What will you be leaving behind?  And who will you task with it when you are gone? The task can be daunting from figuring out the bills and funeral arrangements to determining what to do with all of your possessions especially if you haven’t prepped for it.  No one wants to face the inevitable narrowing down of their lives as they age. The contraction of one’s space and possessions is both sad and overwhelming.  Culling through a lifetime of memories can be daunting for you or your loved ones left to deal with it. 

When my mom passed away 10 years ago, I had my first experience helping someone through their end of life. She was very organized and actually had an accordion file labeled “For Valerie Upon My Death” that outlined all the steps I’d need to take. After holding her funeral, distributing her things, and selling her house, I took what was left — mostly meager scraps of 78 years on earth: pictures, her military and job awards, cassette tapes of her singing in her band, mass cards — and curated my first box. Corrugated cardboard, 10-by-12, 15 inches deep, it would not be my last. That box sits gathering dust on the top shelf of a closet in my office. It gives me pause to think that all she was physically is now condensed to this. 

Box No. 2 was for a dear lifelong friend who succumbed to frontotemporal dementia. I knocked on her door one day to find out why everyone was reporting her odd behavior, and ended up managing her life until she died three years later at 69.

Then came a 70-year-old distant cousin of my husband’s family with both mental and health issues who became an obese hoarder and had to move from an apartment to assisted living. I have been the “boots on the ground,” picking her up from the hospital, organizing and cleaning out her apartment, chasing down her bills, and helping her make funeral arrangements so everything can be tidy when she goes.

Although she’s still living in a nursing home, I’ve already got the box with the mementos and paperwork she doesn’t have space for in her small room, waiting for the inevitable day when none of these items will be needed or wanted. That’s Box No. 3. The corner of my basement is starting to get crowded.

Last year my uncle, who never married and was childless, died suddenly. I’d been working with him for two years as his health care proxy and executrix of his will, and I had power of attorney. Here I went again, distributing his things, selling his house, wrapping up his 81 years into a box that included his military discharge papers, tax returns, mass cards, Social Security card and little else. Box No. 4.

This past summer my dad died. I’d been managing his and my stepmom’s lives for the past three years. The first dismantling of the chock-full home they built 30 years ago was daunting — disbursing items to family members, holding garage sales, selling items on Craigslist and still ending up with two dumpster loads of items no one wanted or could use. I did this all while keeping the rest of the family away so they couldn’t see my ruthless culling. Emptying out his most recent memory-care facility apartment wasn’t as hard since we’d downsized to a small room one week before he went into the hospital for the last time. Box No. 5.

All of these people fiercely resisted these reductions. My role was to be the diplomat and guide them through their final phase/end of life, a phase that doesn’t require (or have room for) a lifetime of objects. I think they pick me to be their escort through this culling precisely because they sense I can face it without hand-wringing; somehow, they trust me.

I’m not sentimental about stuff. I mercilessly purge items I won’t use again. I’ve never been interested in ancestry or relatives further back than my grandparents. I’ve preternaturally understood since my 20s that our lifespan is a fleeting grab at a fragile airborne bubble. I loved my parents, but it was their time. Would having another one or even 10 years have made a difference in our overall relationship?

I’ve held the hand of a loved one as they passed away three times so far. It’s profound and humbling, and reinforces my certainty of what matters. This last dance of the spirit does; the stuff in these boxes doesn’t. 

I’ve promised my children I’ll try not to fight them when a decade or two from now they have to manage the end of my life. It might be a wonderful relief not to have to decide anything anymore. I’ll have my own pile of boxes to add to these when my time comes, and I hope I can let go of them with grace. 

We’ll see.

Main photo: iStockphoto.com/PeopleImages.

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