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Object Lessons Illustration by Katty Maurey

Object Lessons

After our loved ones die, we’re left to deal with their belongings. As Nikki Reimer explains, sorting through grief is no small task.

My grandmother, Baba, was only supposed to be stopping in when she visited my parents in Calgary on her way home to Kelowna. But she had a fall while she was there, which led to a doctor’s visit, a series of tests and eventually a diagnosis of ALS. Because she couldn’t travel anymore, she never made it back to her home of eighteen years. That left it up to my mom and my uncle to fly out west to clear out her belongings.

Baba’s home was a double-wide trailer tucked into the shadow of Mount Boucherie. The space was immaculate but stuffed with memorabilia. Family pictures in the front hall dated back to our ancestors’ arrival in Canada in the late 1890s. Ceramic chickens graced the dressers and bookshelves. The bedroom smelled faintly of the sweet jasmine and bergamot notes of Baba’s favourite Anaïs Anaïs perfume.

Embroidered Ukrainian tapestries topped every piece of furniture. Two wooden fruit crates from Sunkist Growers Inc. and the Occidental Fruit Company served as makeshift side tables; in a previous life, my great-grandparents had used the very same crates as kitchen cupboards. Mom and Uncle Dan discovered budget break-downs and car maintenance logs going back to the 1950s. Baba had kept all of my grandfather’s socks and ties, despite the fact that he’d been dead for sixteen years.

The task of sorting through the decades was both emotionally and logistically overwhelming; eventually, it became clear that they needed a method to cope. At one point, either Mom or Uncle Dan—they both remember doing it—held up an object.

“This is not our Dad,”they said.

In my mother’s family, many of us are extremely—overly—sensitive and sentimental. When Mom told me about their sorting ritual, I found it touching to imagine them gently, verbally coaxing themselves through the task of letting go. I’ve adopted the phrase to help guide me over the years: this scrap of paper is not my brother.

My only sibling Chris died suddenly in 2012. He was twenty-six years old. The loss is a primal wound buffered by the scar tissue of time. Though it no longer hurts every second of every day, I’ll always carry his absence with me. The pain rears up on certain holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, or sometimes randomly on a Tuesday.

Five years after his death, we finally felt ready to sort through the items he’d left behind. It was a monumental task. Chris was a musician and had been endlessly supportive of his artist friends. He kept the records, CDs and band T-shirts of every group that he’d loved or met on tour: Chad VanGaalen, Braids, Mogwai, the Mars Volta. The mementos were tucked away in boxes with his childhood toys, comic books, novels and clothes.

In our post-mortem cull, we found notes in his handwriting that read: sort this Jan. 29/09 and get through these. He hadn’t, and it stung me to imagine him packing his procrastination piles of objects into boxes as part of some future plan that he never reached. I have procrastination piles, too. In so many ways we were exactly the same.

My parents, Chris’s partner, his best friend and I did the sorting. The five of us accomplished the task over multiple weekends while we drank, laughed and cried. We catalogued Chris’s album collection in a spreadsheet, photographed all his T-shirts, then emailed his closest friends: want any of these? His doodles and scrawls went into the recycling bin—this sketch is not my brother—and his clothes were donated to charity.

We reacted instinctively to each item that emerged from a box or pile. The question wasn’t did it spark joy? but did it spark Chris? Was it one of his favourite things? Was it part of a special memory one of us shared with him? Was it a gift one of us had given him that might feel meaningful to have back in our lives? I wanted to keep everything Chris touched in order to keep him as close to me as possible, but I used my pain to motivate me into an uneasy pragmatism.

We had to be logical, definite—understand that my brother’s spirit no longer occupied his comic books and tour souvenirs. Mom approached the task as hard-headedly as she could. The decision-making of those weekends needed to be final, she told me later. She didn’t think it would be fair to pack Chris’s items back into boxes only for me to have to deal with them again once my parents are gone. She tried to imagine his belongings going to good homes. I did the same, softening the pain of giving away his sweaters and jeans by picturing their new lives with people who might desperately need them.

Still, we held on to some things. Chris’s partner turned his favourite pair of brown pants and faded flannel baby blanket into precious little pillows for me and our mom. That pillow is still my brother. I don his favourite brown suit jacket like armour on his birthday and death anniversary. I hold on to an old toque that carried the musk of his hair until the smell faded, as if it could one day reanimate.

I used to think these impulses represented the worst kinds of magical thinking. I mean, I knew he wasn’t coming back for the toque, right? But now I trust my brother would have understood the need to keep precious objects close at hand. If the situation were reversed, he’d have done the same. He always kept people close.

In his twenties, Chris made a small shrine on his windowsill. He placed two framed photos of our dead grandfathers behind a smooth piece of driftwood. He barely knew either of them, but even as a young man he was invested in carrying the past with him into the future. Both of our grandfathers died relatively young, and I think my brother cared about honouring the sorrow of those losses: who each man was, and how their lives might have informed his own.

We’ve been in a minimalist moment for a few years now in North America. It’s not trendy to want to hold on to things. Part of me can understand the value of only bringing objects into your home that you cherish, or the appeal of living lightly enough that you can pack up everything you own on a whim. But lately, it feels like minimalism has become a kind of moral imperative.

Adherents of the minimalist movement preach that letting go of things is the best path to living a meaningful or free life. They see objects as offensively frivolous, generally eschew sentimentality, and prefer to leave nostalgia to the past.

I can’t help but think that this refusal to engage with sentimentality and nostalgia might also represent a discomfort with complexity and the full range of human experience. If we disallow sentimental object-attachment, aren’t we also disallowing sadness, ambivalence, grief?

Well-ordered living can be a worthy goal, but life itself is messy and filled with unexpected change and loss. Every time I move, I curse my inability to let things go. But every time I settle again, I’m grateful to be wrapped in the cocoon of objects forged by each place and person that’s shaped me. Though I didn’t have the physical or emotional space, I’d have kept every item that came out of Baba’s trailer, and every item that came out of my brother’s bedroom, if only to keep their stories alive.

Relationships are messy, too. On a rainy spring day, my friend Danielle’s mom drove through Vancouver’s eclectic Mount Pleasant neighbourhood to Danielle’s new apartment in an old character home. Her car was full of cast-offs and hand-me-downs: kitchen-ware, furniture, candleholders. It was all stuff that Danielle didn’t necessarily want, not only because it didn’t fit her home’s aesthetic, but because she generally refuses to be constrained by her mother’s love language, and wants objects she’s chosen for herself.

Stuff so often represents the way we think others should live, and this manifests in the things we give them. Between mothers and daughters, this dynamic can be especially fraught. A mother’s unwanted gift can come to represent everything she wanted you to be that you’re not.

As for Danielle, she packed up every single item and dropped them all off at the thrift store on Main Street. The following week, the donation showed up in its entirety as a tableau in the store’s display window. The modern rustic country furniture and several candleholders were neatly arranged like an alternative vision of Danielle’s life, as scripted by her mom. She felt the dark humour of it every time she walked by.

Our relationships with objects are also shaped by class and trauma. My grandmother grew up poor in Saskatchewan in the 1930s and 1940s. Her family saw too many members die young, including her twin brother before he turned one. Then there were the other absent relatives, like uncles who drifted and couldn’t hold jobs. When your family stories are marked by holes where people used to be, a vintage wooden fruit crate can come to represent an entire life, and the hard work it took for your family to survive. Baba’s preservation of immaculately folded grocery store bags and twist ties makes sense in this context.

While I recognize my own desire to clutch on to every object as a natural response to the loss I’ve experienced, our modern relationship to our stuff is far trickier than my grandmother’s. There’s so much more of it, which means there’s a kind of immorality to being a deeply sentimental middle-class consumer today. The average home size in Canada nearly doubled between 1975 and 2010, and our rate of consumption has grown alongside it. Our buying habits take up too many natural resources and drive unsustainable growth. North Americans consume, on average, twice as many material goods today as we did fifty years ago, which means we’re leaving twice as much behind when we die. How many objects, inherited or otherwise, can one human carry? Where does it all go when we’re gone?

I don’t have kids. Statistically, I’m likely to be the last of my immediate family to pass. There will be no one left to inherit my stuff or my inherited stuff. My brother’s toque, my Baba’s scarves, my mementoes. Every one of my most treasured objects will probably end up in a landfill. I’ll be forgotten much sooner than my ancestors whose objects I hold. Some days that thought makes me eager to sort and purge; other days it makes me cling tighter to each item. I’m not ready to leave it all behind, not yet.

Last year, my partner Jonathon and I moved into my in-laws’ bungalow in small-town Alberta. Jonathon’s mom died three years ago, and their dad passed away last spring. We now live surrounded by objects we’ve inherited from multiple generations of both our families. As we settled in, I watched Jonathon go through their parents’ things. They set some finds lovingly on the living room shelf—a photo of their dad as a toddler, an ancient teddy bear. They tossed others unceremoniously into green garbage bags—junky plastic containers, underwear, ugly flattened couch cushions.

I started thinking once again about the process of mining and sifting the objects of a life. The things you find can reinforce what you thought you understood about your loved one, or reveal parts of themselves they kept hidden. We found expensive tools that my father-in-law hid from his wife because their extravagance contradicted his otherwise staunch frugality. We found notebooks that revealed my brother wasn’t only a musician but also a poet.

At times, feelings rise up that aren’t connected to the object at hand, per se, but the weight of representation hits like a fist. One hot summer day, Jonathon threw their mom’s ratty old Tupperware into the recycling bin and then wept.

This sorting is an impossible task. No one is in their right mind in the early days of grief, which makes them project any and every emotion onto their loved ones’ effects. Some people throw everything out in a rush of refusal or rage, only to have regrets later on. Others become territorial and selfish. Friends from my grief support group have stories about personal items stuck in storage for a decade because the family can’t agree on who should get what. Add space and time pressures to the emotional maelstrom, and it’s no wonder that fights often break out. Maybe the house has to be cleared out over a weekend, or everyone wants the same item. Or everyone wants the same item, but no one has room to store it.

Jonathon kept an ancient stuffed tiger and my father-in-law’s annotated service bible, from which he gave his sermons back when he was a Baptist preacher. The Doris Day movies and sets of congregation read-along worship bibles got stacked in the donation pile.

The relationships to the objects we do keep mutate over time. Something you cling to early on in the process can later lose its heat. It becomes okay to let go. “I don’t want this old lady stuff anymore,” Jonathon said the other day, and the decorative flowers and hooked rugs made their way to the garage.

Shortly after Chris died, a stranger told me that my chasm of grief would get better. The person I was talking to had recently lost someone as well. “Their planets are missing,” the man said, “so your constellation is off-kilter. But eventually, you realize that those planets are still with you.” At the time, it sounded like hippie metaphysical bullshit and I had the urge to punch him in the face. But ten years later, the metaphor feels true and comforting.

We are and are not the people who walked before us. We are and are not the items we choose to keep to remember them by. Our death-averse, secular culture urges us not to set up shrines for our dead loved ones. But why not keep their favourite objects as gravitational anchors, reminders that they haven’t gone that far away after all? If that stuffed bear on the shelf helps us conjure our person’s spirit or the sound of their laugh, then it’s helping us navigate their absence.

I’m a fifth-generation white prairie settler descended from Slavic Europeans and Russian Mennonites. I’m generations lost from my ancestral mourning customs, and I abandoned the church I was raised in as a teen. Without religion or a strong attachment to one’s culture, it can be easy to feel that the consumerist model of self-care is the only answer to loss. But it can also be easy to pack grief into a box and forget about it.

In my family, our attachment to our loved ones’ objects has become our tradition, an invented ritual that helps us make sense of their deaths and fold their memories into our daily lives. When I look around my house, I see my partner’s parents and grandparents, my parents and my grandparents and my brother. I feel held in a constellation borne of love.

Nikki Reimer’s third book of poetry, My Heart is a Rose Manhattan, was published by Talonbooks in 2019. Her essays on grief have appeared in several print anthologies. She works in digital communications and currently resides in Claresholm, Alberta.