YOU expect grief to hit you like it
does in the movies, with a round of sobbing and a fresh black outfit with
matching hat, followed by two weeks of staring out the window at the rain,
hands wrapped around a half-full coffee mug.
It’s half-full because you’ve forgotten to drink the coffee. That’s how melancholy you are if you’re, say, a widow played by Sandra Bullock.
Grief could also strike you the way it does in soap operas, in a flurry of tears plus sappy, bad-hair clips of “memories” from decades of programs past. Before the white flowers are arranged at the bogus daytime TV funeral, the nasty recriminations start flying. In soaps, death is just a plot device that comes in handy when an actor’s contract hasn’t been renewed.
In real life, grief comes in unpredictable waves. There’s the first tsunami, then smaller versions, and then apparently calm seas, until a storm springs up. The storm might appear to be completely unconnected to the person who has died. Suddenly you are overwhelmed by the fact that you forgot to pay last year’s GST remission. Cue the waterworks.
Regular readers of this column know I have lost both my elderly parents to illness over the past year and a half. This is obviously a natural part of life – and we all know there are far worse stories than mine. Nevertheless, the topic of grief captivates me at the moment. I’ve come to the point where I’d like to be told there’s an appealing destination at the end of this bumpy road. And I’d really appreciate a map.
So I was intrigued to read on Wikipedia that a noted British psychiatrist called John Bowlby long ago “outlined the ebb and flow of (grieving) processes such as shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.”
Being literal-minded, and fond of household renovation reality TV, I seized on Bowlby’s notion of “disorganization and despair” with an inward “Aha!” On further reading, it became clear that he was talking about mental and emotional “disorganization” as a result of losing a crucial and defining relationship. He had not, in fact, touched on the despair I am also feeling at trying to organize my late parents’ condo in preparation for putting it on the market.
It could be worse. Thankfully, my mum and dad had winnowed down their possessions over the years, first when they moved across the country to retire on the Sunshine Coast, and then when they relocated from a Sechelt suburb into its downtown. I do not have the daunting task my husband had years ago, of attempting to rid a sizeable family home of decades worth of stuff collected by his departed father, who couldn’t throw anything out. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult responsibility to sort through the possessions of people you love after they have gone.
We humans leave behind so much stuff, no matter how hard we may try to keep our lives de-junked. Our families are haunted by our orphaned possessions until they’ve disposed of them, at which point they are no doubt crushed to think that we and our stuff have both irretrievably vanished. Every time I return to Sechelt now I am both reluctant to go because my parents won’t be there, and sad to think that soon even their home will be lost to me.
Sifting through the belongings of the deceased, there are items we survivors treasure and can’t bear to part with, along with things we don’t especially like that still have value because of the memories they conjure up. There are bits and bobs that the departed squirreled away that we don’t want to disrespect by giving them to strangers, and trappings their own ancestors passed down to them that hold little meaning for us.
And then there are the effects we don’t mind relinquishing, like clothes that don’t fit us. We take these cast-offs to thrift stores, where the overburdened workers always look as if they wish we had burnt the damn things.
In my case, the culling is ongoing. Some items now grace my own home and make me happy because their presence brings my parents to me daily. Some will be shipped to my siblings in Ontario and Quebec, to give them the same feeling.
Others linger in the abandoned condo, poised to ambush my emotions, waltzing me down distracting paths. In one nook is a tangle of unsightly pink plastic doodads, reminding me of my parents’ heartbreaking battles with minuscule hearing aids. “Why is it so impossible to make a hearing aid that’s easy to manage?” I wonder in disgust. “Some Baby Boomer ought to get on that.”
Nearby, a jam-packed bookcase broadcasts my father’s obsession with the Second World War. What so intrigued him about a war in which he was too young to fight?
The stash of paints and other art supplies in the study closet brings back my mother’s interest in watercolour painting, abandoned as the terrible disease MS hacked away at her dexterity. I glimpse her beloved collection of Alice Munro books and can’t imagine how I’ll give them away, at the same time as I know I can’t squeeze another thing into my family’s overstuffed duplex.
Still, sacks and piles of things make their way from there to here to be distributed. There are unsightly mounds wherever I look, not only in my parents’ place, and in my place, but tucked inside the cobwebs of my brain.
My mind and my eyes constantly light on incongruous objects and untenable thoughts. Uh-oh, what’s that? Oh, right -- Mum’s walker, now destined for the hospital’s loan cupboard. In that heap, there’s a used thermometer. Would anyone buy a used thermometer? And what if there really is a heaven?
Having seen my husband enslaved for ages, struggling to sort through his late father’s detritus, I suspected that emptying my parents’ condo might be a challenge. I know it’s not that big a job, really. In preparation for an open house, a dispassionate stranger would be able to get it done with ease.
But I am full of an unruly passion, and I hadn’t understood that emotional disorganization and household disorganization would be such intimate and inextricable bedfellows.