Look at Life: Bereavement

20th May 2016

A Touching Goodbye

By Kathy Walton

If life is a journey, then coping with bereavement is a particularly bumpy stretch of road. Earlier this year, my two brothers and I had the job of selling our late parents’ home after our father’s death and found ourselves completely unprepared for what a roller coaster it would be. As we discovered, when you are sorting through mountains of belongings amassed during a 50 year marriage (our mother had died six years earlier), you’re not simply tidying up; you are rummaging through two people’s lives.

Many times we were moved to tears by things our parents had kept, not because they had any intrinsic value, but for what they told us about our parents’ emotional milestones. The first Mothering Sunday card I made at the age of five; our school reports and misshapen attempts at pottery; the service sheets from our grandparents’ funerals; a grainy postcard that our 10 year old Dad had sent home from Scout camp circa 1937; a snap of Mum and Dad in their going-away outfits, so much in love at the very beginning of their life together – many of these objects survived several house moves. It was so touching to think that our parents had not only treasured them but saved them, knowing that one day, we would go through them.

And the laughs (and arguments) we had over what to do with some belongings! How we giggled when we admitted that none of us had ever really liked one particular painting, and squabbled over a clock that can’t be mended, just because it stood on the mantelpiece for five decades and we couldn’t bear to discard it.

Imagine our indignation when one charity shop assistant reacted as if it were an imposition to be offered our cast offs; or when the auctioneer dashed our hopes of making a fortune from flogging the antiques. When we were told that the Georgian bureau Mum inherited from her grandparents would be lucky to sell for £100, I suddenly came over all emotional and wanted to keep it. Well… you don’t want to give stuff away, do you? Yet even I had to admit that I might not have been so sentimentally attached had it had been worth six figures.

Thankfully, saying goodbye to the props of our childhood produced some real ‘highs’, even for three compulsive hoarders like us. I swear we heard our parents cheering when the book expert at the Keech Hospice shop told us that a pile of musty text books from Dad’s undergraduate days (nearly 70 years ago) fetched £200 online; or when the Dogs’ Trust shop gladly took several threadbare cushions – all lovingly embroidered by Mum’s maiden aunts – for the kennels. Any other charity shop would have incinerated them.

Naturally, some belongings have too special a place in our hearts to be given away, even to close relatives, so we have divided some spoils between our respective homes in the hope that one day, our children might want them in their turn. Other things I have consigned to the loft, telling myself that if I haven’t looked at them in a year’s time, it means I will have ‘moved on’ enough to be able to chuck ‘em then. When lack of space drives me to eBay, I’ll probably follow a friend’s advice and take photos of the things that are important to me before I finally part with them.

To our delight and surprise, some of the stumbling blocks we encountered on our ‘journey’ proved to be stepping-stones. When no one, not even a local school or recycling charity, would take Dad’s childhood piano (for free), I went to enormous trouble to find a loving home for it. After all, it had once had the distinction of being the very last piano to make it across the Irish Sea to Londonderry before WWII was declared and all domestic shipping ceased. Allowing it to be smashed to smithereens at the dump seemed like a terrible betrayal, so when its new owners texted me to say that they’d given ‘him’ a name and that ‘he’ was already part of the family, I was ridiculously pleased, as if something within me had shifted. And, crucially for my grieving process, I knew my parents would be proud of me.

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