Vickroy: De-clutter so loved ones won’t have to
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy December 30, 2013 8:26PM
In an ongoing attempt to de-clutter, columnist Donna Vickroy gave out kids books with candy to trick-or-treaters. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 1, 2014 6:18AM
I don’t know about you, but I like putting away the holiday stuff.
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas, it’s that I like restoring order after a descent into chaos. I am not a neat freak by any stretch, but as I get older, I appreciate simplicity. And cleaning up reminds me that Christmas stuff is not synonymous with Christmas joy.
Although so much of our lives is devoted to the acquisition of things — a bigger TV, a nicer chip-and-dip bowl, a new pair of shoes — it’s been proven time and again that it is not stuff that makes us happy. If it did, hoarders would be the happiest people on Earth.
Nor can stuff protect us from the inevitable. You can’t take it with you is a well-worn cliche, but no truer words have ever been spoken. I realized the enormity of that truth after my mother died last year.
My mother liked stuff. She had two closets full of shoes, handbags, sweaters, jewelry, even umbrellas. She had enough winter coats and boots to clothe the von Trapp family and then some. Under her bed, we found bins of shirts and jackets. In her bathroom, bottles of perfumes and lotions.
She was very neat, but you can amass a lot of things over 70 years. She liked fashion, and we all know how quickly fashion can change.
When we buried her, she went with just one jacket, a sweater, a pair of pants, shoes and some simple earrings. I remember thinking how awful to send this woman who was forever changing her wardrobe into the hereafter with just one outfit.
Even more disturbing — the cleaning out that awaited the rest of us.
My dad invited the girls in the family over several times to go through her things, encouraging us to take whatever we wanted. Robes, sweatshirts, purses, pins, necklaces, knickknacks.
At first, we were sheepish. It felt odd, voyeuristic, irreverent to rifle through somebody’s life possessions with an eye for usefulness. It felt callous to label some items keepers and relegate others to the giveaway pile.
Worse, throughout the process, I realized I didn’t really want anything. What I wanted was my mom back. The entire experience was painful, exhausting and depressing.
But one positive that did come from it — I realized, maybe for the first time with real clarity, that we are not our stuff.
Our stuff does not define us. And more of it does not make for more of us. The opposite is true.
In the end, without the owner to give it meaning, stuff becomes a burden. What defines a person is her actions, beliefs, sentiments, gestures, laughter — in short, things that can’t be placed on a shelf or in a curio cabinet.
Some time ago, I posted to Facebook a short passage about the importance of making your end-of-life decisions. Choose everything, I advised, right down to the very music you’d like to have played at your funeral.
Others who have lost loved ones wholeheartedly agreed. We plan for birth, and death deserves the same attention. Do it for yourself, and do it for everyone else.
Advanced Directives spell out exactly what you want in terms of medical care, resuscitation and allocation of assets. If you haven’t taken the time to process a will, a living will, a power of attorney or, new in Illinois next year, the Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment, now is a great time to do that.
Michelle Glenn, a registered nurse and manager of Palos Community Hospital Hospice, said failure to plan in advance can leave already saddened loved ones feeling overwhelmed, guilty and at odds with each other.
“It is difficult enough to deal with the loss,” Glenn said. “When important decisions are not spelled out in advance, it makes the whole experience much tougher.”
Hospice workers, she said, try to help patients bring to the surface all those difficult questions in advance because there is peace of mind in making others aware of your wishes.
Advanced thought should also be applied to stuff, she said. It can be overwhelming to go through a loved one’s possessions, especially if those items fill an entire house, Glenn said. And while there’s no right or wrong way of doing it, knowing in advance how the loved one wants things to be distributed can ease the burden.
Kristine Todd specializes in doing just that. Todd, who owns KAT Organizing Relocation Solutions in Homewood, is the only person in Illinois to hold an A-plus accreditation with the National Association of Senior Move Managers. She helps senior citizens downsize.
“It can be a daunting task for family members who often don’t have the time, energy or patience to help someone go through a lifetime of things,” Todd said.
She helps seniors determine which of their possessions should be given to family members, sold at auction or at consignment shops, or donated to charity.
“A lot of people have things like china that they plan to leave to a family member,” she said. “I ask them to do it now. First, find out if the recipient wants it and has room for it. Then, I either help them ship it or set up a pickup time and date.”
After my first sweep through my mom’s stuff, I went home and immediately began cleaning out my closets.
I am still at it. Having raised two daughters in an era when all roads routinely led to gift shops, we had amassed bags and bins full of T-shirts, toys, Halloween costumes, coats, jackets and shoes. Our basement was filled with books, games and puzzles. We had collected all kinds of souvenirs of this journey we’ve been on.
Why was I saving it? Because I had attached comfort to it and because, well, someday, you know, I might need it.
Over the past 18 months, I have worked on detaching emotion from things. Instead of allowing things to own me, I have vowed to look at stuff with a more practical eye.
Sure, there are memories associated with many items, but those memories belong to you. Often, they are not transferable.
I have boxed up shoes and donated them to Share Your Soles, which redistributes new and used shoes around the world. On Halloween, I gave away children’s books along with candy bars to trick-or-treaters. I dropped off six vases that once contained holiday floral arrangements but had spent the past several years in my basement to Hearts and Flowers florist in Tinley Park.
I boxed up containers of crayons, markers, glue sticks and glitter — vestiges of my days as a Girl Scout leader and a religious education teacher — and drove them to John Shattuck’s house in Frankfort. He loaded them onto a cargo container for one of his many shipments to Haiti and Niger, where even a half-used crayon is celebrated.
And I have hauled 14 Hefty bags full of old or unwanted jeans, pajamas, sweats, blankets and winter coats to various local charities, including Together We Cope in Tinley Park and Respond Now in Chicago Heights.
Meanwhile, my dad has been doing the same with much of my mom’s things. He, too, brought shoes to Share Your Soles, clothes to Neat Repeats in Worth. And to this day, he continues to give away items whenever we’re willing to take them.
None of this has been easy. But it does make me think twice before making a purchase. And before giving a gift.
I firmly believe experiences make for better memories than things. And they don’t take up space in the basement.
Though I still have piles that need to be tackled, it’s a relief to know my children will have fewer things to go through when my time comes.
And, though I’ve done a lot in my life, it is freeing to know I don’t need a lifetime of things to prove it.
In the end, perhaps the best gift, the ultimate expression of love, is doing life’s most difficult tasks ahead of time so loved ones don’t have to.
Palos Community Hospital Hospice can be reached at (630) 257-1111. Kristine Todd can be reached at (708) 516-8418 or KATODD1@sbcglobal.net