When loved ones die, there is often pressure to deal with their possessions. The pressure to sort can come from multiple sources — family members, friends, even well-meaning acquaintances. This story explores the experiences of two Calgary women — Joy Pavelich and Megan Henkelman — after the deaths of loved ones.
Pavelich lost her 20-year-old son, Eric, to suicide five years ago.
“I’ll always, always miss Eric but now there’s more room to remember the love, you know that deep, deep love and to remember the love without feeling the void,” says Pavelich, who became a community engagement lead with the Canadian Mental Health Commission in Calgary after Eric’s death.
Henkelman, a university student studying psychology, lost her father to cancer in June, after a 10 year battle. She says she’s grateful to have spent Father’s Day with her dad prior to his death.
“All things considered it felt pretty good that we got to have Father’s Day all together so it felt like if there was a timing, it was the best possible timing.”
Possessions provide connection
It’s a cool fall Saturday afternoon in Strathmore. Everything is as it’s always been in the Pavelich home, except for in the living room, where the small memorial to Eric of two framed photos with strands of beads hanging down and a bowl of seashells with a little stone cross beside it.
There are also pictures of Eric hanging on the walls and fridge. His bedroom remains as it was. Every now and then Eric’s brothers go into his bedroom and wear his clothes just like they’ve always done; even Pavelich still wears her son’s clothes.
“I have a hoodie in my room still. It was his very favorite hoodie and it was all ratty and had holes in it and I had accidentally bleached it. So I keep that in my bedroom all the time and it just hangs on the rocking chair,” says Pavelich. “And you know, I’ve had a couple of medium readings. In two of them Eric actually mentions the hoodie so it helps me believe in a connection that goes beyond here and it keeps me feeling like he’s close.”
As Pavelich brings Eric’s hoodie and ball-cap out of her bedroom, she pauses, carefully and deliberately folding the hoodie before placing it on the kitchen counter.
An hour away in the northwest community of Scenic Acres, Megan Henkelman, 23, opens the door to her parent’s closet and turns on the light. Her dad’s clothes, belts and shoes fill up half of the closet.
Like Pavelich, Henkelman still enjoys wearing her father’s clothing around the house, especially comfortable shirts she wears to bed. After she wears his clothes, she washes and returns them to his closet.
“His closet and stuff, I feel like it would almost be really weird to clear it out and then it would be an awkwardly empty space,” says Henkelman.
Counsellor Shannon Towson says that survivors of loss, like Henkelman and Pavelich, must honour where they are at in the process and take their time, especially in the early days.
“Nothing big needs to be decided upon in that moment. The biggest things are going to be planning the funeral, making the phone calls. Let those be the only big things,”says Towson.
As time passes, many people feel more pressure to get rid of things, but the process is still hard, says professional organizer Jen Zagorsky, who adds that guilt is a big issue.
“They think that ‘If I just throw these things away or even take them to donations then that’s like throwing a piece of my lost parent or spouse away’ so it causes a lot of anxiety,” says Zagorsky.
The time it takes to do the sorting depends entirely on where the individual is with the bereavement process.
“If you need to hold on to something a little bit longer until you’re ready to make those decisions, then do it, because time does make a difference and it does make things easier to deal with than to deal with it when it’s really raw and fresh,” says Zagorsky.
Possessions provide comfort
Following her son’s death, Pavelich recalls crawling into his bed with one of his shirts and crying. Being in his bed and smelling his scent made her feel close to him again.
“In many ways I think that was just sort of how we maintained that connection to Eric, was just leaving his stuff and his brothers using it like they always did.”
Similarly, Henkelman talks about how she continues to find comfort in the belongings that meant a lot to her dad, like his massive fish tank that he bought while in hospice.
“The next day we went and cleared his stuff from the hospice which was quite challenging because he had just gotten a fish tank and it is extremely difficult to move a fish tank in a day when you’re unprepared.”
Zagorsky says as more decisions need to be made, she recommends finding someone to help who isn’t emotionally attached to the items and won’t judge.
“It comes down to just having somebody there to talk it through with them and give them some reasoning, validation,” says Zagorsky.
Moving forward means recognizing your grief
The most important thing to remember, according to counsellor Towson is that people experiencing loss need to be gentle with themselves and know that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Acknowledging the sadness and the anger doesn’t mean that anyone is grieving wrongly.
“I think it’s honoring grief and realizing that it’s not something we have to stuff [away],” says Pavelich.
In practical terms, Zagorsky says that it’s also important to have a physical system to help sort through the things. She says using the classic moving system works well, having a box for stuff to keep, donate and throw away.
Henkelman adds that maintaining social support is also critical, not just in the early stages, but even months or years down the road.
“Sometimes things only hit four months later or like stress of things, even school. And you have to deal with that while cancelling your parent’s phone plan, there’s so many things that you keep stumbling upon,” she recalls.
Back in Pavelich’s home, she sips her second cup of tea on a well-worn brown leather couch. Her dog, Lucy, is tucked beside her, always within arm’s reach.
Her biggest piece of advice is to remember that “understanding that it really is an individual’s journey and that there’s is no right or wrong way to grieve, there’s only your own way to grieve and that’s how you get through it.”
- By Cassandra Jamieson