An Unexpected Death and Dealing with the Stuff

Texas 2015–visiting with my brothers.
Dave and I are standing in a field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. I’ve always loved the “twin” vibe we had.

I had been finishing up a blog post about some neat vintage thrift store finds when I received the unexpected news that one of my brothers had died. My young-looking 61-year-old bro Dave had been having health problems this fall, but the doctors had finally figured it out and he was on a treatment plan and it was all manageable. I spoke with him on Wednesday night and he was in good spirits and had just finished a dinner of salmon and broccoli. Thirty-six hours later he was dead.

It seems so unreal that I keep expecting him to call. Instead my younger brother Dan and I have been phoning a lot and arranging for his cremation and figuring out what we need to do next. (He died without a will in a state which neither of us lives in which complicates matters.)

Dave and I in the early days.

After the holidays we will journey to his apartment to clean it out. For me that will include a full day of air travel and a 5-hour car ride. And even though Dave has downsized a lot over the years (thanks to numerous moves), he still leaves behind a lot of stuff. We all do. And I have to admit sorting though it will be tough. Over the decades I have helped clean out several relative’s households after death and I’ll be honest, it feels invasive and is very sad and tiring.

Aunt Janet’s leopard coat…
now my daughter Tasha’s leopard coat.

When one of my dear aunts died in 2008 (also very unexpectedly), my brothers and I made a stab at cleaning out as much of her house as we could during our few days back in New York for the funeral. One of my jobs was bagging up her clothes for charity and throwing out her makeup (which included 50 lipsticks!) and underwear. She was such a private person and would have been mortified at me doing this.

And it was exhausting as she loved clothes and had multiple closets and dressers full of them with a few pieces dating back to the 1950s! (I did keep a 1960s faux leopard coat that now belongs to my eldest daughter and a few of my uncle’s vintage hats.)

Throughout the three days that we sorted and bagged items, I alternated between being numb and being weepy. But one night, after my brothers and I had called it quits on our labors, we sat down to eat leftovers from the funeral reception. We opened a couple bottles of wine from my aunt’s wine cellar and got a bit silly as we shared our favorite stories and memories. It felt good to laugh.

But cleaning out my brother Dave’s apartment is something I never imagined I would be doing. I don’t think we’ll actually keep much from it. Dan has a full apartment and I have a full house 3000 miles away. We’ll take a few sentimental things (my dad’s handmade knives, any rock/mineral specimens, photos, etc.) and perhaps newer items that might be of use. But mostly the local charity shops will benefit. But one thing I will look for is a painting that Dave did and gave me decades ago. At some point he wondered if he could have it back and as I wasn’t displaying it at the time, I sent it back. Now all these years later I’m hoping he still has it and I can take it back. (It was a naive painting in blues and golds of a mountain reflected in a lake.)

Here’s something I’ve shared in various grief support groups I’ve lead that I’m holding close right now:

What to do about the things? For some people they are a comfort, an aid to healing. For others, to dwell upon the objects associated with the loved one is to be caught in the vise of anguishing memory and pain. Each of us has to find his or her own way. Try something, and if that doesn’t work, try something else.

Martha Whitmore Hickman

So in a few days it will be Christmas. Not the Christmas I was expecting. Still I feel blessed. I have so many people in my life that I love. And while Dave is no longer living, my love for him is.



  1. The photos of Dave and you are sweet and tender. It’s difficult to find comforting words for such a sudden loss of a beloved brother.

    I hope that being together will give Dan and you strength and support to go through this difficult time

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sweetly written, Karen. I am so sorry for the loss of your brother. I remember all these steps you mention from when my mom died. Take care,, love ya. Traci.

    Liked by 1 person

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