Updated: Mar 13, 2020
[Trigger Warning: If you respond strongly to descriptions of a loved one dying, or have a loved one who is currently suffering, or have recently had a loved one die...read this another time.]
It was Valentine's Day, 2018. My mom was very sick with gallbladder cancer and my family (my husband, me, and our 2-year-old son), had moved in with my parents 4 weeks prior. We moved in both to save money and to spend more time with my mom.
My mom went in for chemo that morning and then was admitted to the hospital as her levels were concerning. I assumed that she would be out in a few days, just like the last few times she had been hospitalized.
Later that evening, I went to the gym and then stopped at the hospital to check in with my parents. Instead of getting to see my mom smiling weakly one last time, my world was completely shattered.
I called my dad to figure out what room they were in. "I'm sorry, your mother had a stroke and died!", he managed to hoarsely tell me, before bursting into tears. "I'll be right there", I responded, my steps picking up. I burst into tears as I tore through the ICU, searching for my mom.
A nurse found me as I was repeating my mom's room number, "I know who you're looking for", she said. My mom had been a nurse at this same hospital for over 30 years, working in this same unit; everyone knew her. The nurse took me to a family waiting room. "She's not here, she's in her room!", I said, blubbering. Eventually, I was brought into my mom's room. My dad and I hugged, both sobbing. My mom was on the hospital bed, looking like she was asleep. She wasn't. She was gone...just gone.
I do this thing where I click back and forth in time in my mind, like turning a dial on an old kitchen timer. [*click click click*] I'm back in 2018, sitting on the couch with my son, watching videos. I run through everything I remember about that morning.
She had slept in that morning, unusual for her at that time in her illness, because she was in so much pain. I remember her slowly making her way down the hall with my dad. Shuffling and wrapped in a robe, she smiled and was happy because of her excellent night's sleep. I don't remember if I said "I love you" or even "good-bye". I still struggle trying to think of the last thing I said to her.
[*click click click*] It's February 15th, 2018. It seems unreal, having her gone. My second oldest brother arrives from Colorado. Visitors filter in and out of the house all day. We all cry, on and off, all day long.
[*click click click*] It's a week and a half later. My brother and I have somehow decided that the way we're going to channel our grief is to methodically declutter the house.
We start in the kitchen, opening up every cupboard and drawer. We pull a lifetime's worth of bowls, decorations, napkins, Christmas place settings, Tupperware, and knives out...sorting through them all. My dad decides what he'll actually use and we put all of those items back. We sort through everything that remains, setting things aside for other family members, some for donations, etc.
We work through the whole house over the next week. My mom had already started this process with me before she died. The last place I went through was her jewelry drawer. Until I did this drawer, I didn't have a clear idea of what my mom realized in her last few months. Every box was labeled with the jewelry that was in it, who gave it to her, and when.
She had been preparing for the inevitable. In all of those months of extreme pain, nausea, weight loss, depletion of energy...she knew. She knew it was coming and she must have figured it out. She was trying to make preparations for us for after she died. She was trying to make it easy for us to know the history of everything.
[*click click click*] It's May 23rd, 2018. I'm deep in labor with my second child, listening to music that reminds me of my mom. I'm once again sobbing, aching for a mother who was going to be there during this labor and delivery. I wished she was there to lay cool mom-hands on my face and tell me I can do this. I'm strong. I'm capable.
[*click click click*] It's March, 2020. I sit in an office in Minneapolis. Writing this post and glancing at my right hand, at my ring finger. I have a delicate gold Claddagh ring that I wear a few times a week. It belonged to my mom and it's one of the few things of hers I decided to keep. I kept one of her Christmas vests and a bright green St. Patrick's day sweater, too. These things have no monetary value. They only hold memories.
[*click click click*] Late February 2018. My brother and I finish up going through all of my mom's clothes. I keep a few things, the rest go to my aunt (my mom's sister), who has decided to make a quilt of my mom's "greatest hits" clothes.
The house is decluttered of things my mom held onto for far too long. Broken things that were intended to be fixed, things kept in the hopes that my siblings or I would want them, things that needed to be passed back to other family members. We've donated, sent things to other family members or friends, and sent more items to the dump than I care to admit.
Decluttering a home after a loved one dies will never be easy. You work through grief as you work through piles of stuff. A lifetime of collections wait to be sorted, just as your grief waits to be sorted by you. And it never really ends. You'll eventually sift through all of your loved ones items. It's easier with someone who has gone through this scenario before...or is also going through the same grief with you now.
In the end, you might have an estate sale. You might tidy up the house, preparing it to be sold. It might sit, devoid of your memories, as potential new owners peek into every cupboard and closet...imagining themselves living there. Time marches on.
But grief is never truly linear. It creeps up on you in expected and unexpected ways. Sitting in traffic and hearing your mom's favorite Simon and Garfunkel song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" play on the radio. At the doctor's office, when the nurse has the same long, mauve painted nails your mom used to rock...only giving you a nice back scratch if you begged her.
The ones we love never really leave us...but there is a shadow or an echo of them. So close and familiar...but you can't touch it. You can't feel them. You can't hug them. The most we can do, those of us who grieve, is cherish every moment we had with them. And love our family and friends deeply. Hug them deeply. Tell them you love them. Play their favorite song. Scratch their back.