QUESTION: I’ve recently learned an important lesson about caregiving. I was the primary caregiver for my elderly cousin who suffered a debilitating stroke. At the end, she was in an assisted living facility, but we kept her apartment so we could keep her personal belongings, furniture, housewares, etc., in one place. She died two weeks ago, and what I’ve learned is that caregiving doesn’t end with the death of someone in our care. It continues long after until all of the person’s legal affairs, personal effects, and housing situation are dealt with. With that in mind, how do I go about handling the aftermath of my cousin’s death? I’m totally overwhelmed. —Carrie
ANSWER: Hello Carrie, and yes, you have brought up a challenge most caregivers don’t even think about until it happens to them. Sifting through the belongings and life affairs of a loved one is no easy job. This task can bring up many emotions including sadness, loss, anger, stress and guilt, not to mention anxiety, as we never know what might be uncovered. It’s no wonder people feel overwhelmed at times like these.
The first step in moving forward with this difficult and time-consuming chore is to accept that it must be done – and you are the one who must complete the job. If there is someone who can help you, definitely ask for assistance. Once you have come to terms with the situation, you can begin the process of tackling what now seems unmanageable. Legal issues are most pressing. If you have an attorney, or your cousin had an attorney, make an appointment with him or her and get a list of what needs to be done to close up all of your cousin’s affairs. This will include notifying Social Security, contacting her health insurance company and employer (if she was still holding down a job), closing bank accounts and credit cards…and this is just the beginning.
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If you don’t have an attorney to help you through this maze, go to www.endoflifecommission.org. This site was created by the Massachusetts Commission on End of Life Care. It is one of the most simple and easy to use sites I’ve located. As far as her personal items, take it one room at a time. First and easiest would probably be her clothing, jewelry and other personal effects. Here are some categories to help you organize everything. Decide which items will go where:
- Goodwill or other charitable organization where items are donated for resale.
- Consignment shops are where valuable furniture, antiques, jewelry or other items of value are accepted and then sold for a reasonable price. You will receive a percentage of the sale.
- Family members, friends, neighbors or acquaintances may appreciate having an item of remembrance. Either you can have people select something or you can decide what to offer others. Usually a piece of jewelry, a piece of china or silver, or even a holiday decoration can inspire and welcome memories of a loved one.
- Schools, senior centers or educational organizations in low-income areas usually appreciate items like arts and crafts or hobby supplies. Things like paints, easels, knitting supplies, cookbooks or any items in good condition of this nature are always appreciated.
- Used bookstores and libraries appreciate donations of books. Check out the used bookstore and library in your area. Most libraries hold highly successful used book sales.
- If you prefer selling electronically, place items on eBay or Craig’s list.
- Refuse/garbage collection is the answer for items that can’t be sold, given away or recycled. If you do collect any money from your cousin’s belongings, make a donation in her name to her favorite charity, religious organization or humane society or shelter. Additionally, if you decide to store some items for the future, perhaps to give to members of the younger generation when they can appreciate their history, be sure to take a photo of the enclosed items and tape it to the outside of the storage box. That will make for easy identification in the future. While this whole process is tedious and time-consuming, you will feel a sense of satisfaction knowing you created a dignified and respectful memory of your cousin’s life.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.