Julia’s story: Sorting through belongings

01 Mar 2019
Pete, Julia and Eileen stand in front of a thick background of leafy trees

When it aired on Netflix last month, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo made everyone rush to banish their clutter. But what happens when someone you love has died, leaving their belongings behind? How do you decide what to keep and – at what is such a painful time – work out which items ‘spark joy’? After watching episode four of the series (‘Sparking Joy After A Loss’), Julia Cook reflects on losing her parents-in-law and how she navigated the difficult process of sorting through their effects.

When my beloved mother-in-law Eileen fell suddenly ill in February of 2017, it was a grievous shock for my father-in-law Pete, husband Dave and myself.

Pete bravely bore the awful news that she was dying with his customary stoicism and made the decision, with our support, that she be allowed to die comfortably and without further intrusive medical intervention.

Pete had selflessly devoted himself to the care of his wife, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for the preceding four years, taking on all the household duties to care for and support Eileen as she succumbed to the ravages of this cruel disease. It stripped her of her ability to recall names, faces and, eventually, even the layout of her own home and the once familiar things around her.

It was heartbreakingly sad to witness; as Pete so poignantly summed it up: "She's still here but I'm losing her."

He took her out every day, despite his own mobility and breathing difficulties, to sit beside the sea or feed the ducks, for this was what she most enjoyed. She never lost her sense of humour and remembering the 'good old days' kept her content – along with endless cups of tea! 

She was an indomitable woman and I was devastated to lose her in March 2017; my second mother, devoted grandmother, close friend and genial shopping companion.

Saying goodbye to my second father

Bereft fits the way Pete felt after losing Eileen. "She was my best friend and my soul mate," he told us. Life was never the same for him.

I felt that, after she died, his own health began to deteriorate; largely because he no longer had a true purpose and could only really focus on himself – something he had not allowed himself the 'luxury' of doing before.

His dread (quite rightly) was to be hospitalised so, when he became unwell, it got to the stage where he literally couldn’t stand up before he called an ambulance. With his kidneys and heart both failing, it soon became apparent that he would not recover. He died in April 2018.

Because my husband and his sister Chris felt they couldn't give the eulogy at Pete’s funeral, I offered to speak their words – much easier to say than do, I discovered! The excellent vicar stood by me, ready to take over, but I'm proud to say I saw it through.

It was the least I could do; he was truly a selfless man and I loved him more than my own father. His devotion was amazing and, rather like his son, I never heard or could imagine anyone saying a bad word about him.

Beginning the sorting process

Clearing Pete and Eileen’s family home in Felton, Northumberland, naturally fell to Dave and I because Chris and her family live down in Surrey.

I took on the task of going through the most personal stuff to spare Dave the inevitable upset. This worked well; as I was a psychiatric nurse many years ago, I’m pretty good at putting my feelings to one side when practical matters need attention.

I sat, usually on the floor, beside desks, bureau, cupboards and drawers to sort through the numerous possessions and effects that a family accumulate.

It has to be said though that, as a naval man, Pete was very organised and efficient in the way he arranged his paperwork – and indeed everything! As a very pragmatic fellow, he had also told us where all the important documents were, along with his wishes regarding bequests and other details of his Will. Just as he had always done during his life, he made things very easy for us.

Sorting through the contents of their lives was at times very sad (many tears were shed, quietly, privately and together), but it was also, in equal measure, uplifting and inspiring to see and appreciate just what they had achieved in their lives. 

I thought of all the people they had loved, were close friends with, knew as neighbours, employed in their businesses or met in the forces or on holidays and stayed in touch with. The joy they spread wherever they lived around the country and the benefits they brought to their community (most notably the village hall in Felton which would not be such a thriving social hub had Pete not headed the team that bid and successfully won the lottery funding to have it extended and refurbished).

They did these things quietly, diligently and without seeking any recognition. They did it because they cared.

Clothes, trophies and books

The clothing was difficult because I kept picturing them when they wore the items in happier times.

Pete had a blazer with his naval insignia and a sweater with bowling club badge attached. For me, the leather belt that I discovered in Pete's bedside table is my favourite possession of his. It’s so small it must have been his from a much earlier, slimmer age! It fits me perfectly and so he is literally very often ‘with me’.

They were both multiple prize winners with many trophies to prove it! The club gratefully accepted the sets of bowls and other related items.

Pete bequeathed a large collection of books and rare photographs that were taken by him on board the aircraft carriers he served on; I was pleased to see all six large boxes eagerly collected and taken to the Sunderland Air Museum. Many of his pictures appear in reference books; he was generous with them, but never parted with the negatives! It will be a memorable legacy to him, and we plan to visit and see how they have displayed the collection soon.

Clearing the house was often gruelling. Dave and I made many visits to complete the task, which took several months.

A chance discovery

I would say that it was the smallest and seemingly insignificant items that I found the most emotionally upsetting, such as a tiny box of Eileen's containing small, worthless items of jewellery that I knew must be special just because they were placed so carefully apart. Inside was a ring with a turquoise stone; I kept it and like to wear it often, especially when I think she'd like to be present. I wore it this first Christmas without them both and at my daughter Alice's wedding; I shall be wearing it to my daughter Laura's wedding too.

Laura will wear the gold wedding band that I found hidden in a man's purse; a ring so small we can only assume it was an old one of Eileen's. For years, Eileen also wore what she called an eternity ring, now too passed down to Laura (she has her grandmother's tiny hands).

That chance discovery inside the purse really gave us joy. Along with my own late mother's engagement ring (now Laura's) and her eternity ring (now Alice's), as well as Pete’s gold cygnet ring (bequeathed to Dave), these things live on for generations to come. 

There were numerous photograph albums which we split in half, sending one half down with Chris while keeping the rest here with us. As a family, we'll revisit them again and again, especially when grandchildren arrive on the scene.

Gone but never forgotten

Our home looks very different now; an impressive grandfather clock takes centre stage and many items that once adorned the shelves in Felton have pride of place – waiting to be moved higher, out of the reach of little hands!

Pete and Eileen would definitely approve of the changes. They were always generous in their approbation.

So loved ones depart but they leave behind precious things – and, more than that, wonderful memories we can hold in our hearts forever. With loving reminders all around us, they are gone but never forgotten.

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