After A Parent's Death

Dismantling the family home: holding on and letting go.

Posted Jan 17, 2018

After my mother died seven years ago at 84, my father didn’t want to live in their house alone. He was 91 and still healthy. They had lived in a small house near Chicago for fifty-five years.

He wanted to move to an apartment in a senior community. He didn’t want to spend time in the house. It had been a happy place but was full of sadness for him now. The rooms felt empty of my mother, yet somehow full of her presence.

This was a difficult time. We were grieving. But dismantling and selling the house had to be done.     

“Is this what we’re all reduced to?” my cousin said after her grandmother died. “Someone else throwing out our things?”

When a parent dies, a part of our life ends. Dismantling a parent’s house or apartment is another ending. The objects that belonged to someone close to us are more than “things.” They are wrapped in memory and emotion.  

Sigmund Freud wrote to his brother about their father’s death: “By the time he died, his life had been over, but at a death, the whole past stirs within me.”

My sister, two cousins, my children, and I sorted the furniture and personal belongings in the house. We emptied closets, drawers, and cabinets. This was exhausting, emotional, yet, on occasion, comforting work. We found: family letters to my mother and invitations from sixty years ago, lists she wrote, World War II savings bonds, boxes of old photos, clothing from the 1950's, report cards, a 1972 calendar open on a desk—even my mother’s home-made wedding dress and old-fashioned, elbow length, white cotton gloves.

The secrets revealed from possessions of a lifetime tell us a story, whether it’s our first parent who has died or the last. Often what we learn helps us discover the unknown—a side of a parent that wasn’t seen or hadn’t been available before. We may experience a range of feelings we weren’t in touch with, such as leftover anger, regret, loss, disappointment, or gratitude. We may be surprised by the way the past can invade the present and spill into the future. 

We can ask family and friends to help. Some families delegate tasks and hire an estate service to organize a sale of items and donate or discard the rest.

My sister and I made tough decisions. In the crawlspace, we found the wooden sled we’d ridden in the snow as children. The sled sparked memories. It had to go; I felt as if I were letting go of childhood. No one had room for the old baby grand piano or the armchair where our grandparents used to sit. She and I wanted some of the same things, but we were flexible and able to negotiate, and also moved furniture to my father’s apartment, gathered donations, and filled bags with trash.    

The amount of stuff in a parent’s home may be overwhelming.

“After my mother died,” a friend told me, “we had to give away all her furniture. Her dining room set. Big walnut pieces. No one could use them. I felt guilty. She was proud of how she’d put together her home.”

We can keep things, give some to family and friends, and photograph items that have meaning but that we have to give away or throw out.  

Ronna Wineberg
Source: Ronna Wineberg

In the basement, my son found a bulging manila envelope in a pile of papers. Inside the envelope were letters my father had written from the Army during World War II. He wrote to his mother, sisters, and brother about what it was like to be a soldier at that moment in history and time in his life. 

As we look through a parent’s possessions, we are seeking closure, but what we discover may give us new perspective. The bits and pieces we learn about a parent can teach us about ourselves. There is unexpected meaning in both saving and letting go. 

We also may have the opportunity to revisit a parent’s past dreams and ideas, and to see what a parent had to give up in order to take care of the necessities of life.

Finding my father’s letters reminded me of his dreams when he was young. He’d wanted to be a doctor, but that wasn’t possible. His father died when my dad was seventeen. My father took over the small family dry goods business because he had to support his mother and siblings.

My father had a sense of humor, was responsible, smart, practical, and devoted to the family. He knew about politics, sports, history, enjoyed music and theater, but he didn’t talk much about emotions. However, he wrote about his emotions in the letters.

The letters are sitting in a file cabinet in my apartment. I have read only a few of them. There wasn’t time to read them all after my mother died. The house sold eight months after her death. My father died a year later; the losses had felt too fresh. The letters I’ve looked at give me a new understanding of who he was.

His voice, hopes, and disappointments are on the pages he wrote. The war, history, and politics are there, too.

I read once that every letter has two lives—one in the writer’s mind, and the other that the reader gives to it. 

I’m ready to read my father’s letters, to give them their second or third life. Perhaps in some form, they will make their way into my own writing.

We may not find letters like my father’s. However, we’ll most likely find something that gives us new insights—good and bad—about a parent and our own lives. Sorting a parent’s possessions triggers memories, discoveries, and unexpected emotions. These insights are gifts, laced with both joy and grief. Their meaning will become clear to us in time.