Clearing out parents' house with widowed Dad.

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My mom died last July, and my sister and I moved rather quickly to get my dad out of the apartment that was their primary home and moved into independent living close to where we live. The whole process seemed abrupt, traumatizing, and inhumane to my dad, who had lived in that apartment, with my mom, for 40 years and had to leave behind everything he knew. I know the move may have been necessary for his health, but I feel terrible about how disempowered and lost he felt about it.

Now my fiance and I are preparing to accompany my dad to clean out the country home in which he and my mom spent many happy summers. It is a 10-hour drive from where we live, and I am dreading the sadness of being in that house without my mom. The house is now sitting vacant and uncared for, and for many reasons it would be wise to get it cleared out and on the market quickly.

The problem is that my dad is not on board with doing this efficiently...he has suggested that we go to the house a few times to complete the process. When I tell him my fiance and I may not be able to make another trip, he says he'll drive there himself...my dad has not driven since his stroke shortly before my mom died, and this is a bad idea.

I'm beginning to think we'll just have to make time for more trips, as I can't bear to traumatize my dad again by forcing him to let go too fast. But I can't take the emotional devastation of going there too many more times....so I am at a loss.

The other problem is that my dad has become more and more compulsive about holding on to objects, and accumulating new objects. While my mom was endlessly generous, especially with her kids, my dad is almost pathologically cheap...especially with us. So I also dread the prospect of going through the house, finding items that my fiance or I might want to keep, and having my dad tell us to leave everything "because he might want to use it next time."

I love my dad but am really stressed out about this upcoming trip. The other stressor is that my sister, who is the executor of my parents' estate, hates the country house and just wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible. How to find a balance among all these competing emotions?

5 Comments

I think this is one of the most difficult post-death processes to be faced.

Perhaps you could treat yourself while you're on the cleaning trips by taking walks in the area, going to a special restaurant, or doing something that relaxes and restores the emotional drain each of you will face. Don't spend all your time cleaning out the country house.

It's hard to make this kind of activity a positive event, but perhaps you can think of some ways to at least lessen the emotional trauma on each of you.

Dad probably will want to bring back mementos, which is understandable because at this stage of his life, they represent things, people and events that were meaningful to him at one time over the years and probably still are important items in his mind.

If there are funds for it, you might consider moving some of the stuff your father wants to save into a storage shed closer to you. When you sense that he's moving away from holding onto it, you can gradually clean out the shed.

On the other hand, are there other relatives who might want some of the stuff, to keep it in the family?

As to the accumulation of new things, I see this as well and don't have a real understanding of the underlying causes, but think it might have something to do with a perception that life is still going to continue for some time and these new things are needed. It must be hard to face the reality that one's life has diminished so much that one really isn't going to be facing the need for new purchases other than ones basic to existence.

In addition, sometimes spending money is an emotional reward in itself. I think this may be a way elders try to emotionally offset the fact that their lives have become so much more limited.

I'm seeing this as well and just got tired of finding new boxes of mail order junk cluttering the house. It's not going to change, trying to do something about it only makes us upset, so I'm trying very hard not to comment when I see new boxes or packages of stuff that's not needed.

Sometimes a reality check is important. Given that a loved one has a limited time left, what's the best way to spend it, and does that best way including even discussing buying new stuff or rather taking advantage of the time left to enjoy each other's company?

Perhaps you could put all the "things to use for next time" in a special area, box, or designation. By the next time you go, your father may have forgotten that he even wanted to save those items. ON the other hand, if it helps him heal, maybe it's worth finding an area to keep them, as I suggested above.

I went through the saving stage after my sister died. Although I was able to dispose of a lot of things, so many things had personal memories and I just couldn't force myself to make a decision on them. So I packed everything up, put some in a storage shed and later gave some of it to relatives for their extended family. Some went to the basement, and some in my garage and I eventually forgot it was there. Now I'm able to dispose of the things, as items, no longer as sentimental objects. But it does take time.

A realtor told me she did the same thing; 5 years later her sister's clothes and items were still in her garage. She had no plans to address them until she felt ready.

To me, the timing of that kind of disposition is more important than just cleaning everything out and moving on.

Since your sister wants to get rid of the house quickly, is there some way she can assist in cleaning it out, perhaps inbetween visits by you, your father and your finance? She might just take those "next time" items.

There is a point to disposing of a house that won't be used because there are maintenance costs, but on the other hand selling the house also creates a visual and tangible loss for your father of the many times he spent there with the family.

My inclination is to ask your sister to set aside costs to pay the taxes for another year while the house is emptied, and also to assist in helping to prepare it for sale. She might back off a bit if she's there on the spot helping with the cleaning out process.

Also, after you return from the trips to the house, plan to spend some extra time with your father that night, weekend, and the next few days at least as it likely will be an emotional event for him as well.
Consider this trip his last one there, encourage him to take mementos, but don't expect him to do much more than wander from room to room and reminisce. Mom "couldn't decide" what to take from her house. So we cleared it out after her one last trip, giving things to cousins as memento's and boxing up what few valuable items were there. It's better if they don't see it carried out.
You could also consider hiring a personal organizer to help you plan on how to best accomplish your task in a short amount of time and work with you that weekend. I watch the show Hoarders a fair amount and for some people, their connection to "stuff" is much stronger than it is to people. It's really sad. But having an organizer there can help keep everyone on track and minimize emotional minefields.

If your family is religious, maybe a visit by a pastor to help in understanding the transition between mom being there and no longer being at the home would help? Sometimes symbolic ceremonies can ease transitions.

I think GardenArtist's idea of a storage shed or area for a while is a great one. Get it out of the house so you can list it, but keep some of it for future sorting and disposition. You might want to leave some of the furniture for staging of the home for sale...good luck, it's not an easy task for sure.
Thanks for everyone's helpful comments...I just need to talk all this through because right now it is overwhelming!

I'm just afraid Dad is going to not let us move a single thing. I actually would be happier in some ways holding on to the house for a while too, as it feels like the last repository of my Mom's spirit on earth--all her energy and joy in her garden, all her sense of humor, all her love and generosity for her kids, all her silliness and love of animals. But then we have to do some things to maintain it, so the house doesn't crumble into the ground. Maybe the easiest thing is to convince Dad to invest a bit in maintenance and spread this process out over the next year or so.

Another problem is that my dad has become pathologically cheap...he is well off (like, really well off) but constantly worries about money. So he won't take well to the notion of paying someone to repair and maintain the house.

Nor will he want to hire someone to help me clean or organize. He will just think that it will take care of itself somehow magically in the future, without him having to plan. My parents always refused to plan, which is why my sister and I were left with such a mess to sort out when my mom died.

It is hard because this is the one thing in dealing with my dad that I can't talk to my sister about, because she has no feelings for that house. I was much closer to my mom, and am much more of a country girl like my mom. So I told my sister to just leave this to me, since she is dealing with so much else with my dad. She doesn't want to go through the process of cleaning the house but wants it to be sold ASAP...I am going to have to tell her that this one time, we have to make space for emotions rather than just doing what is most convenient/ practical/financially reasonable.

But I also need to do some of the cleaning and sorting this time, otherwise the thought of doing it later all at once is unbearable.

The key is going to be figuring out a way to be gentle with my dad but have boundaries. To maintain my good humor even when I feel like smashing something, to chuckle instead of screaming, to hug Dad instead of yelling at him, to feel connected to my Mom and not devastated by letting go of her again.

Ugh. Don't worry, I'm in therapy for this! Thanks for letting me ramble.
My mother has a house, van, RV and Airstream that are still just sitting, 18 months after she went into the NH. The stuff is hers. She doesn't need the money.

I don't see how you are going to clean out anything and sell it, if your dad doesn't want to.

My husband and I just went through this with his mother. She had had a stroke and could no longer function at home. BUT, cleaning out just a mobile home took 2 weeks of solid work. And she was co-operative and realized that it had to be done.

I am 1500 miles from my mother and her home. I cannot imagine cleaning it out, in a short period of time - because that is impossible. My mother is in good heath at 95 and could live another 5 years. My husband encouraged me to go into Mother's house and throw stuff out - but, I have no legal right to do so.

Good luck.

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