Decluttering and moving on The Tonic www.thetonic.co.uk

Losing loved ones, shedding baggage

When a family home that held up to seven people slowly whittles down to two, then ultimately just one, it’s time to downsize, but how do you go about unpicking a life spent together?

About 18 months ago I lost my lovely step mum – she’d had a whopping great stroke, followed cruelly by cancer (cheers god) which had reached Stage 3-4 before we even knew about it. It was quite simply a case of when, not if. She was in her sixties.

She was the love of my dad’s life. He was over a decade older than her, and as a family we’d always laughed about how he’d be the one to go gaga, and she’d still be young and how she didn’t want to be stuck looking after a doddering old fart, ha ha.

 

At 70-odd my dad found himself learning new skills, being a carer, learning to cook, putting his own life largely on hold

 

But life had other ideas for them both, and at 70-odd my dad found himself learning new skills, being a carer, learning to cook, putting his own life largely on hold. He was amazing. He bore her illness with as much grace as she did, the old dog learning new tricks without grumbling, and his loyalty and faithfulness was both moving and poignant. They were, as they had always been, a clear 6.0 scoring team.

When she finally moved to a hospice, where she rejoiced in the beautiful view outside her window, he refused to let her sleep alone, and moved into her room on an inflatable bed so she would always have him there, never be lonely. She ultimately did what apparently a lot of people do, and waited until there was nobody else in the room to actually die, and he was distraught not to have been there with her. He only went to get a cup of tea.

The nurses assured him that this was normal, and that often loved ones staying close can anchor people to this mortal world, when really they’re ready to leave it. We were of course all devastated, but as anyone who has been through to the bitter end of cancer with someone they love, there was relief too. We said our goodbyes, the funeral was beautiful, and then a bit like when you get off a bus and don’t know quite where you are, we all started to try and get on with life again.

 

Dad was like a lost dog. For the past three years his life had revolved around taking care of someone else

 

Dad was like a lost dog. For the past three years his life had revolved around taking care of someone else, so suddenly there was no need for hoisting, and loading mobility scooters into the specially-adapted car, or making meals, or going to endless rounds of treatments or hospital appointments, or being that rock of dependancy.

So he did what any self-respecting grieving widower would do and bought himself a fast convertible and blew some wind through his hair for a bit. He travelled, kept busy, saw friends abroad. Went to the part-time job he’d kept that had kept him sane through everything, and generally put one foot in front of the other without stopping to draw breath for a while. But of course ultimately, one has to turn and face reality, and that’s where we are now.

He hadn’t planned to move. Certainly there was no way in the first year he could have left the place they’d shared together. She had a spot on the sofa she used to sit and watch out of the window from – moving house would have removed that memory, the image of her graceful poise, watching the birds. Even arriving at the house last week I half expected to see her there, watching out for me walking down the drive, ready with a wave.

But gradually he’s started to move forward ‘without her’. Gone is the stair lift, the ghastly frames round the loos. Gone are the wheelchairs and scooters in the garage. And now, he’s moving house.

At what point does decluttering move from being a rejuvenating and revitalising experience to a place where you go, dammit I wish I had kept that thing? It’s hard to draw that line, but downsizing your living space has something to say about this. Having no choice really helps.

Dad has quite rightly identified that he doesn’t need a big house any more. Nor can he afford to run one, really. He’s OK for money, so that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about too much. But he is the last man standing from a family home where there were five daughters and two parents and much of the clutter left over from those years of slow migration is still there.
 

When you live in a massive converted church and have friends round all the time, and a vast Aga to cook on, there’s a need for stuff like fish kettles, industrial vacuum cleaners and so on

 

So he found a place he liked. Not close enough to any of us offspring for our liking, but hey. He isn’t mad or broken, so we have no choice but to accept that’s where he wants to be. Near his job, near his friends – we get it. And over the past few weeks his step daughters and daughters have rallied around to help sift and sort and chuck and keep. I’m slightly ashamed not to have been able to be with him more, but slowly and surely, Dad and his girls have worked through the frankly staggering volume of ‘stuff’ in the house and whittled it down.

When you live in a massive converted church and have friends round all the time, and a vast Aga to cook on, there’s a need for stuff like fish kettles, industrial vacuum cleaners and so on, but when you’re a single man about to move into a modest three bedroom cottage, less so. The tip and various charities have benefited, as have us kids. But I know he’s found it hard.

He has staunchly done his best to keep a stiff upper lip, but I have seen him when he thinks I’m not looking, staring forlornly at stuff like a mournful Labrador. His life is changing, irrevocably. It’s not just about downsizing – he’s accepting that things will never be the same again. She has gone, he is alone – there will be far fewer drinks parties at the house, or a need to put up huge gaggles of friends visiting. It is the closing of a whole book, never mind a chapter.

 

It’s not just about downsizing – he’s accepting that things will never be the same again

 

He will be OK, I know he will. And I think he’s also looking forward to it being over and into a new place that’s just his, without the memories. As I type this he’s moving house – the packers have been in over the past couple of days, and I’m going over in the morning to help unpack, find homes for the things he has left. I’m going to take him some lunch and I’m going to stay overnight. And start to build some happy new experiences that will make good memories in the new home for him.

Life moves on.

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  • Gosh. That hit so many moments that had been hidden away that I feel so emotional. My husband desperately waiting for our sons to leave the hospice so that he wouldn’t die in front of them, wanting to be my father and then my mother at the end only for them to go as soon as I left the room. The body showing such amazing control over choosing the time of death. And the emptying of the home with so many memories. You’ve made me determined to start decluttering now. Thank you

    • Thank you. If it helps, decluttering and making changes has absolutely been a good thing for him. Just a bit of a journey!

  • Brilliant, sam, on so many levels! Life goes on, but differently and we must all go on too! Independence is precious; one can be lonely in a crowd! Distance is only geography and one can be as far away from a next door neighbour as someone across the world! Memories help bridge the gaps as time marches on and positive thinking never fails to make the best of things! New horizons may be closer but tend to be more detailed and new life in the slow lane is interesting….
    Have decluttered, arranged my funeral, bought a lovely cosy coffin which I use as a blanket box and made every provision for my end of life. Now 81, widowed and no longer travelling far and wide to visit family world wide, I feel quite content to enjoy every day close to home, even making friends with modern technology which has been a revelation! As a solo survivor I feel blessed …..

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Sam Harrington-Lowe