I’ve been touched by many traumas in my life. In addition to major traumas there have been the usual ups and downs. At this point I have a lot of tools for coming back into balance after upsets. And I’ve written about how my relationship to both money and possessions has been a piece of work for my life. Trying to replace a poverty mentality with an abundance mentality has been going on in the background pretty much my entire life. The only time I haven’t been burdened by possessions is when I was super poor, when I lived out of a backpack, or when I moved to a foreign country with one suitcase.
So why did one particular trauma around stuff set things in motion in a unique and unanticipated way? What was the trauma that amplified my issues so intensely?
In March of 2017 my mom fell. She felt dizzy, lost her balance, and wasn’t strong enough to grab the kitchen counter and stop herself from falling. She went to the hospital. My dad was left on his own for the first time since their marriage in 1954. While mom was gone, dad confided it was all too much – mom’s decline in health, the upkeep on house, yard, and garden.
To cut out a lot of detail, mom never came back to her home she and my dad owned for 60 years. Dad moved out of the house and into an apartment in an independent senior living facility while mom was in rehab. Mom moved to that apartment when she left rehab. During this time my sister and I were juggling mom in rehab with her health issues, with helping dad find a place, get moved and settled, setting that space up for mom, plus the monumental task of dealing with their house. They knew they weren’t coming back. They wanted the house sold. We were left to empty the house of it 60-year accumulation (very little went with them to their small one-bedroom apartment), do a ton of maintenance that had been neglected over the years, then complete the sale of the house.
If I could go back and do it all over, there are so many things I would do differently. As often happens with families, the process ruined the good relationship my sister and I enjoyed for most of our adult lives. There was too much history in the house we grew up in. Our pace was different, our approach was different, the demands on the rest of our lives were different, the travel time to get to my parent’s old house and their current locations was different, our sentimental attachment to the house and what was in it was different. She wanted to go through everything and choose things for her adult kids, my daughter was in high school, still living at home and had fewer memories with my parents’ home.
On top of this, mom and dad were trying to dictate the process while not getting involved in the work. Dad chose what he wanted to take in the move. Mom told us as best she could what she wanted moved, but honestly her main concern at that time was getting back on her feet.
I felt a push to complete the process while home sales are robust during the spring and summer selling season. I didn’t want the house to sit empty into fall and winter. Nor did I want to spend every minute of the next six months dealing with my parent’s stuff. I simmered with resentment because I’d asked mom over and over to let me help her get started with figuring out what should happen with all the stuff stored in their house and garage. Her response was always, “It’s not time to do it; we don’t have to get started with that yet.” Or the one that triggered me the most, “I’m not going to worry about it. I’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem.” I chafed at the disregard her attitude showed for my sister and me. Who did she think would get stuck doing it? Did she think we’d be happy to put our own lives on hold to take on that task?
And of course, mom wasn’t dead. She was weak and frail in body, and as sharp and strong-willed as ever in mind. Mom and dad were not hoarders by any definition; they just had a lot of stuff from living in one place so long. And they didn’t deal with stuff that came to them from their losses (of their parents and my brother).
I could go on and on about the upsets, struggles and emotional baggage that came up. About the physical and mental and emotional exhaustion our families experienced. Suffice it to say that any amount of dysfunction in a family is magnified during this process. And it brought up the shame of my own failed attempts to deal with my own accumulation. Now I was horrified at being on the receiving end of more.
Here is the weird intention that resulted because I told myself, “I am never going to put the people I love in the position of having to deal with a lifetime of my stuff because I didn’t bother.” So I set the intention: When I either downsize or move, an estate sale person can come into my house and the only thing they will need to do is walk around putting price tags on things. That means no rooms crammed floor to ceiling with boxes of random stuff, no trash to remove, no drawers piled full, nothing funky/dusty/smelly from disuse, nothing that’s lost its value from how it was stored, no unlabeled boxes, minimal storage boxes and bins, etc.
Mom, like all of us, was attached to the perceived value of her lifetime accumulation. She really wanted an estate sale. The problem with that was that estate sale people are booked out for months during the summer. And at any time of year, they do not want to take on a job where everything is in boxes piled on top of each other and piled in front of things because they can’t look around and see what they can sell and if it is worth their time. There was certainly interesting stuff in the house, but the main value is in furniture, and if you are staging the house to sell the stagers want some of the furniture to stay for staging. But all the stuff has to move out before the painters and floor finishers can get in and do their thing. The logistics get complicated. Estate sale people and all the contractors, and the real estate agent are busy and have existing commitments to schedule around. To mom’s dismay, an estate sale wouldn’t happen.
So what it came down to was that after working our asses off for months, everyone was unhappy – it had gone too fast, it had gone to slow, where did such and such an item end up (God only knows), why didn’t we sell such and such an item, she wanted ___ to go to ___ but no one could figure out whose garage it landed in or whether it had been inadvertently donated. I have a bad feeling there was a mix-up, and one pile I made for donation went to the dump, and one pile I made of stuff to keep was donated. I wanted to offer things like yard tools to the new buyer (I knew through the agent it was their first home) and my sister was adamant about not giving them anything. I never figured out why she felt angry toward the family that bought the house (with a full price offer) my parents wanted to sell. She preferred the extra work of hauling the stuff to Habitat for Humanity ReStore. There was a lot of misdirected anger in the process. I’m sure she questioned things I said or did. It is hard to deal with an entire house full of stuff when you’re grieving. Even though my parents were still both living, things would never be the same.
Don’t even get me started on paperwork. I would love to have the hours of my life back I have spent in frustrating searches through boxes and file cabinets trying to find important financial documents.
Suffice it to say, by the time it was all over, we had all lost our minds.
Which brings me back to my intention:
When I either downsize or move, an estate sale person can come into my house and the only thing they will need to do is walk around putting price tags on things.
This creates a certain picture in my mind of a manageable amount of stuff that’s well organized and well maintained. I don’t care if there is an estate sale for my stuff or not. But if there isn’t one, it won’t be because no estate sale company would take it on. I’d be happy for my family and friends to help themselves to anything they want to have, with no pressure and no obligation to be on the receiving end. Things of sentimental value will be marked as such, and my family can decide if an item has sentimental value to anyone but me; they have my permission to immediately trash, donate, or recycle my sentimental items. My experience has given me the perspective of putting people & relationships before possessions. I never ever want to damage relationships because of possessions. I never want to burden my own daughter, and that gives me the resolve to keep working on this issue for as long as it takes.
A book I was gifted after I’d been through this experience with my parents is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson. I recommend it if you’re dealing with this issue.