Even the Best of Plans…

Don’t make any major changes in the first year . . .

When I’m leading a grief support group for spouses, I always include an open-ended “check in” time. I invite participants to share what has recently happened: did they have a question, was there a good/bad experience during the week, or a hopeful/hurtful encounter with a friend? Whatever they want to talk about, we talk about it. Their needs always trump my plans.

I recall a group member, the moment I invited sharing, asking, “Why do people tell me to sell the house?”

It was a few months after a beloved spouse had died and several well-intentioned friends were pushing this person to downsize. The house was too big. Maintaining it meant nonstop responsibilities. Now, they said, it’s only you rattling around in a bunch of empty rooms.

In the group, heads started nodding. A few members muttered in sympathy. Everyone was learning forward in their chairs.

[Disclaimer.]

Next, a member shared a horror story about selling the house too soon. And then a third explained, because of a disability, how scary it would be to leave a home’s familiar, comfortable surroundings for a new place. Around the circle, heads kept nodding. They understood. Another member voiced a rule-of-thumb about “big” changes (like selling a house): don’t do anything major for at least a year after death.

Though all advice is suspect, the one-year “rule” has merit.

Except there are exceptions. I shared about my mother-in-law, who sold her “home sweet home” and moved into a retirement community barely three months after her husband’s death. Ba-boom! Change! But years before, my in-laws had decided exactly where they’d move when they could no longer take care of their home. They’d openly discussed options. They’d put money down. They’d informed their children of their plans. In most ways, my mother-in-law’s decision was easy and predictable. After all, her rapid move was based on years of mutual planning. Good for her!

However!

Even the best of plans clan can be dirt mixed with water when a different reality rains on life and everything turns muddy. As my support group supported each other about when/if to sell a house, my thoughts—my Guilty Me thoughts—wandered to my mother. In the year following Dad’s death, my siblings and I encouraged Mom to consider selling the house. We highlighted exactly what my support group had grumbled about: it’s time to downsize and you shouldn’t have to worry about upkeep. Eventually Mom did sell. Her actions occurred after the one-year “rule.” Her actions were also influenced by a trusted nurse who told Mom that she shouldn’t live by herself because of nagging health issues.

After touring several retirement “villages,” alone and with us kids, Mom chose one. But she was never happy with it. She missed her old neighbors and didn’t connect with anyone at her downsized senior apartment. She complained about the food. She fretted over parking her car outside.

Mom died a year after her move.

Guilty Me wonders . . . should she have lived her last months in her way-too-big home?

Realistic Me knows we had no idea how long Mom would live and—darn it all—her house was a burden! But, as Guilty Me and Realistic Me point fingers and debate each other, I am comforted by one thing . . . none of us kids gave Mom one-way advice. We tried to support her decisions and needs. Even on my down days, I believe we were careful not to pressure her, not to badger her.

Unfortunately, I suspect the member of the grief group only felt pressure when confronted by the “friends” that wielded advice like fists.

I believe every decision after a loved one has died is difficult.

Every. Single. One.

Those desiring to comfort the grieving should offer a soft heart, not hard thoughts.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. A few months after a friend died his widow called me and invited me to lunch in her home. I suggested she might like to get out and have lunch some place cheerful but in a stern voice she said she wanted me to come to her home. I arrived to a lovely spread and while we ate and caught up I got the nerve to ask what I’d done because she was so abrupt about having lunch at home. I assumed I’d said or done something to upset her. She assured me that I’d not done anything wrong, she just needed my help. She explained that her children had come for a visit after they’d gotten together to decide what to do about her situation. They wanted her to sell her home, move in with her youngest daughter and her family because they could with a few structural changes to their home, make part of their home a small apartment for her. If she needed help, they’d be close but she’d have her privacy too. Her daughter lived about 1,000 miles away so in moving she’d lose her friends and community. In my mind as I listened, all I could think was I was not a great choice to talk to her kids, but that was not what I was there for. Instead, she wanted me to brainstorm with her the pros and cons of her choices. We role played, made lists, called a bunch of people, companies and services. She and I spent the next few weeks comparing notes and figuring out what we’d missed. I even got some people from my church to help us move her belongings from where they’d been for years into her spare bedrooms. It gave her a chance to try out living in a small apartment without the need to move. We contacted the city her daughter lived in and found out what services were available and then contacted the local service companies here. When we were finished, she had a clear idea of what she did and did not want and more importantly the information to support her choices. When her children visited to start making plans she was ready to talk with them armed with what she wanted and why. She has since died and I have fond memories of our friendship and more importantly the great honor she gave me by teaching me by example how to approach this every difficult situation with respect for everyone.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this! What a lovely, and helpful, remembrance of this friend. I wish more spent time thinking about (and planning about) the “difficult situations” . . . and included trusted others to brainstorm with them.

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