At some point, you will be involved in the process of making decisions about someone’s possessions – your own, those of a loved one, those of a friend. Of all the situations we face, this one is most open to confusion, overwhelm, despair and outright fighting – unless you have a plan.
Sometimes, families come to blows over the simplest of items. In one family, the one item everyone wanted was an antique pinball machine. Everyone coveted it; no one mentioned wanting it. When the family patriarch passed on, everyone was braced for a battle, only to find that the pinball machine had been given to a neighbor’s child decades ago. Do you think money causes family feuds? It’s more likely to be some object cherished by one or more sibling – or something no one thought was valuable at all.
For me, the wake-up call came when my grandfather died and none of his possessions was offered to anyone. As children, we had sat in front of the fireplace on tapestry footstools. I wanted one. I still want it. I’ll have to settle for the memory. For a cousin, it was a cheap pitcher brought back from Mexico by my father. He remembers our grandmother making the best lemonade in the world and serving it in that pitcher. Today, I wince at the potential for lead poisoning and remind him that he too can open a can and make that lemonade, but reality doesn’t trump memory. After protracted discussions, the pitcher finally went to him.
How can you avoid trauma? Or at least reduce it? Community helps. Make decluttering or downsizing or disposal a group event. Allow plenty of time, serve food, preserve memories and create a few new ones.
Sort, Sort, Sort
If your parents need to downsize, sit with them and sort through their belongings. Decide what needs to go, what could be given away, and what must remain. Label items for current or future distribution. Some parents have asked their children to put color-coded dots on furniture they hoped to inherit. Siblings could negotiate and avoid arguments in a time of stress.
Gather as many family members as possible, if you can. There are wonderful stories to be told. One family discovered a box of old sepia-toned stiff photos of unfamiliar people in what appeared to be costumes. They turned out to be early versions of head shots. Every old photo can bring up a new story. Tape the event so the stories are preserved!
Repackage – Go Digital – Recycle
What can be put together in some organized way? Rather than save magazines, create scrapbooks of clippings. What can be scanned and preserved on disk? This can be a great way for everyone to have copies of family photos – or letters – or journals – or newspaper articles. Those old recipe cards? Create an on-line family cookbook. Old books can be bundled for the library sale. Clothes can go to a thrift shop or a consignment shop. Save a few for dress-up or Halloween costumes.
If you are faced with dealing with a loved one’s possessions after their death, some of the tips above still apply. Making the process a group activity helps. The item-tagging process can be modified so that individuals place one dot at a time, allowing each to choose what they want most, then next most, etc. Allow time for discussion over popular items.
Few things are as divisive as what appears to be an unfair distribution of property. Does someone have a special interest in knitting? Why not give them all the yarn. Can something be divided? One friend reported that a relative divided the contents of several jars of pennies to be sure everyone got their fair share. That may be going too far.
Who, outside of the immediate circle. loved this person? Why not be sure that they have a remembrance.
Take breaks. Laugh. Remember. Share loving moments and you’ll get through this richer in every way possible.
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