What to do with your loved one’s possessions?

Less than two months after my sister’s murder, her 24-year-old daughter (my niece) called and asked for my help.   My sister owned her home and the insurance company would pay for a total restoration; however, everything had to be removed from the home before the restoration could begin.

When my niece was talking to me about this, I realized I was holding my breath.  My sister was murdered in her home and now, we had to walk into that home and clear it of all her possessions.  Of course, I told my niece we would help.

We chose a day and met at the house.  My niece, myself and my grown son and daughter, my other two sisters and one brother in law were as prepared as we could be to help my niece with what seemed like a monumental task.

I tried to prepare myself, mentally, for what I would see when I walked into the house.  I wanted to see her home as I remembered it. Bright, light colors, lots of pastels, a pretty home.  As I walked in the door, I realized immediately it was no longer bright and pretty.  The carbon left from the fingerprint dust stains every surface it touches.  The walls, every flat surface, door knobs, light switches, everything was dark. It was haunting.  I remember thinking, I used to watch those crimes shows on television, but not once did they ever show this part.

I cried and felt physically ill. My children helped me through those moments.  I then told myself, I am here to help my niece. This has to be done, we will get through this day, and we will get this finished.

My daughter took the lead that day. She delegated to me and my other two sisters, mainly to keep us focused on the task at hand.  We focused on the three bedrooms. My son and brother in law cleaned the kitchen…removed food from the refrigerator and cupboards.  The two of them also went and rented a U-Haul to load the furniture that we could salvage from the home.  They also moved everything in the living room to the outer edge of the wall.  My niece chose to stay in the kitchen most of the day. She would pack the kitchen.  I understood.  She couldn’t bring herself to go through her mom’s clothes. That was okay, we would do that for her.

I had spoken to my grief counselor a few days before going to the house. She suggested we make four piles. Keep. Toss. Donate. And the I don’t know pile.   I suggested that to the family and we all agreed. And that’s exactly how we did it.

Most of her clothes were donated to Goodwill.   We did keep some of her clothes.  We had teddy bears made out of some of her sweaters and sweatshirts.  I kept some of her softer clothes. I would have a quilt made out of those clothes for my niece’s first baby.  A quilt made from their grandmothers soft clothes.

Since my sister had several good friends, I kept them in mind also. I had a special pile of small perhaps insignificant things to some to give to her friends.  When I later sent those things to the different friends, they were all so grateful for having something of their dear friend.  We also made sure to keep a few things for Mom, since she was not physically able to help us that day.

I had a hard time letting go of her things. I wanted to keep it all. I knew that wasn’t possible but it was still hard to let her things go.  I did keep several items to take home with me.  The one thing I kept, my favorite thing, was a soft, pink, fuzzy, jacket I had found in her closet.  I put that jacket on and immediately feel her with me.  Even today, I find comfort in that jacket.

At the end of that day, nine hours after arriving at the house, we had accomplished our goal.   The furniture had been loaded and tagged as to where it would be stored.  Our cars were loaded with what we were taking for ourselves.  I did one final walk through of the house.  I suppose it was my way of saying goodbye to a part of my life that would never be again.

I paused at the closed bathroom door in the hallway. This small tiny room was where my sister’s body was found. This tiny room was where she took her last breath.  I didn’t open the door, none of us had, we didn’t need to see what was behind that door. I put my hand on that door, bowed my head and cried.

My sister’s house has now been completely restored.  The walls were painted, new carpet laid, the bathroom where she died was completely redone, new fixtures, walls, floor, everything.   I drive by the house on occasion. I still remember the fun times my sister and I had in that house.   I still remember the horror that happened in that house too.

When it comes to having to take care of our loved ones’ possessions, my first advice is to ask for help.   We didn’t have the luxury of taking our time, but I would have if I could have.  I would also advise to keep in mind friends that also loved your loved one.  If there’s anything you can part with, to give to those friends and other family members, I think it should be done.

The idea of making the four piles worked well for us. The I don’t know pile went to storage and was mostly furniture.  Since then, all the furniture is now in use by someone in the family.  My niece wanted it that way. She has a few pieces, I have a few pieces, my children have a few pieces and we all cherish what we have.

When I think back on that day, I know my sister was there with us, watching over us, proud of all of us for not only helping her daughter, but for conquering that daunting task.  For all of us there that day, it was a huge step forward in this process.

Shirley Wiles-Dickinson 2011


Shirley Wiles-Dickinson

Shirley Wiles-Dickinson is the youngest of four girls in a Midwestern family. In 2009, her sister was brutally murdered. She writes about her experience following this loss.

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