I woke up angry yesterday, and I don’t know why. I’m blaming grief. That’s one of the stages, you know. Check it out. I’m not psycho.
Even though this week I’ve been sad, happy, energetic, irritable, and lethargic. My body’s mechanism for handling grief appears to be random movement, without apology, among my emotions. Perhaps it’s God’s way of preventing me from psychological combustion.
Which is a very real possibility for me. I can feel the pressure building up in me day by day–the pressure to keep plugging along, keep being brave and keep being productive, using my brain as a filing cabinet of emotionally-charged remembrances–soaking in the photos and awards and newspaper clippings. Remembering, appreciating, deciding.
I am a visitor on the tour of my ancestors’ lives. I’ve read their letters, notes, and captions below scrapbook pictures. I’ve glanced through their school papers and theses, their fraternity memorabilia and merit badges. Their names inside book jackets. I’ve lingered over snapshots of my ancestors growing up and falling in love and establishing careers and raising children. Days and years that were lived without thought of my existence, years that formed them into people of character and contribution. I have snooped into their private lives. I find myself wishing they’d been more public about everything while they lived. All of these conflicted emotions take a toll on me.
But I think all the sorting is a healthy part of the grieving process. It might be an old-fashioned word called honor. I am in the process of making honor practical. I think my ancestors would be pleased with this concept.
But that’s not what’s keeping me up at night. No, it’s the sorting, the decision-making. Even while I’ve been embracing all that belonged to them, I sort their things into 5 perverse piles of human indecision: keep, gift, sell, donate, throw away. Each category wrenches me–even the keeping category, because I must ask myself, “Where will I put this? Will I use this? Will my children want this some day? What value does this add to my life?” Often, items begin in the keep category and move down the ladder to lesser importance. Sometimes, they start at the bottom, and sentimentality moves them back up the ladder, back into a box or trunk. Back into the attic.
I am fighting guilt, for obvious reasons. How can I eliminate anything kept for the last 60, 70, or 100 years by people I love? (Even 150 years–I have some pre-Civil War stuff here!) But of course, I can’t keep it all. Only the best, most important items. And so I sort. I sort, and I honor the memory, even while I purge.
I have come to believe that this sorting process is a therapy in itself. I am making peace with loss. That’s a relief. But still hovers the question “What should I do about–?”
What would my mother tell me to do? Well, that’s an interesting perspective because she’s the reason I’m still going through everything. It was all valuable to her, and I was commanded to cherish these things always. I know the stories behind these things. I value the people who owned them.
If I could drag her away from her celestial conversations with Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, or Abraham Lincoln long enough to pose the question What should I keep?, I think she’d laugh and say, “It doesn’t matter, honey. Keep what makes you happy.”
This is my new mantra. Because I could use some happiness right now. Perhaps happiness and freedom can coexist even in the midst of grief. Perhaps that’s the benefit and the blessing of the sorting process–I appreciate, I evaluate, and I move on to a new life with new priorities. I create new moments of importance for the people I will leave behind some day. I establish a new legacy of honor. I imagine that’s what my ancestors were doing for me.
So I will try on that perspective today. I already feel joyful!