Minimalism and the Death of a Loved One

I debated about telling the sad story behind my grandparents’ death in the summer and fall of 2016. As an introduction to what is looking to be a rather long post that is in essence about minimalism, I figured I’d go ahead and spill the beans. After all, whenever a death occurs in the family, the living are left to decide on what to do with all of the stuff that is left behind. This was the first time that I had to deal with it since I started down the path of minimalism.

To begin at the beginning…

My mother’s parents have never been in good health. At least not since I can remember. My grandfather had diabetes. He was legally blind. He had open heart surgery twice, and was pretty much deaf, not to mention grumpy. General grumpiness seems to be very common among old men. My Nana survived breast cancer, colon cancer, open heart surgery, and a stroke that left her left side fairly unusable. They had both survived a lot.

Born a few months apart, he was born in July of 1930 and she was born that November, they ended up passing away a few months apart. He passed two weeks shy of his 86th birthday and she passed two months shy of hers.

Even though they had been in poor health for decades, things suddenly went downhill fast. My grandfather went to the hospital because gangrene had set in on one of his toes. From what I understand of diabetes, the feet usually go first because of poor blood circulation.

Once admitted into the hospital for the gangrene, the doctors removed one of his toes. He swore that he must have cut his foot on something and didn’t feel it. The infection set in rapidly. Unfortunately, removing the single toe wasn’t enough as the infection spread. It spread to a second toe which they also amputated only to realize that they still didn’t get it all and the infection continued to spread throughout his foot.

It became more apparent that the entire foot was going to have to be amputated in order to stop the spread of the infection. My grandfather didn’t want to do it and I can understand why. He hated that he had to rely on other people. He knew that he was getting older and I think it greatly upset him that he was getting to a point where he wouldn’t be able to do things by himself. Being legally blind hadn’t stopped him but being unable to walk would.

Meanwhile, while he’s in the hospital my grandparents have agreed to have work done on their home. They have recently discovered a termite infestation. You see my grandfather was so distrusting of people – under the impression that everyone was out to scam him –  and as a believer in “your thoughts create your reality,” I can see why he constantly attracted those types of people into his life because he always thought the worst of people.

Years ago he stopped inspecting the house for termites. And guess what? The termites came. When the inspector came to the house, they found extensive damage. The inspector explained that termite tunnels are normally as big around as a spaghetti noodle but the ones he had found were as large as his forearm.

Just before repairs are to begin on my grandparents’ home, my Nana was alone one night and fell. She fractured her wrist, broke her pelvis and part of her spine. She was hospitalized. Shortly after that, my grandfather was informed that gangrene had been found in the heel of the opposite foot. They would amputate again.

Once out of the hospital, they arrived at the same Rehab Center across the hall from one another. He called for her often and she hobbled across the hallway with her cane, disregarding any pain she may have felt, to go take care of a man who she’s known for 70 years. One night she heard a commotion in the hallway and stood up only to see him wheeled past her. The nurses told her, “It’s after midnight. Go back to bed.” My grandfather died that night.

When I went to visit her afterwards, she cried and said, “I wasn’t there with him.” I told her that wasn’t true. I said, “had you not fallen and injured yourself, you would have been at home, asleep, miles away when he passed. Because you’re here, you were right across the hall and you were with him everyday until the end.”

She seemed to feel a little better after that explanation. After her release from rehab, she stayed with my parents while the work started on her home. The construction company said it would only take a week or two. They ended up taking over a month. During that month my grandmother was doing very well until one night she took a turn for the worse. She threw up bile all night and the next day my mother called an ambulance. She spent the next two weeks in the hospital. For 7-8 of those days she didn’t eat anything and she dropped down to 87 pounds. Is was very hard seeing her that way and it’s not how I choose to remember her. Just like my grandfather without feet is not how I choose to remember him.

She never came back home after that visit in the hospital. She died there and in October we had a joint service for both of them at St. Joan of Arc Church.

The Aftermath, a Minimalism Nightmare

I had been through the loss of both of my dad’s parents but my mom’s parents lived two doors down the whole time I was growing up there. There were often visits after school for milk and cookies. And it was especially difficult that we lost them both so close together. So next became the difficult task of cleaning out their house. And this is where the minimalism kicks in.

Because they had a reverse mortgage on their home, they did not own the home and therefore we could not sell it. The home went back to the bank and the bank gave us one month to clear it out. For two people who never had friends over, they certainly had a lot of stuff. Perhaps it was because they grew up with the mentality of the Depression era where you held on to everything you had. They owned sets of China which hadn’t been used in years. Five different sets of silverware, closets filled with bed sheets and rarely worn clothes. They kept everything. Antique furniture became a point of contention as no one had room for it but no one wanted it to leave the family.

The money that my grandparents had saved for their children was spent on hospital bills and house repairs. We inherited stuff that had accumulated over decades. It was a grueling process to go through everything and know all of the memories attached to each item. However, I think it helped my mother realize what a burden her house would be on her children when my parents pass away.

Seeing the brighter side of minimalism

Like my grandparents’ house, my parents’ house is filled with decades of memories. Items such as old batons and dancing costumes set abandoned in a back room. The attic is overflowing with toys that my older brothers had as toddlers. A filing cabinet in my parents’ closet holds drawings from our elementary school years. Why do we hold onto these things? Happiness never lies in the past. To keep a favorite drawing is one thing but to keep all of them? We certainly didn’t want them.

I once cleaned out my parents’ closet. It was overflowing with clothing that was sometimes in my mother’s case, not age appropriate. Many of the items she hadn’t worn in years or had never worn at all by the evidence of the price tag still hanging from them.

Things to take away…

The point of this story is that holding onto things isn’t the answer. You’ll find that with most material objects, once they are gone, you won’t miss them. Holding on to stuff creates more grief for your loved ones once you pass from this world. I will admit, I took some small furniture and items from my grandparents’ house. Now, two years have passed and I’ve since turned around and re-donated all of those items except 6. What did I keep?

  1. My grandfather’s rocking chair/recliner. We got rid of our loveseat and replaced it with this recliner.
  2. A small glass which I often drank milk out of as a child when I would venture up after school for cookies and milk.
  3. An old, standing rotary phone. It still looks pretty damn cool and works if you have a land line. Will I keep it forever? It’s doubtful.
  4. An incense burner that used to sit on top of their piano. My two oldest brothers would often get to light a cone of incense as a treat if they were good when they visited as boys. I will keep this above all the other items. I cleaned it with vinegar.
  5. A mirror.
  6. A washer and dryer. I suppose that’s two items but they go hand in hand. Previously, we didn’t have one and were using quarters at the apartments local facility down the street.

Try not to get too caught up in the memory of objects. Even if you’ve been a minimalist for a while, it can be tempting. Don’t let your brother guilt you into taking several sets of glassware because “they look cool” or “should stay in the family.”

In hindsight, I ended up re-cluttering my home only to re-donate. Holding on to their things can hinder people from letting go of the grieving process. It’s easier to move on when you don’t have the past holding you down. It doesn’t matter if the memories are good or bad either. Now is the time to make new memories by living your life to the fullest today.

Let go.

Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

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