It was 10:45 on a warm summer day. Outside a stately mansion, parked on either side of the front door, were two large moving vans. Inside, the two van drivers and their assistants were becoming increasingly confused and frustrated. They had a simple enough assignment: “Arrive at 9:00 to pack and load household goods for transport.” Now, at 10:45, only one couch and two chairs sat on the Mayflower van and a bedroom set and a TV on the Allied van, while two sets of moving men stood around two partially packed cartons. They were becoming increasingly frustrated with the drama before them. The other actors on the scene, two apparently well-educated couples and two lawyers — were heatedly negotiating about every single item to be packed.
Henry, the Allied van driver, later told me, “That was the worst I’ve seen. But, believe me, I’ve seen some real doozies. You wouldn’t believe the arguments some folks get into when they start dividing up their parents’ stuff. People go nuts over the craziest things.”
Death of parents. Division of property. The strains and stresses these put on surviving children! At a time of grief, even people committed to reducing their material possessions may desperately want Grandmother’s cracked teapot or Mother’s engagement ring. Even a casual inquiry among friends brings forth horror stories of damage done to families when they are dividing their parents’ or grandparents’ possessions.
Can we devise any guidelines that might help steer us into calmer scenarios? Perhaps, but only for people whose primary motive is to preserve family relationships. People whose main object is to “get the best deal,” or to redress what they believe were old imbalances, should not read on. Even people who clearly care more about their relationships than about possessions may find the going difficult. Dealing with items from one’s childhood can reawaken all sorts of long-forgotten jealousies, hurts, or desires.
My Family Grief Story
My father died in September, my mother the following February. My two sisters and I had to make decisions about property in the days immediately following Mother’s funeral, for two of us lived thousands of miles away. We went into this task with heavy hearts and frayed nerves, but also with the knowledge that nothing — no thing — was as important to us as maintaining good relationships.
My sisters and I survived the division of our family’s things. We went into the process knowing the horror stories and determined to keep our relationships intact. We worked hard, and we talked a lot. In the process, we tried to see both what were our major stumbling blocks and what helped us most to overcome them. After we each returned to our own homes, we talked with friends about their experiences. Here I want to share what we learned, hoping it will help others to think about this property division task ahead of time.
My first recommendation is to look hard for ways to delay giving up a parent’s home and possessions. Having to make decisions within a short time frame added greatly to our difficulty. Not only was each item more loaded with emotion, but abruptly cutting off all need to go back to Arizona — where our parents had lived for years, and where we and our families had vacationed for many years — added stress to dealing with deciding about material things and increased our sense of loss. We did fill one box with very personal things such as their writings, photo albums, and mementos to go through together at some later time. This allowed us to delay dealing with some of the most emotionally charged things, and it also gave us a future reunion to look forward to.