The Stuff of Death

When my grandmother died, no one had touched the belongings in her attic or most of her house in at least 11 years. Her attic was the kind you access from a set of pull down rungs at the top of steep stairs surrounded by creepy ancient wallpaper that looked indicative of Versailles. The pull down ladder stairs creaked threatening to give way under any amount of weight more significant than 91 pounds, my grandmother’s weight. She had a three bedroom house with an old barn up on the hill behind the house. It smelled of old New England town, white clapboards and forest green shutters, across from a perfectly named First Parish Congregationalist Church.

She was born in 1919 to a farming family, nothing was wasted and she lived through the Great Depression. She held onto rubber bands until they disintegrated or needed to be tied back together again. She kept aluminum foil ironed in a kitchen drawer for compulsive reuse. She used the money she saved on rubber bands and tin foil to pay for vacations to Hawaii and the like. She made all her own clothes as well as those of her children. She had a mass of old snapshots and every shoe box for each pair of shoes ever purchased by her to keep the dust off them.

One day her COPD surged with an exacerbation and I took her to the hospital. Within the week her doctor called and informed me of the proverbial “taken a turn for the worse”. He let me know I should make arrangements for hospice so she could die in her own home instead of being inudated by the sterility and beeps hospitals have to offer. The process after that point was very quick, 7 morphine filled days to be exact. Her children flew in and drove to be by her side before she took her leave. They took the week off of work to be with her as she slowed to a stop. After she died there was the service to plan and quickly moving onto dealing with her possessions and house. So many of the things were dusty or moldy or crumpled beyond repair. A dumpster was acquired.

Throwing things out felt like a treasonous act especially these things as they told the story of her 81 years. How could I pitch her daughter’s babydoll carriage or the abandoned beakers from a chemist making silver polish for sale in her barn or the hoola skirt her boyfriend bought her when he was station at Pearl Harbor for the day of the attack?  If I couldn’t bear the thought of her things being thrown into a giant dirty and rusted metal container I told her children I would keep it until a date in the future when we did not feel so rushed. Her kids put things up for auction that might have had value that they did not want to keep. I needed time to get the things to where they would best live out their days. It was like looking for the home for the Velveteen rabbit. There were lots of period clothes that might serve a local Theatre Dept. well and my grandmother would have loved that as she had a bit of the drama in her. It was nice to be able to take the time to appropriately rehome things,  this action seemed in the spirit with her very soul.

Now that I am facing a house full of stuff from my life with my too soon deceased husband it feels different, radically so. Her stuff never felt overwhelming because it was not entangled with my own. Her things told a story of a life I barely knew,  kind of romantic in a far off distant foggy way. My house, our house haunts me day in and day out and I have our son to think about. He could want these things some day, but he does not have a place to store these things. I frankly want to sell the house and I have waited 2 years since he died which is a year longer than the prescription for widows.

My son doesn’t want me to get rid of a single piece of paper with his father’s chicken scratch on it or pair of pants, even if I bought it at a yard sale for his papa for fifty cents. He doesn’t want me to put the ashes in the ground or scatter them, he also doesn’t want them in his room. It feels disrespectful to banish the wooden box with the love of my life’s moondust in it to the attic and yet I am ready for them not to be on my dresser where I see it every morning. I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of dealing with the stuff of death, which is funny strange because I am normally a person who gets a thrill from dealing with the house of a hoarder. I have reduced a three bedroom house to fit in a small section of a moving truck for my own mother. The task that now faces me feels like too much. I was not expecting that. I guess what I am saying is the stuff of death hits me different depending on who died, when and  what my relationship to the person was. If strength could fall from the sky to help me through this next step in my healing process I would be ever so grateful.

Kim Shute

Kim Shute

More Articles Written by Kim

Kim has experienced bereavement first hand after her husband of 19 years died suddenly of Leukemia at the age of 48. Kim has been a stay at home mother for seventeen years and homeschooled her only son for most of that time. She has a B.A. in theatre/dance and a M.F.A. in Performance Arts. Kim has done course work in Individual and Group Crisis Intervention with first responders, clinician and clergy for Hurricane Sandy and 9/11. She has done bookkeeping for local contractors, taught ESL for a literacy program, run her own gardening business, taught speech communications and acting. She also helped managed and promote a twenty million dollar housing project in Massachusetts. She has been heavily involved for ten years at Channing Church where she researched, wrote and offered many services as well as helped with marketing and community outreach. Since her husband’s death she has been reading and studying up on the funeral industry and grief support. She has always loved writing and is thrilled with the opportunity to share her stories to help others feel understood and less alone in this crazy club, no one ever wants to join. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island with her teenage son and retired mother.


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  • Neela says:

    My husband of 32 years was murdered in our home in front of me on the 10th December 2017 he was only 54 years old every day seems to get worse than the day before

    • Rev. Dr. Cynthia Cole says:

      Oh Dearest Neela my heart goes out to you in the tragic loss of your husband and the pain that grips you moment to moment of everyday. The violent sudden death that invaded your family, your home and the violation of your person to have witnessed the attack is a traumatic, life changing fact! For the spirit,soul and mind to process the impact of this unchangeable reality takes time, work, patient determination and more time. For your ability to reach out and share your story at this time sister is a testament to your strength and love for your husband that his death will not be in vain. This is a very powerful, positive and important action of courage as well. Be assured that others may and do share your pain and we will go through this journey together. Please continue to reach inside of yourself to release the pain as well as reach outward for the healing to continue.
      Be encouraged to keep your voice and this, your authentic experience, to remain an empowered participant in your own spiritual, mental and physical health and well being. Please know that you are not alone, you are loved and prayed for in this greatest challenge for the continuation of your life journey. From the inside out and as long as it takes, walk through, keep going through and be strengthened and renewed moment to moment, day by day as you learn to embrace your new norm, and unfamiliar, new familiar. Your well being now becomes the center of your world so that you have something of yourself to share by giving those depending on you for strength, direction and love.