Letting go: Getting rid of a loved one's items
My small spare bedroom is dominated by an old Welsh oak cupboard. It's not in the best condition. The drawer knobs are broken and there are big cracks in the back. I've tried offering it to everyone in the family but they all have unwanted furniture of their own. I took a photo of it to the local auction house but as auction day drew near I found myself incapable of parting with it. I opened the wonky doors and stacked my sheets and towels in it, turning it back into the linen press it once was. It had stood in my Welsh grandmother's bedroom till the day she died at 100.
The cupboard used to stand in my grandparents' living room when I was a child, full of food tins and tablecloths and serving dishes. When it entered my house after my grandmother's death I cried because I felt like she'd come to live with me. When I die my children, in turn, will have to decide what to do with it. I suppose for them it won't represent their long-departed great-grandmother, but me.
A person's daily possessions form a kind of exoskeleton, and the act of disposing of them is another stage of mourning and letting go. Which may go some way to explaining the findings of a survey, this week, that ample space is one of our top priorities when buying a home now. Almost a fifth of homeowners said they had rejected a house because it lacked storage. Because while we live in a disposable society, our habit of using things up and throwing them out does not account for the emotion with which we invest our belongings. Or those of others.
Never does this become more apparent than when dealing with the lifetime of possessions accrued by a loved one, which their nearest and dearest must deal with once they have died. I know, because I've faced this not just with my grandmother's cupboard but with everything my late parents left in their wake.
Nothing prepares you for the emotional force of the things people leave behind when they die. It's nothing to do with monetary worth. You can be expected to value your mother's engagement ring but who knew you'd be paralysed by some old spoons or your father's tool box? It's funny to think we live on in a favourite mug or a sewing box, but we do.
There is a very practical process to go through when you find yourself clearing a loved one's house after their death but the emotional process is different and can take years. I've seen friends incapable of clearing a property. I've seen the contents of a parent's house cramming a daughter's dining room to the ceiling.
I've been through this twice, once when my father died and my mother sold their house to move into sheltered housing and then again when she died. We were helped in the first case by limitations of space. There was simply no room for everything as she downshifted from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom flat. The second time I was constrained by the need to move out quickly.
There are things people want, things they can't make up their mind about and things they definitely don't want. In which case you are looking at auction rooms, eBay, charity shops and the house clearance men who will charge you to remove things. Selling takes energy and, despite the lure of Antiques Roadshow, old furniture often has very little value.
It feels good to let old friends and family take what they want. When my childless godmother died she told me and her many nephews and nieces to take something. Nobody else wanted her blue and white china so I now have a matching dinner service and think of her every time I use it.
When my stylish mother died, none of us could fit into her clothes, but her cleaner, a trim and pretty woman, was thrilled to take her pick and, as a thank you, bundled up the rest and took it to the charity shops.
I was ruthless with my parents' furniture but have other things of theirs that are difficult to house yet impossible to part with. My mother painted. My father wrote. I have framed the best of her work but have run out of wall space. I have boxes of my father's novels and files of his notes. When I open a box and find more of his handwriting, it is as though he materialises in front of me.
The secret of dealing with the emotional attachment that clings to material objects is all in the timing. At one end of the spectrum is the person who can let nothing go. At the other end is someone who can select just a few objects to embody the person they have lost. Many are simply overwhelmed by the task; to part with a loved one's material possessions feels like a secondary loss.
But when the right amount of time has passed it no longer feels like a betrayal. Letting go is the right thing to do, even if it causes an emotional wrench. We value storage, but we can't keep everything. Nor should we.
I watched my parents' unwanted and valueless furniture being loaded on to a house clearance van and felt proud of my decisiveness. Nevertheless, five minutes after the van disappeared I sat down and sobbed like a child.
- The Telegraph, London