My co-worker and I were discussing plans for spring break from the college where we work. “I’m going home,” she declared. I knew this meant she would be traveling to visit her mom and dad several thousand miles away. Though married and middle-aged, home was still where her parents lived.
I could relate. The places where my mom and dad resided always represented “home” to me, no matter what my age. Their house possessed an irresistible magnetic force, especially during the holidays. It was where I could drop in anytime, be warmly welcomed, and stay as long as I wanted. Mom and Dad’s home represented familiarity, comfort, love, and security. It was my soft place to land.
Even after mom passed away eight years ago, dad remained living in their house, so it continued to serve as a central gathering place for our family. For years I dreaded the day when dad would no longer be able to live there and my brothers and I would be faced with dissolving his estate. Though I knew it was inevitable, the thought overwhelmed me—not only because of the magnitude of the task, but because it would mean losing my home base.
This past fall that time sadly arrived for our family. After our dad’s health turned, we were faced with disassembling his home filled with a lifetime of memories.
My brothers and their significant others were only in town for a brief period, so we kicked into high gear to tackle the mammoth job. Dad’s neat house became a disaster area as we pulled every item out of the cupboards, closets and drawers. Due to the brevity of time, we were forced to make rapid-fire decisions about what to keep, toss, recycle, give away, or put on an estate auction. The job involved not only reviewing things that belonged to our parents, but items that traced all the way back to our great-grandparents.
As we progressed, I breathed a prayer of thankfulness for how well things were going. We were all working hard and maintaining a spirit of support and cooperation. There were times we briefly paused to muse about a particular item, like the “smiling kitty” cookie jar we had all dipped our hands into many times as children.
If one of us found something we wanted to keep, we simply shouted across the room, “Does anyone else want this?” The typical response was, “No, you can have it!” There was only one time when two of us wanted the same thing. We amicably settled the situation by drawing names.
I remained focused and kept my emotions at bay until I found myself alone in the back bedroom with mom’s 50’s-era Pfaff sewing machine. As I opened the cabinet, plastic bags bulging with fabric remnants greeted me. It was like discovering a time capsule as I thumbed through the swatches – all still as bright as the day mom first cut out the patterns.
A sunny piece of yellow panda-print fabric transported me back to seventh grade as I remembered the pretty dress I wore for my school portrait. A plush scrap of burgundy velvet revived the elegance I felt as I walked onto my high school stage in my floor-length madrigal dress.
But more than recalling the many outfits mom lovingly created, my memory was flooded with the sights and sounds of her sitting at the machine, the needle purring its way through the cloth and the thread spinning recklessly in response. I dropped the bag of remnants and clung to the old wooden cabinet as my sobs finally broke free. Even though mom had been gone for years, I realized that cleaning out my parents’ home meant not only grieving dad, but re-grieving mom.
After my brothers left town, I continued making pilgrimages to the house to finish the job. This included diving into a treasure-trove of childhood belongings piled high in a corner of the basement. Since I didn’t have space in my own house to assimilate everything, I knew I had to part with most of the stuff. As I sorted through the boxes, I whispered prayers of gratitude as I was reminded of my happy childhood. But I also grieved having to say good-bye to souvenirs of my life, including dolls, Breyer model horses, my 5th grade ukulele, and a collection of school projects all the way through college.
After several more weekends of working alone at my parents’ house, things were finally ready for the auctioneer to pick up. I put on another brave face the day the crew loaded mom and dad’s things onto two rickety open-air trailers. I invited a couple of friends over for moral support, and they wisely kept me distracted as the movers filed by with my parents’ furniture – including mom’s sewing machine.
Hours later, after my friends had left, the auctioneer’s crew finally finished. I stood outside as their pick-ups strained to pull away with the overloaded cargo. My last glimpse was of mom and dad’s turquoise vintage Lane recliner. It was precariously perched backwards on the end of a trailer – almost like a child turned around in the rear seat of a car, waving good-bye.
In that instant, my emotions flooded in again. It suddenly felt barbaric to send the remnants of my parents’ good lives off to a cluttered auction barn to be pawed over by strangers and scattered to the wind. I hurriedly slammed the door, sunk to the floor and wailed from the depths of my soul.
Over the next few weeks, my focus turned to cleaning the house in preparation for its new owners. Every time I walked through the door, it still felt like dad should be there, greeting me with his sweet smile and cheery voice. Intellectually I was thankful the home had sold fairly quickly, and I genuinely liked the buyers. Yet my heart was having a hard time letting go.
I remember feeling conflicted the day I focused on cleaning the refrigerator. As I wiped the crumbs off the shelves and scrubbed the fingerprints from the door, it almost felt disloyal to erase the final traces of my father’s life there.
My friend described it well when he said, “you were grieving what was, and will never be again.”
The Sunday before the sale closed, I made one final trip to the house. I visited each room to say good-bye and take pictures. My last stop was the living room. Out of sheer will, I spoke a prayer of blessing over the house and its soon-to-be owners. To seal the deal, I left a home-made card on the table with a picture of dad and me on it.
“On behalf of my brothers (but especially on behalf of my mom and dad), welcome to your new home!
We are thankful for you and wish you many years of happiness in this house.
May you continue the legacy of kindness, peace, faith and love that our family experienced here.
As my dad often said, “The best to you!”
As I pulled out of the garage for the last time, I knew that an era had come to its end. In the weeks since the new owners moved in, I’ve never been back to that side of town. The lyrics of Danny Gokey’s latest song, “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” have been resonating with me:
“Yesterday’s a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again.”
Easier said than done, I’m discovering. I’m far from over the multi-faceted process of grieving. The landscape of my life is still in transition as I struggle to find my “new normal.” As I continue my journey as a neophyte orphan, I know I’ll keep experiencing the far-reaching implications of losing my final parent. However, I’m also confident that God will faithfully give me strength and hope, one day at a time.
One thing’s for sure. I haven’t truly lost my home base—it’s really been in heaven the whole time. And now it has an even stronger gravitational pull.
Tips for Cleaning Out Your Parents’ House
- You can do it! Sorting through and disposing of your loved one’s belongings will be hard. But remember that millions of families have gone through the same thing and survived. You will get through it!
- Prep beforehand. If possible, talk ahead of time with your parent(s), siblings, or other significant parties about how you will approach dividing assets. You may wish to label some items in advance for particular family members, or formally spell out in a will who will receive certain things. If your parents are open to it, do a bit of downsizing/organizing while they are still alive.
- Set a timeline. When the time comes to remove the contents of the house, set a schedule for getting the job done. Depending on how quickly you need to act, you may be able to take a more leisurely approach and tackle things in small bites (e.g., on one weekend sort through the kitchen, and on another, a bedroom, etc.) If you must empty the house in a compressed timeframe, consider putting some items that need more careful review (e.g., photos, old letters, etc.) in storage for examination later.
- Create a tactical plan. Decide how you will approach sorting through the items. One way is to designate areas in the house so you can group things by category, such as items to be donated to charity, sold, distributed to family, recycled, or disposed of. Have plenty of boxes, sticky notes, packing tape and permanent markers on hand.
- Save a little, let go of the rest. Resist the urge to save everything. Pick a selection of items that will appropriately fit in your home. Choose things that represent special memories you had with your loved one or may fill a practical need in your house. Give yourself permission to get rid of the rest. (For me, it got easier after I “tossed” the first few items. Momentum kicked in and I felt less guilt as I progressed!)
- Avoid conflicts. Decide ahead of time how you will address the situation when more than one person wants the same thing. Consider using a neutral way to solve the matter, like drawing names or picking a number.
- Realize the distribution won’t be “equal.” It’s almost impossible to divide a house full of tangible assets in a perfectly “fair” or equitable manner. For one, there’s no way of knowing the actual monetary value of everything. Rather than focusing on absolute “fairness,” place a higher value on finding a way for each family member to receive items of sentimental importance to him or her. Also consider what practical things they may be lacking in their homes. Don’t let comparison or greed sour the process.
- Let grace abound. Treat your family with grace and patience – remember that it is a stressful time and emotions are running high. Keep your focus on honoring your parents and supporting your loved ones who are grieving, too. Make it a priority to preserve relationships.
- Grieve your losses. Give yourself permission to mourn not only the loss of your parents, but parting with their “things” and the place you may have called home. Talk about your feelings and don’t be afraid to cry.
- Lean on God. Remember that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18, NIV) He understands your pain and will help you each step of the way.
I hope that sharing our family’s story has benefited you, whether you still have your parents, or you have already walked this sacred journey. If you have additional insights and suggestions for navigating this difficult process, feel free to add to my list of tips in the comments section of this blog so other singledevotion readers can benefit from your experience!
Blessings on you and yours, always.
P.S. To read a story about missing family in heaven, read my blog post Not Homesick Anymore.