Beth, she was able to throw out things that they decided not to keep, give away or sell.

Beth took pictures of the inside and the outside of the house before they sold the furniture.

They kept all these pictures and the pictures that their parents had taken over the years, and Beth made two albums--one for John and one for her.

With the furniture gone, the house seemed empty.  Beth walked through the house and felt like the ghosts of her parents were hovering around.

Beth wondered:  Would they approve or would they be angry?

But she also knew that her parents had each gone through the same process when their parents died.

Within a month of putting the house on the market, the house sold to a young couple with children.  Beth felt immense sadness that the house was no longer part of the family, but she also hoped that the new family would make happy memories of their own.

Throughout this process of letting go, Beth kept her weekly therapy appointments.  These appointments helped her to go through the mourning process.

As her therapist told her, her brother experienced his grief most acutely soon after the house was sold.  He would often call Beth to talk about their parents and how difficult it was not to have them around any more.

A year later, when Beth drove by the house, she noticed that the new family had removed the porch and the house was painted a different color.  Although this was painful for Beth to see, she knew that she would always have the good memories of her childhood home.

Conclusion
Aside from being a practical matter, clearing out your parents' home after they die is an emotional process which is part of mourning.

Siblings in the same family might have very different reactions to clearing out their parents' possessions because each person grieves in his or her own way and time.

It's important to recognize that this is a process and it will bring up memories and feelings you might not be prepared for at the time.

You might feel like you're delusional if you feel like your parents will suddenly appear in their home, even though you know they're dead.  But you're not delusional.  This is common and normal.

Even though they are inanimate things, possessions are often imbued with memories and emotions, so be gentle with yourself.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned in a prior article, whether you had a good or a bad (or anything in between) type of relationship with your parents, you will still feel grief.

The process of going through your parents' possessions can be challenging for you in unexpected ways.

Family and friends often don't know how to be helpful, beyond a certain point, and might not understand the mourning process.

Getting help in therapy can help you through the mourning process.

Rather than struggling on your own, when you have a time and place in therapy to talk about and integrate your feelings about the deaths of your parents, you can through the mourning process without feeling so alone.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients through the mourning process.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

























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