A Million Memories – How to Sort Through a Deceased Loved One’s Possessions

When it comes to the aftermath of a loved one’s death, deciding what to do with their possessions is a painful and daunting task. One’s impulses swing from renting a dumpster to never changing a thing. Making an actual decision and following through is incredibly challenging.

What you are doing with each and every possession is grieving. To varying degrees, each item holds a memory and an emotion. A sock becomes a poem. A blanket becomes a song. A toothbrush becomes a symphony. It has taken me almost four years to work through everything and I am still not done. So be kind to yourself. Do push yourself a little but not too much. You will know when it is time. I hope that sharing my experiences and the methodology behind my process is helpful.

I came up with six categories:

Virtually everything of Roger’s has fallen into these categories. There is no set order or timeline to the process. It is circular and layered. What you are essentially doing is curating a collection of belongings that will create a narrative of that person’s life. You may want to remember the more painful elements of that person and that is just fine. You can visit the collection or share it with others to feel closer to your loved one. If you have young children, think about what you will want to share of their parent’s life when they are older.

Take Pictures
For me, one of the first steps was to take pictures. Roger had a way of arranging and settings things out that was particular to him. He was somewhat fastidious with his belongings and liked things done a certain way. I had to take a photo of his toothbrush and its exact alignment by the sink. How he did things spoke to a very dear part of who he was. I see the little boy in him who collected and coveted treasures. You can see a bit of how I approached taking photos in a previous post titled, A Life in Pieces.

There are some items that are no brainers. Examples of some of these may be photos, ribbons they won in sports as a child, jewelry, childhood schoolwork and certain clothing items. There are other items you may want to keep because they are still useful to you and you can integrate them into your everyday life. Blankets their mother crocheted, dishes, furniture etc. Also, be sure to keep any relevant paperwork. My best friend helped me sort through mountains of papers. She is an organization genius and came up with a system that I am still using. OH! And she made me buy a label maker, which has really come in handy.

I knew that my late husband’s brothers would appreciate items that came from their family to which I had no emotional attachment. Their father’s tools and mother’s cooking equipment are examples. There were also things that I was perhaps slightly attached to but knew they would be more appreciated by someone else who knew him. For example Roger had a jacket custom made with the family business logo. It went to his brother who owns the business.

Sending everything to one place wasn’t right for me. After much research and thought, the following are the three places to which I donated. It has taken several years and a numerous trips to each. In the beginning having someone with you is helpful. I was a bit of a mess after the trip to Life Long. My best friend drove and was incredibly helpful.

  1. Goodwill – Clothing that was utilitarian in nature. T-shirts, sweat pants, khaki’s, sneakers.
  2. Life Long – Some of Roger’s higher end clothing went here. Dress shirts, dress shoes, sports jackets, sweaters.   http://www.llaa.org/lifelongthrift
  3. Career Gear – Roger had a few designer business suits. I was with him when he bought them and I know how special they were to him. Knowing that they will have a new life helping someone in need get a job is exactly what he would want. https://careergear.org/

Many widows find themselves in a difficult position financially. Although it may be painful, chances are your spouse would want you to make use of their belongings in a way that best serves you. If items are hard to let go of, take a series of photos. It isn’t the same as holding the item in your hand but it will be enough to spark the memory that is attached to it.

I used eBay to sell Roger’s very expensive camera equipment. It was only going to depreciate and wasn’t something I was using. What I did need was an iPad to shoot video and write blogs. Do a little research to make certain you will actually profit. Packing up and shipping the items will likely hurt. Do your best to keep the big picture in mind. Stay on task and try not to think too much about what you are doing…. (i.e. selling your dead loved one’s stuff for profit.) Been down that road. It isn’t a thought process that is helpful. It is okay. It’s what needs to be done in exceptional circumstances.

In its highest form, death is transformation. Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs it is all around you. Opening to the possibilities of transformation can be healing and revelatory. From the scraps of your old life come new beauty and purpose. This theme can be carried through to you loved one’s possessions. I had two lap-quilts custom made out of the clothing that held the most memories. From the shirt he wore to the hospital when I was in labor to the little felt fish that his mother made him when he was a boy, the quilts contain a million memories. A cumbersome, heavy box of clothing has been transformed into works of art that my daughter and I can touch and hold. They will keep us warm on the coldest of days. I used Amy Canveness. http://amycavanessdesigns.com Her prices were reasonable and she did a beautiful job.

Is there furniture to which you can give new life? Roger’s dated, dark childhood desk will be getting a makeover soon for my daughter to use. I recently decoupaged an ugly side table that was his father’s. Now it makes me smile. A journey down the DIY website path might help spark your imagination. It may also tell you a little bit about who you are now becoming.

Anything that doesn’t fall into the above categories, you can likely toss. Even this may not be easy. Old toiletries, nose hair clippers, (yup, I actually agonized over that one!) useless papers. Consider tossing anything that reminds you directly of the act of their dying. They would not want you to hold on to these memories. All the grisly minutia of death that often goes unspoken is nothing short of bizarre but if you have been there you know of what I speak. Nobody warned me that I’d walk out of the hospital with a garbage bag filled with the last clothes he wore. It took a while to deal with that bag but what were my options, wash and keep or donate? Way too painful. They smelled of hospital. I couldn’t face it. If you have an item that is like this bag of clothes, give yourself permission to toss it.

…and lastly, I would be remiss not to mention…
Organ Donation
The decision to donate your loved one’s organs is a profound form of giving and transformation. If you can discuss this with your loved one in advance it may make the decision easier. Nobody wants to think about it and choice is deeply personal. All I can do is share are my thoughts and experiences with the hope they are useful to you.
For us, there was no discussion and all that I was able to donate were Roger’s cornea. As time passes, I wish I’d thought about a few things earlier and could have given more.

Depending on how your loved one died, their body has likely been through so much that the thought of disturbing it further is too unsettling to confront. Whether you chose burial or cremation, nature will eventually have its way with their remains. I do my best not to think of this as the years pass. I can’t tell you how comforted I am in the knowledge that there are two small pieces of Roger that are even now fresh and giving the gift of sight to two people who still walk the earth. If that extended to his heart, his lungs, his kidneys the comfort might be even greater. There is absolutely no judgment here, just a few things to possibly think about.

In Summary

  1. Take your time but you may need to push yourself a little.
  2. Enlist friends.
  3. Be kind to yourself.
  4. Take Pictures.
  5. Divide belongings in to the following categories
    1. Keep
    2. Give
    3. Donate
    4. Sell
    5. Transform
    6. Toss

I genuinely hope that this information is helpful. Please let me know if you have any other tips that were helpful to you.

Wishing you the best as you move forward.


The Birth of Super Widow

My name is Jhene Erwin and this is the story of how I became…Super Widow.

On February 17, 2012 my darling, beloved husband, Roger died of brain cancer at the age of 46. I was devastated.

In the five and a half months since I took him into the ER with the worst headache of his life, I had seen things I never thought I’d see and done things I never thought I would have to do. It was a living nightmare.

Grief is a beast. A ruthless, thriving, monstrous beast with which you wrestle every moment of every day. Its pressure on the spirit is relentless. One gasps for air while in its unyielding grip. If you run it chases you, biting at your ankles until exhaustion forces you to succumb to its terror. If I was going to survive I needed to meet the beast head on. And so,

I bought a hat. A rather fabulous black mourners pill hat. When I put it on I could feel the beast pausing in shear confusion. Next, my skills from eighth grade home ec helped me sew a glorious black satin cape. As my costume came together I realized OMG I was actually having a wee bit of fun. My grief beast was stupefied! Like it had been struck by that very popular Harry Potter spell. “STUPIFY!”

I wore the costume around the house. I started a blog. And most recently I went out into the streets and handed out fliers that said, ‘You Are Stronger Than You Think.’ I talked to total strangers about things that they didn’t think they had the strength to endure. My feelings of awkwardness quickly disappeared. People were sweet and open and wanted to share their stories. It felt amazing.

When I returned home, I had a two-hour reprieve from the beast. And it occurred to me that because of Roger’s devastating illness and death, I will continue to see things that I have never seen. I will do things that never I thought I’d do but maybe, just maybe it might be okay if some of those things were just a little bit cool.

I am Super Widow. Get ready. Be prepared. I am coming …to hand out fliers with words of encouragement and maybe – even – talk to you.

For more on Super Widow including her first webisode visit http://www.superwidow.com

How To Win Every Argument

This past summer after an amazing month with family and friends in Canada I returned to Seattle ready to tackle several projects and tie up loose ends that I had not yet been ready to face. There was still a mountain of paperwork to work through. The day I no longer have to show up somewhere with my husband’s death certificate in hand will be a good day indeed. My eyes inevitably wander to the official cause of death and I find myself questioning all of the excruciatingly difficult decisions I made on his behalf.  Just the act of searching for a receipt can be painful and exhausting. There is always a little slip of paper with his sweet scraggly handwriting amongst our papers. When I find one of these bits of evidence of his existence, I slow to a halt and trace my fingers over the indentations of the pen. He was here. He made this impression. I become lost, wanting to just close my eyes and take a nap…or have a drink, or do some online shopping…honestly anything but this.  To get through it I planned to reward myself with one of the self-imposed loose ends that I had wanted to tackle for the better part of two years! Painting the living room.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Roger had painted it metallic gold in an attempt to

Before - Gold Paint, old light fixture, red rug

Before – Gold Paint, old light fixture, red rug

recreate the feeling we had in our house in California. I wasn’t fully on board but standing in front of the Roger train when he became set on an idea was a dicey prospect indeed. This was a battle I chose not to have and truthfully, if it did help us feel more like we did in our house in LA, then that would be just fine. He painted the entire room in a day, all on his own. Although the finished paint job had its charms, it felt, to me, heavy, dark, and like a growing number of things in our lives, just not quite right.

For over a year after Roger’s death, my eight year old daughter Audrey had been vehemently opposed to any change of paint color. Well, she did suggest one wall bright blue, one bright yellow and one bright green but because I wasn’t opening a daycare I opted to just wait a bit. After our rejuvenating trip to Canada, Audrey gave me permission to proceed.

After an exhaustive search for the perfect grey I settled on Benjamin Moore’s Silver Bells. Not too green not too blue. Not at all sad. Refreshing and crisp. I took my time, slowly taping off the room. I left two stripes of gold paint around the doorframes to honor Roger. Even as I taped, I could see areas where he had rushed, were he used putty to correct some of the overlaps of paint on trim. And I found myself having a lengthy, detailed, sometimes heated internal conversation with him that both thrilled me and broke my heart all over again.

In his final years, he was very critical. In terms of the house there was nothing I could get right. He once said accusingly “I’m the only one who takes this house seriously!” I now know it was the tumor driving him to such rigid thinking but at the time it was hurtful and extremely confusing. So much so that while painting, I found myself having irrational “AH HA! You weren’t so perfect with this paint job, were you!?” moments. Other little slips of his brush seemed sweet and human. As I grew tired, I became resentful of all the extra work that his cutting corners caused me. I railed at him leaving me alone to clean all of this up. (Insert metaphor.) I took joy in nurturing a space that he had so thoroughly covered with his energy.

I had to stop at one point and laugh as I said out loud to him, “See honey, you stick around long enough you get to win every argument!” At the end of this sentence came a profound sadness. I like to think that he had some say in his death so that I can rail a little more but he didn’t. He had talked about just ‘getting through this’ so he could ‘get back to his life’ and that ‘this was the thing that was his wake up call’ and he was ‘going to make changes.’ He was ‘going to take time off work and spend more time with his family.’  It was too late. It is still heartbreaking.

Finally, I finished painting and it is sooooooo beautiful! (I know, beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that but I really do like it!) It is light and fresh and pretty. Even Audrey approves.


Living RoomThe rug, I swapped the old one with my sister in law. Free of charge! But most of the other elements of the room we had before. The Sofa, coffee table, Chinese Camphor chest, and almost all of the accessories were already in the house. I did my best to edit and curate .

Rosie and Book Shelves

Anne Moon Painting

Coffee Table

I’m really happy with how the dark wood dining table that belonged to his family while he was growing up looks with the light wood floors and grey walls. Last year, I obsessed about finding a light fixture to replace the one that came with the house. Yes, it would have been super easy had I $10,000.00 to toss around, but I didn’t and I snagged the one I wanted on sale at a ridiculously great price.Dining Room

Austin ProductionsI found the Austin Production Inc. sculpture and the Lucite candle holders on sale at Value Village at astonishing prices! The sculpture… $1.99!

Depression Glass

The rose depression glass, cut glass vase and silver tea/coffee set are all from Roger’s family. The silver was tucked away, wrapped in newspaper and stored in an old cardboard box! Going through old boxes felt a bit like treasure hunting.




The room now represents our past together along with my life without him. …and I am working really hard to feel okay about it. I know that the alternative of pretending we are still married and that he is just away on an exceedingly lengthy business trip is not healthy, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted.

There is still so much more grieving to do but I am getting there. I try to take each step mindfully so that I can both honor who he was and allow myself to move forward as the person I now am. I feel him. I know he is happy where he is and I know that both while living on this earth and where ever he is now, he wants more than anything for Audrey and me to be happy too. We are learning a new skill, a skill that we never wanted to learn but that has been thrust upon us nonetheless. We are learning to live with out him.

Whether or not he would have actually liked the grey paint? Well as I said, …’you stick around long enough…”and I am still here. Thankfully.


Roger Hatton Memorial Mudroom

My darling, sweet, capable, smart, funny, husband and love of my life died on February 17, 2012. He was young. His heart, his lungs, his muscles, bones and spirit were strong. It was his brain that succumbed to cancer and all other strengths fell in line behind the brutal dictator, Glioblastoma.

In the process of grieving we walk alone. If we are lucky, as I am, we have friends and family in which we find respite along the long isolated road but our particular grief, that is singular to each of us, can be carried by ourselves only.

Throughout the past eight months one of my “happy places” has been home design. When I felt like there was too much to cry for, when I feared I might be swept away by the sorrow I found comfort in brilliant light fixtures, bright colored accents and rugs! Oh my, rugs! I began to allow myself an indulgence that I have done my best not to feel guilty about but any of you who have been with someone for a good chunk of time and have had to enter into interminable negotiations about home design decisions will understand the little giggle that comes with “I could totally paint the living room fuchsia!”

My husband has always been lightly, shall we say, fixated on possessing certain objects or seeing ideas through to completion. It had at times been a little annoying but for a gal whose father left peat moss throughout the living room for months on end as he slowly transplanted ficus trees, having a guy who believed in “getting things done!!” was a comfort. Slowly, at an imperceptible rate, his tendency to fixate escalated to disquieting proportions.

One of his obsessions became the set of stairs that connects our two-car garage to the first floor of our house. It is an awkward entry with little room to move. I should clarify, for me it was awkward. Our adorable, exuberant and you don’t know me well enough yet to stomach my bragging but perhaps, in time you will and will forgive my exuberance, all round awesome daughter, would be at my feet trying to push by me. My arms were inevitably filled with my daughter’s backpack, various bags containing groceries etc and a ridiculously large purse. He’d arrive home alone, empty handed burdened only with a wallet in his back pocket, kick off his work boots and voila, he’d arrived! What could be easier?

Here in lies the rub. The stairs were covered in carpet, white carpet and Roger became bahnannahhhhs about keeping that carpet clean! I tried to explain my plight. The tight space, the groceries, etc.  It also didn’t help that most my favorite footwear seems to require both hands to unlace, unbuckle or unzip. Getting up the stairs, and dropping the bags was necessary. Yes, I could have always just worn the clogs that I got while I was pregnant so I wouldn’t have to bend down but let’s face it those shoes look like a pair of baked potatoes and since the age of 18 I’ve been too old for them to look ‘ironic’! One has to draw a line somewhere!

What started with his occasional grumble about not taking off our shoes in the garage, became huffing exhales and all out arguments. I kept saying, “This isn’t about the carpet!” He said, “It absolutely is!!!!!” He was grumpy, controlling and impossible to please. He also started having headaches.

We were nine years into the marriage and fourteen years into our relationship and I just thought, well I guess this is the phase when he falls out of love and into profound annoyance with much of what I do/am. It hurt.

When on Tuesday, August 30th I arrived home in the middle of the day to find him in bed in unspeakable pain we went to the ER. They found “a mass.” Brain surgery four days later. Two and a half weeks after that, diagnosis and devastation.


On the day he died, Roger’s brothers, one brother’s partner and my mother all gathered at our house. My brother’s partner, a fantastic chef, cooked for us and we sat together in Roger’s memory. We ate, we cried and we managed even to laugh. We had the most remarkable conversation that speaks to the kind of light and intimacy that can only break through in such momentous, terrible times. One of the topics we discussed was the fact that one brother had heard at length about the white carpet on the stairs. Two and a half years ago Roger began complaining about it at work.

Within days, I had decided. I was going to build a mudroom. Roger and I had talked a lot about how to resolve the white carpet conundrum.  An area in the garage with hangers and cubbies would be great but with two cars, there was no room. Well, there was now only one car and with a loose plan and the help of my daughter, we began.


A couple of weeks later….


I smile every time I use the mudroom. I want him to know that I heard him, that I felt his deep, deep maddening frustration, that I now see how, as his life spun horrifyingly out of control it was just so much easier to concentrate on something concrete and seemingly simple. Carpet.

…And a funny thing also happened; I found a little piece of myself in the process. I felt a small glimmer of happiness in its creation. It was… fun.