How Do You Memorialize Your Loved One’s Belongings? An Interview with Sarah Hirsch, Part Two

An estate organizer offers tips for keeping your treasured items safe

Today SevenPonds connects with Sarah Hirsch, an estate organizer and genealogist who works with clients on sorting and properly memorializing personal possessions. When a loved one dies, it’s often difficult for families to go through their loved one’s things and decide which objects to keep. Hirsch helps families in the San Francisco Bay area make these difficult decisions. In part two of this two-part interview, she offers tips on how to organize an estate. 

Estate Organizing

Credit: Sarah Hirsch

Marissa: How should families store special items? 

Sarah: Dark, dry and cool is the storage rule for organic materials like fabric, leather, paper and photos on paper. The top culprits of destroyed items are light, humidity and heat.

Avoid long term wrapping and storing in plastic. Plastics pose a chemical threat because almost all plastics give off gas. Archival quality polyester or polypropylene sleeves are used for document and photo storage, but beware of you sources. The ones available at the office supply store may claim to be archival and acid-free, but this is meaningless. There are no manufacturing or labeling regulations, so any manufacturer can state that a product is archival. And acids are not used to produce plastics, so the acid-free claim is nonsense.

Here are a few archival supply manufactures/suppliers trusted by conservation professionals: Talas, Archival Methods, Hollinger Metal Edge and Atlantic Protective Pouches.

Marissa: What steps should a family take to go through the personal belongings of someone who has died? 

Sarah: That’s easy — safety first! Safety tips may sound boring, but I want to prevent people from tripping headlong over stuff piled on stairs, or getting shot by a loaded gun falling off the top shelf of an overstuffed closet. These things do happen.

Here are a few safety tips:

1 – Are the plumbing, electrical, heating, air condition systems in safe working condition?

2 -Do the doors, windows and gates all lock? Is there a working alarm system?

3 – Are there weapons in the house? Where?

4 – Is there a clear path to exits? There should be more than one easily accessible exit.

5 – Trip hazards: Keep hallways and walkways clear. Use tabletops for sorting and storing whenever possible.

6 – Self-care: Consider how useless you’ll be if you’re injured or become sick because you didn’t adequately look after your own needs!

To get an estate organized, take these steps:

Start with the kitchen if you’re not sure where else to start. Most everything in a kitchen isn’t emotionally-charged, and you’ll need to get rid of perishable food as soon as possible.

Go through each room with a focus on sorting, not tossing. Group everything into categories like paperwork; office supplies; keys, jewelry and valuables; kitchenware; clothing; decor; and prescription medications.

Keep any tools you find, like hammers or screwdrivers, in a spot that’s easy to reach, and only move them out of the house once you’re done organizing. (You can use them for minor repairs or to remove items from the house as you work.)

Search inside each book, because these are a favorite hiding place for valuables like cash, photos or love letters.

Empty and remove all drawers to catch any items that have fallen into cracks.

Check clothing pockets and purses for items (this sort of job is best assigned to children or people with mobility issues, since they are low-energy, detail-oriented and time-consuming processes).

Go slow. Pace yourself and pay attention. In the long run, you’ll actually go faster this way, and stay much safer.

Marissa: What are some of the biggest success stories you’ve had as an estate organizer and genealogist? 

Estate Organizing

Credit: wikipedia.org

Sarah: I rarely know what things I do or say that make the biggest difference for clients. From my perspective, the successes are a steady stream of small victories; a cabinet cleared, a car title found, an antique family photo discovered behind a drawer. Small things can turn out to be deeply meaningful.

In one estate, there were a few feathers, shells and stones scattered throughout the home — objects probably picked up on walks. They would have been easy to discard, but I gathered them together. When the executor saw the pile, he realized that it would be perfect for an upcoming memorial ceremony.

Marissa: What should families keep in mind as they organize an estate?

Sarah: The profound transition of death and the torch passing from one generation to the next is an event like no other. I’m in favor of families keeping as much as they want to, can afford to, and have room for. Belongings can always be disposed of later, but once they’re gone, they can rarely be retrieved. It’s true that a person may look at an item in a few years and wonder why in the world they kept it. But this will serve as a clear marker of their movement through grief. I don’t think it’s healthy to get rid of too much stuff immediately after a death — or to make any big changes unless necessary.

Estate Organizing

Credit: pixabay.com

Major loss can trigger any number of extreme reactions that indicate someone is running away from their feelings. People may react by wanting to keep everything or to get rid of everything. I’m fascinated by the stories of people who destroy everything. I was recently asked for help in finding photos of someone’s ancestors. The woman told me that she didn’t have any because her alcoholic grandmother burned them all. Burning family photos is surprisingly common.

I was discussing genealogy with a man who told me that he has no family records. When his grandparents died, his parents, aunts and uncles went to the house, built a bonfire in the yard, carried out the entire contents of the house and burned everything. I was shocked, and the man still seemed quite shocked himself. Cremation is an honorable way to dispose of a body, but not an estate! The decisions made about what to keep and what to discard can reverberate down through generations.

To find out more, read Part One of our interview with Sarah here.

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Our Weekly Tip: Acknowledge Your Disenfranchised Grief

Grief that is not acknowledged by society hurts just as deeply as grief that is.
Girl grieving

All loss hurts
(Credit: susanrusso.com)

Our Tip of the Week: In Western society, we tend to hold to a hierarchy of grief. Certain types of loss are viewed as “important” or grief-worthy, while others are minimized or not acknowledged at all. When a spouse or a close family member dies, for example, friends and family gather around to support those left behind, expressing compassion and empathy for the enormity of the loss. But this kindness and support is rarely forthcoming when you lose someone as “unimportant” as a distant relative, an ex-spouse or a beloved pet. All too often, in fact, those struggling with disenfranchised grief are made to feel foolish or self-indulgent for mourning such a loss. 

How-to Suggestion: After any significant loss, whether it is the death of a loved one, the end of a long-term relationship, the loss of a job or even the loss of a long-held goal, it is normal to grieve. Friends and family may not understand your reaction and may even try to talk you out of feeling as you do. You need not explain yourself or even share your feelings if you don’t want to, but it is important to acknowledge your grief and validate it for yourself. You do not need anyone’s permission to mourn.

Pet loss

Losing a beloved pet is often a very painful loss
(Credit: vetbehaviorsolutions.com)

Disenfranchised grief can leave you feeling terribly isolated, and grief that is not shared is usually much harder to bear. It’s important to find an outlet, whether it’s a support group or a therapist who specializes in working with those who are living with disenfranchised grief. Other ways to honor your feelings include writing in a journal or creating a special piece of art to memorialize the relationship that you lost.

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“Why is it that we rejoice at birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.”

- Mark Twain
Clowns at a funeral

Credit: dallasnews.com

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Book Review: “Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time” by Rob Sheffield

A music journalist's tribute to his late wife and alt music of the 90s

Love is a Mix Tape Cover

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time” is music journalist Rob Sheffield’s tribute to music, love and his wife, a punk rocker from Appalachia named Renee Crist, who died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism . His memoir is a love letter to the woman he clearly adored, to the alt music of the 90s and the era of cassette tapes.  Sheffield uses 22 of the mixtapes he and Renee — also a music journalist — compiled during their relationship to tell their love story.  They made mixes during their courtship, mixes for road trips, mixes for making out, mixtapes for sleeping, and finally mixtapes that Sheffield made while mourning the loss of Renee, who died just five years after the couple married at the age of 31.

It was their shared love of music that brought the couple together and served as the foundation on which their relationship was built.  Sheffield describes himself as a “shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston” when he first met Renee, who he describes as “warm and loud and impulsive.”  They met in Charlottesville, Virginia,  where they were both graduate students.  It was at a bar in Charlottesville that Sheffield “fell under the spell of Renee’s bourbon-baked voice.”  In a chapter of “Love is a Mix Tape” called “Big star: For Renee,”  Sheffield describes the couple’s first meeting — the bartender putting on Big Star’s “Radio City” and Renee being “the only other person in the room who perked up.”  This sparked a conversation about music and Sheffield saying to Renee as she left the bar, “I’ll make you a mixtape!”  It was the first of the mixtapes the couple would make throughout the their courtship and marriage.

Rob Sheffield author Love Is a Mix Tape

Credit: www.robsheffield.com

In December 2002, years after Renee’s death, Sheffield moved from Charlottesville to Brooklyn and in the move found a box of old cassette tapes that became the genesis of his memoir. “I spent an evening putting all these mixtapes onto shelves and listening to them,” Sheffield said.  “It helped me make emotional sense. It made everything really vivid, immediate, dredging up pleasurable and painful memories with the same song.”

Each chapter of the book is titled after a mixtape and lists the the songs and artists for each of the tracks on the tape. The memoir is peppered with enough references to both mainstream and more obscure bands to satisfy 90s music nerds. And there is enough heart in Sheffield’s writing about grief to engage less avid music fans who don’t necessarily relate to his passion for mixed tapes. He writes honestly and courageously about his grief, and the anxiety, depression and hypochondria he felt. (At one point he thought he might be suffering from the same condition that ended Renee’s life.) He also describes his spiritual solace-seeking, and finally, his desire to start living again.

I found myself tearing up throughout the book, moved by Sheffield’s palpable love for his wife and wrenching grief after her death. His writing is raw with emotion, but he artfully weaves humor and joy throughout, capturing the highs and lows of falling in love, domestic partnership and tragic loss. Sheffield’s writing is nothing if not heartfelt, and he does a beautiful job of articulating his grief with a vulnerability that drew me into his world completely.

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The Revitalization of Tear Bottles

Ancient mourning ritual of capturing tears garners modern interest
Tear bottle - lacrimatory

A contemporary tear bottle inspired by ancient Roman lacrimatory
(Credit: perfectmemorials.com)

The tradition of collecting one’s own tears in a lacrimatory, or tear bottle, dates back to ancient times.  Tear bottles are made of terracotta or glass, and can measure up to four inches in height. In ancient Rome and Greece, they were supposedly used to catch the tears of mourners at funerals. It is hypothesized that mourners would place their tears in a tomb to show love and respect for the person who had died. Many lachrimatories found in burial tombs from this era contain unguents (an ointment used topically to soothe skin irritations), and it is unclear what their specific usage was in relation to mourning traditions of the time.

A collection of lacrimatories

A collection of lacrimatories from the ancient world
(Credit:michaelbackmanltd.com)

Lacrimatories have also been found that date back to ancient Persia. Source texts suggest that when a sultan returned from battle, he would examine his wives’ tear bottles to see who missed him the most. During the Victorian era, lacrimatories saw a rise in popularity among the wealthy of the British Empire. These petite masterpieces were more elaborate than their ancient prototypes, often embellished with silver or pewter. Special stoppers were developed to allow the tears to evaporate. Once the tears were dry, the mourning period was considered to have ended for that particular mourner.

Embellished tear bottle

A Victorian-inspired contemporary tear bottle
(Credit: thecomfortcompany.net)

Producers of modern lacrimatories remain few and far between, reflecting the contemporary use of tear bottles as a personal choice as opposed to a cultural tradition. These lacrimatories come in all shapes and sizes, purchased as personal keepsakes or gifts of remembrance. Tear bottles are sometimes used to capture a mourner’s tears, and in other instances are used as miniature urns when distributing cremains among several individuals.

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Last Texts

Texting provides a new way for victims of tragedies to say goodbye in their final moments
 Texting last words

Credit: yplsbrent.org

In the moments before they died, some of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando reached for their phones to send texts to let their loved ones know what was going on. A number of these texts have been shared on the internet, where the public can read the harrowing last calls for help and the haunting last declarations of love. One CNN video used a compilation of these last texts to piece together a timeline of what was happening inside the club during the three hours that the shooter had hostages trapped inside. Among the most heartbreaking were the words 30-year-old accountant Eddie Justice typed to his mother while he was hiding in the bathroom of the nightclub.  “Mommy I love you,” he wrote. And then, “I’m gonna die.” 

The immediacy of texting provides a quiet, discreet and instantaneous way of communicating with those not in the immediate vicinity, and gives victims of a tragedy  the opportunity to communicate final words that might otherwise go unsaid.  In this way, it provides a way to connect with those we love when we fear we may not see them again.

Credit: npr.org

Credit: npr.org

Since texting has taken over as a primary mode of communication, we have been privy to more and more final texts sent by victims of tragedies widely reported by the media.  We’ve seen frightened last texts sent by passengers of doomed flights and the “I love you” texts sent by victims of mass shootings as they barricaded themselves in bathrooms and classrooms.  These final messages provide a haunting window into the experiences of victims in their last moments before death. 

Sometimes the public’s fascination with these last texts seems to border on morbid. But we have always had an intense interest in famous last words and deathbed statements; perhaps it is our way of gather clues about what it is like to die. We’re curious. We want to know, or at least we think we do. These final texts also have the power to create a more visceral kind of empathy, as they bring the victims back to life for a moment, showing us a glimpse of them while they were trying to reconcile themselves to unexpected catastrophe.

Prior to texting, people facing imminent and unexpected death have scrawled dying words on paper, on the walls of prison cells or in the dirt in an attempt to communicate with the world one last time.  A note found in a journal spattered with blood lying on the body of a Union soldier in Cold Harbor read simply “I was killed.”  In a final note to his wife, Aldous Huxley wrote “LSD, 100 micrograms I.M.”  (In case you’re wondering, she fulfilled his request and injected him twice before he died. )

Getting a sad text message of a death

Credit: exboyfriendrecovery.com

More recently, Julie Swann-Paez, a health inspector who was shot when armed men massacred fourteen people at a holiday party, texted her family “Love you guys. Was shot.” Swann-Paez survived, but she wanted to make sure her last words to her family were that she loved them.  It seems that the ability to send a final text is comforting for the sender, an avenue by which to fulfill that last impulse to connect before they die.

Maureen Keeley, a professor of communications at Texas State University, has been researching the last words shared between loved ones before one of them died for 16 years, and has seen recurrent themes appear. In an interview with the Washington Post, she explains, “You have no control at the end.  But now we have this little snippet of control over our communication — to know that, at least I got to say goodbye, I got to say ‘I love you.”‘ But the experience on the part of the receiver is more complicated, she warns. While the texts might provide some sense of closure or solace for some, others who receive frightened texts from their dying loved ones might be haunted by those last words. 

Yet, Eddie Justice’s family says they are grateful for the texts he sent to his mother from the Pulse nightclub restroom the night he was shot. “My family is happy that my mom had the opportunity to talk to him and be able for respond to him in that moment,” his sister said. His mother was able to be with him, via technology, in a way that was just not possible before texting became the norm.

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