Death cleaning

I’ve got a lot of experience of doing this and I want to try to get my own house in order so that those who have to do my death cleaning don’t get too hard or long winded a job to do.

When mum died in 2000, it coincided with Carol being in hospital having had a brain haemorrhage the month before and the subsequent brain surgery. She was very poorly indeed and managed to contract an e coli infection just to add to the mix. Carol was in Salford Hope and Oldham hospitals. She was in Oldham when mum died. I went straight to Suffolk the moment I heard, the news very kindly and carefully delivered to me by my lovely boss, Clem.

Because mum’s landlord was the Church of England Clergy Pensions Board, they very generously gave us 2 weeks to get out of the house. My brother was about as useful as a chocolate teapot so I ended up clearing the house, he did work with me on the funeral. Her house was a 3 bed modern house but mum still lived with lots of dad’s things from when he died 10 and a bit years before. It was a big job with the pressure from the CoECPB adding their stress and wanting the central heating system draining. Wait till I tell you the story about disconnecting the phone!

Mum only had 2 pianos by this time, lots of heavy old furniture and a stair lift. It was also a lovely in other circumstances hot July. I hired a transit van and spent my days going to the tip, to charity shops. I slept in mum’s bed. Some people came and took away a piano that mum had bequeathed to them and they never even thanked us for it, can you believe it, getting something worth thousands of pounds and no f***ing thanks.

I got it all done. I had my laptop and a daily list. I worked hard. I was very hot most of the time. We got through the funeral, Chris was a rock. Carol couldn’t be even though she wanted to be, it was unimaginable that Carol deal with any of it, she could hardly walk.

On the last day before handing the keys in, the brother had turned up for once. We got the central heating drained as requested and the last job was to disconnect the phone. I’d already rung BT and they’d said to ring when we were leaving. It turned out that my mum hadn’t ever the changed the account name from my dad’s to hers when he died. BT would only close the account on the say so of the account holder! I actually had to say “do you want me to go and dig him up?”!! It got sorted eventually and I did complain but don’t remember getting any recompense for the hassle and distress. I drove back north to Chris’s house with mum’s cat Kedi singing in the transit van for the whole 5 hours.

I then moved into Chris’s attic a few weeks later because whilst all my mum’s and Carol’s stuff was going on, my flat in Salford had sold and I had nowhere to live. I decided at this point to stop smoking. I’ve never looked back on that decision, 20 years ago this coming September.

The next clearance was my maiden aunt, my dad’s sister, who I didn’t particularly like and who didn’t particularly like me. She had been a very active woman, she’d worked in GCHQ, she flew planes and drove round in an orange MG. A character. Iona did some voluntary work in a monastery, to change the clock in the library she had got onto a chair which she put on a table and then fell off and had a stroke. She spent some time in hospital, then in a residential home while we, the brother, Iona’s solicitor friend and I tried to get her to understand that she wasn’t going to be driving the car home and wasn’t in fact going to be going home. It wasn’t easy and sometimes she thought I was my mum and she was basically suffering from brain damage.

Once we’d got her safely in the residential home, we decided to start clearing her rented house, fortunately rented from a very nice kind man who was extremely helpful. Surprise, my brother was again pretty useless. However my cousin Sophy, who was no blood relation of my aunt, lived nearby and between us, over what felt like months of weekends, we cleared Iona’s little house which was rammed to the gills and totally totally filthy. We needed biohazard suits. There were moments of hilarity, the clothes which were more suited to a drag queen, the photos which confirmed my suspicions about her single status being related to her sexual preferences. Although sexual is not a word I can equate with my aunt. Iona was very concerned that we get the valuable rug out of the loft. I did all the things you’re not supposed to do with a table and a chair (the very things that Iona had done which led to the fall which gave her the stroke) and hefted myself into the loft space. It was easy to see that the only item related to a rug was a roll of pink foam backed carpet. At least I got the relatively small amount of rubbish out of the loft. I didn’t fall down either.

Chris left Todmorden for Borth in April 2014 and never returned. She had fully intended to do so but the onset of illness was so rapid she never got well enough to travel that sort of distance again, other than to the National Amyloidosis Centre in London. Chris owned her house in Tod and first moved into her friend’s house, then to a flat in the same house, then to a rented flat of her own and finally to a rented bungalow of her own. So many moves because she needed accommodation to fit her changing abilities and worsening condition.

She moved into the bungalow in December 2015/January 2016. She knew she wasn’t going to get better and at some point she decided that I could clear the Todmorden house and get the contents to her and then get that house on the market. She lived long enough to know that the house was going to sell. Nancy and I worked on clearing the Tod house together. Chris was also not great on the cleaning side of things but nowhere near as bad as my aunt! And when it came down to it it didn’t take that long to do. We had a few tip runs and we sold some furniture then the rest went down to Borth in a removal van. We then arranged for a full clean, sorted some minor electrics and plumbing and got the house redecorated from top to bottom. Then it was ready to go on the market and it was bought by a lesbian couple who were delighted that Chris had been the previous owner.

When Chris died in October 2016, Andy, Gerry, Kate and I cleared the little bungalow which now had all the stuff Chris had been shifting around Borth, all the stuff from the Tod house and a huge amount of dialysis supplies. 60 boxes of it. I rang Baxters the suppliers to ask them to come and take it away. They kept stalling me. In the end I said that either they come and take it away or we would destroy the supplies, they said that’s all they were going to do anyway because once these valuable medical things have left the depot they cannot be reused. Some things we were able to recycle via the local health visitors.

Peritoneal dialysis is a less invasive treatment than haemo but because it’s done 3x a day for half an hour a time, it needs lots and lots of dialysate fluid. Having lived with a renal clinic in my home I know this stuff rather too well, Carol did haemodialysis which is 3x a week for 5 hours each time. Gerry and I spent a mad number of hours with me breaking down the boxes, him breaking down the plastic bladders of fluid and sending them down the toilet (this is fine, this is where it is supposed to go). We did 600 bags of fluid. We put all the plastic and cardboard out for the recycling and congratulations to Ceredigion council because they took the lot. I did complain to Baxters and they apologised.

Carol had done a lot of sorting and hadn’t hoarded much at all compared with all the other people I’d done death cleaning for. Apart from books and her NHS files and the litter files. But these were all pretty organised. I burnt the paperwork, I even bought a garden incinerator to do the job. I sold a good lot of the books and took lots of things to charity.

Carol’s death has been an opportunity for me to rationalise living in what is now a big house for one person. I’ve organised my bed linen, towels, kitchen equipment, some of the books. There’s still a bit to do. I kept busy sorting things apart from the time my leg was in plaster up until the end of last August and then I just stopped and haven’t resumed until now.

Paul emptied out my loft space over the summer, so I also have 12 boxes or so of my family papers to go through. You could argue that as I haven’t seen inside the boxes for 14 plus years, that it can all be chucked out fairly easily, however I do want to check through it as I can see there are letters from my grandmother and my mother.

When mum, Chris and Carol died, the first things to get rid of were the medical bits. I personally didn’t want to be reminded of their frailties. Carol had a renal unit with plumbing and electrics in 2/3 of what is now the house bathroom. She had a shed outside for her supplies. All of this went early on and I had the bathroom slightly remodelled and decorated.

I got shot of Carol’s clothes early on because she had a lot of battered old clothes, and some nice ones but being so thin, none of them were going to fit me. I also got rid of the personal hygiene things quite quickly.

Carol had her own kitchenette, she didn’t actually do cooking but she heated up nicely! I think I’ve borrowed that from Graham Norton. She had a Baby Belling, kettle, toaster and sink. I dealt with Carol’s food, a lot of which went to the food bank as it was all in date. She and I had totally different tastes so there wasn’t much I ate apart from her Christmas chocolate. Then I got rid of her knackered old fridge and freezer and Paul took the plumbing out and this room was redecorated. When Carol set it up as a kitchen she always wanted it to be easy to take down when we moved to the next house and it was. Obviously we never got to do that move. It’s now my outdoor kit room. I’ve got a spare toaster and kettle for when mine give up the ghost.

I turned Carol’s bedroom into a guest bedroom, easy peasy. This also got a bit of paint.

I bought new lampshades and brought colour, turquoise blue, what else! into the accessories around the house. I got myself a new bed and a new sofa to replace the ancient ones I had.

I like being tidy and organised. I’ve got boxes of photos from Chris, from Carol, my own. These will take a long time to go through and to digitise some of them. I recently got rid of my filing cabinet, I only need to keep some of the papers. I’m soon going to be stopping my OU work and that can then all go. It’s feeling therapeutic and because I’m doing things at the right time and speed for me I’m not chucking things out and regretting it.

I look forward to a time when everything is where I want it to be and I know what I’ve got and where it is. There is more decorating to do and I will be happy when I’ve worked out which pictures to put on the walls. This whole project will have an end and there will be good systems in place to make things easier for my death cleaners.

I have a will, a power of attorney (so that if I lose my mental capacity tomorrow, my attorney can then make sure my bills are paid etc.) and an Advance Decision. Both Chris and Carol had Advance Decisions which are legally binding documents and certainly in Carol’s case, this was a key document that determined how we reached the end of her life according to her wishes. Chris died very quickly within 24 hours of a stroke and it was not really needed although her medical advisors were fully aware that she had it. I hope if you’ve read through to here that you can see the sense of providing for your loved ones and not putting your head in the sand! I haven’t always been able to look the harsh realities of life head on but I’ve learnt to do it and I believe it’s part of loving. Shit happens but we can make it as smooth to deal with as possible and I thank both Chris and Carol for being so brave and strong.