Decluttering after a death

Dealing with the aftermath of a death in the family is a long and arduous process. Many kind people are helping me to sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, yet there are many aspects of the task which I must deal with myself rather than delegate. It feels overwhelming at times, and brings up an uncomfortable mix of emotions.

Having been brought up in frugal wartime Britain, my mother seldom threw anything away. When she came to live in New Zealand she brought a container load of possessions. Some of the household items – furniture, bedlinen, crockery and cutlery, ornaments – belonged to my grandparents. She also brought large supplies of clothing, numerous boxes of papers mostly relating to her former academic career, and her precious library of books. It feels heartless to be discarding things which carry so many memories both of her life and mine. But I know it is best that most of them should be given to charity, for I already have all the material goods I want or need.

Some of course ought to be kept, but which ones? It can be difficult to decide. My impatience to finish the job, and be free to get on with more enjoyable projects of my own, is combined with the fear of carelessly disposing too soon of items that are important or valuable or “might come in”.

It is interesting to look through the old family photos, many also dating back to my grandparents’ time, but frustrating to find that most of them are unlabelled. When and where were they taken, and who are the people in them? Some are familiar, but others are obscure. It is strange to see a young woman and her child in a picture and not to know whether they were my mother and me. The letters and personal papers are also of interest, revealing certain aspects of my mother’s life which she never discussed. But I feel a certain sense of guilt about intruding on her privacy. Did she intend that I should read this material after she died, or was she just too tired and unwell to dispose of it before it was too late?

After I have finished closing my mother’s estate I am resolved to put my own affairs in better order – to declutter, organise and simplify. I do not want my own executors to be faced with huge piles of stuff to sort out. But this is easier said than done, and I am already making room in our already fully furnished house for some of my mother’s things, and put all her photos – still unsorted and unlabelled – out of sight in a drawer.

Homer’s story

We have a fourth cat now, a companion for Magic, Leo and Daisy.

Some years ago a large white and black cat started making occasional visits to our garden, wailing like a lost soul. He was frightened and hungry, and after devouring any food I put out for him he would disappear over the fence and not come back for several days.

His distinctively marked tail, black with a white tip, helped neighbours and the local vet to identify him. Apparently he had been born and brought up in the street next to ours. When his owners moved to another suburb about 3 km away he did not settle, and made his own way back along busy roads to his original home.

I contacted his owners, who were pleased to take him back. They kept him indoors for three weeks. But as soon as he was released, he came back here. This scenario was repeated a number of times until I offered to adopt him and they agreed. I renamed him Homer.

Homer stayed at our house for a while, but still did not seem entirely happy. Then one day he followed us on a visit to my mother who lived nearby. He immediately curled up on her sofa and went to sleep. My mother did not particularly want a cat, but Homer refused to leave, and before long she became very fond of him.

clare & homer

So did Leo, a later adoptee, who loved going to visit Homer and seemed to regard him as a role model.

All was well until last year, when my mother went into hospital and eventually died there. Homer was distraught. He had to come back to our house for food, but was reluctant to stay, and could often be heard wailing outside at night. Three days before my mother’s funeral he went missing. After the service I went to check her house and found him lying semi-conscious on the doorstep with a swollen neck. I took him straight to the vet, and next day he underwent surgery for a large abscess.

Since recovering from that operation, Homer has at last become content to be part of our household. He gets on well with all the other three cats. He even jumps up on my lap to be cuddled now and then, and enjoys sleeping on flower pots.

Homer in garden pot