Leftovers: You’re never really prepared for death, grief

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The calls, emails, texts, and DM’s prompted by last week’s column were plentiful and touching. The recap of the time my sister and I had together while her cancer progressed struck a deep chord with many of you – and really, why wouldn’t it? 

It is a further realization that death is complicated and no matter how much we think we’re prepared to lose someone, we aren’t. No matter how relieved, sad, guilty, anxious, overwhelmed, or (insert emotion here), we just aren’t prepared. 

Natalie LaddCase in point: You have financial affairs neatly in place but then the last bill from somewhere arrives. You write “deceased” on the outer envelope and toss it into the mailbox. Or maybe call the toll-free number and wait on hold for 20 minutes just to have someone ask for a certificate of death you haven’t received. This stuff is jolting, even when you have your strongest, hardest-to-muster game-face mentality in play. 

And really, how is the person you recently buried relegated to that one word: Deceased? I suppose it sounds better than “expired,” but writing “not at this address” is different from the full-stop intention of “deceased.”

Junk mail is no longer simply aggravating because now it hurts both me and our Mother Earth. Making my sister’s death OK to live with becomes the battle between nature versus nurture, culture versus subculture, and science versus spiritual beliefs. They all roll into one, as I try to accept her still-recent death. All this was prompted by a glossy direct-mail piece for clogged drains and leaf-laden gutters. 

There are ways to move through this space and time more authentically than the game face. Books have been written, support therapy is out there, and everyone has heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her research on the stages of grief. But according to a lovely booklet I just received from Northern Lights Mercy Hospice, there are some do’s and don’ts.

Most are common sense and practical reminders, but the one I’ve clearly violated and am already paying for is: “Don’t remove or throw away belongings for at least several months. Do wait until you are thinking more clearly.” 

Cleaning out my sister’s apartment and storage locker was a task my take-charge-queen-of-a-sister-in-law, brothers, and dad took on. And their work wasn’t easy. My sister, who lived in a small apartment, never threw out as much as a drug store receipt or yarn ream bar code.

Duck step-stool
The duck step stool discovered at Natalie Ladd’s sister’s apartment is now a book rest. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)

While my family was working, I was immobilized with exhaustion and disbelief and couldn’t bring myself to look at real evidence of spring 2022 coming without her. But mostly, I didn’t want to witness anything that would make me feel her life had been as difficult as I knew it was. Just writing it here brings on waves of guilt and a nagging case of, “I should have done more.”

I wonder if it will ever subside. 

Now, just three weeks later, I wish I had helped with the Goodwill runs for a different reason. What did they give away that I should have kept? This is one time where material objects aren’t just material objects. At least not yet. If ever. 

They did, however, put old family photos, her drawings and watercolor paintings, and a few random useful objects in my basement. The one that struck me as most interesting and unlike her is a cool-looking mallard step stool. I cannot fathom her possessing anything like it, so the duck lends itself to my imagination and the begrudged acknowledgment that there is a great deal I didn’t know about my sister. The obscure prize has become a book rest, sitting next to my reading chair.

To those who have asked what they can do in honor of my sister, I’m hesitant to ask you to send money. However, if money is your intent, send it to Gosnell Memorial Hospice House or Northern Light Mercy Cancer Care Hospice. Or to vetted humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. My sister was deeply touched by television images of elderly civilians and fresh-faced soldiers. And if this is the route you choose, do it anonymously; do it for the people who never had visitors or loved ones worried about them, either here or across the globe. 

Equally appreciated is a general effort to be kinder to others. To genuinely listen and be gracious. On a personal level, it is harder than putting a check in the mail. 

Next week I’ll share the last in this series about my sister. It will cover the funeral and the mixed-blessing ritual that continues to be. Thanks again to all who reached out. It has meant more than you know.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].