May 2014

Sorting Through

Attended a weekend family gathering at my dad's house recently. It's been almost six years since my mom died, and my dad is selling the old family house on four acres and moving to a newer, smaller house on a small lot where yard maintenance is provided. It's been 35 years in this present house and things accumulate despite periodic efforts to clean out, throw away and give away. I left with two boxes of cards, notes and letters to go through for the family. One box is from my parents' 50th anniversary in 2006 and the other from my mom's death in 2008. The task is to sort through and decide which things to throw away and which things to keep. It will be a bittersweet task and one where there will need to be sufficient time and a particular frame of (heart and) mind. I doubt it will happen all in one sitting and just thinking about it makes me tired. Yet, I also find myself drawn to these cards and notes as there is something there of my mom that calls to me.

It's like this after someone dies. We're left with all this stuff to sort through. Pictures, cards, clothes, dishes, books, tools, and jewelry. Keepsakes all. And it's not just the physical stuff left behind. There are memories, feelings, issues, unfinished business, words said and unsaid. They, too, need sorting. Some things we treasure and put away for safekeeping. Other things we want close to us where they can be seen, touched, smelled or heard. Still other things will go to special people—a particular thing to a particular person. There may be a pile to give away to anyone who could use them. But there is likely another pile too, for things to be thrown away, or maybe even burned. These are items with negligible meaning or painful meanings and we need to be rid of them (if possible). Of course, sorting through is rarely simple. It's not always clear what to give and what to keep or what to display and what to store. There are some items that we keep for now, knowing that there will come a time when we can let them go. But today is not yet that day, although we sense that day will come.

Maybe it's a room or maybe it's a closet, box or cedar chest. Often there is something that we know we need to open and sort through, but it will be hard and we wait for the strength to begin. It may be a task best done alone, or it may be one where a supporting companion (at least one) is needed. We open the door or lift the lid, take out an item and remember. The first time we hold it in our hands is usually the most powerful and potentially the most painful. When we pick it up again it may not be as heavy, as loaded with emotion, as at first. It's best if we do this in a time of our own choosing, yet sometimes circumstances force our hand as practical considerations prevail. Perhaps that room is needed for someone else or maybe we have other things to store in that closet. We know that some healing is only possible after this task is done. It waits for us with a promise of both pain and comfort, and of possible liberation from the past to a bigger present and more wide-open future.

Sorting through is one way to think of what we do to find our way after someone important dies. With each person and relationship comes its own collection of stuff through which to sort. Remembering is part of sorting but it is more than that. It is also reflecting on what is remembered. A wise person (John Dewey) said that "we don't learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience." It's work we do intuitively much of the time—we know this sorting through, of everything, eventually needs to be done. And when we have a room or closet or box that holds important things that need our sorting and we continually avoid, that unsorted container can be an anchor holding us to the past and keeping us from the fullness of the present and future. We lighten our loads not just by throwing and giving things away but by releasing the pent-up feelings and memories. We need not and cannot take everything with us into the future, so we open the box, lay everything out and decide what to take and how we will carry it. In the sorting we learn again what truly holds value.

When I go through the cards and notes, there will be some that I will quickly put in the trash pile. A card with no note or a card from a name I don't recognize. Some other notes and cards I will read and smile as they will bring my mom to life once again. Some I will hand to my wife and say, "Read this one," and she too will have a sad smile. Time has given the opportunity for memories to offer more comfort than pain, and I will expect that. I also expect that I will make different sorting decisions now than I would have soon after the events of anniversary and death. I will feel more selective than I would have been in the beginning when I may have been reluctant to let go of anything connected to my mom. I understand now, more than I could have before, that the most important things are sorted and kept on the inside and not in closets and boxes.

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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