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How To Divide Things, Not Families

The strains and stresses on surviving children from the death of parents happen because it's a time of grief. Even people committed to reducing their material possessions may desperately want Grandma's cracked teapot or Mother's engagement ring. A casual inquiry among friends brings forth horror stories of damage done to families when they are dividing their parents' or grandparents' possessions.

Maybe we can devise guidelines to help steer into a calmer scenario — remember that the primary motive should be to preserve family relationships. However, if everyone has the attitude that they want to get the best deal or redress what they believe are old imbalances, they'll have a hard time putting those feelings behind them for the good of the family. After all, dealing with items from one's childhood can reawaken all sorts of long-forgotten jealousies, hurts and desires.

The strains and stresses on surviving children from the death of parents happen because it’s a time of grief. Even people committed to reducing their material possessions may desperately want Grandma’s cracked teapot or Mother’s engagement ring. A casual inquiry among friends brings forth horror stories of damage done to families when they are dividing their parents’ or grandparents’ possessions.

Maybe we can devise guidelines to help steer into a calmer scenario — remember that the primary motive should be to preserve family relationships. However, if everyone has the attitude that they want to get the best deal or redress what they believe are old imbalances, they’ll have a hard time putting those feelings behind them for the good of the family. After all, dealing with items from one’s childhood can reawaken all sorts of long-forgotten jealousies, hurts and desires.

Survival guidelines:

  • Going through your parents’ possessions after they’ve passed away is a task faced with heavy hearts and frayed nerves. But keep your eyes on the prize and remember that nothing — no thing — is as important as maintaining good relationships.
  • Go through the process knowing the horror stories, and determine to keep your relationships intact.
  • Work hard, talk a lot. Try to see your major stumbling blocks and what helps overcome them. Talk to your friends about their experiences. Share ahead of time what you’ve learned about property division.
  • Look hard for ways to delay giving up your parents’ home and possessions. Having to make decisions in a short time adds to the stress.
  • Realize that each item is loaded with emotion, which adds stress to dealing with deciding about material things and increases your sense of loss.
  • Try filling just one box with very personal things — your parents’ writings, photo albums and mementos — and go through this together at some later time. This allows you to delay dealing with the most emotionally charged things and points to a future reunion to look forward to.
  • Remember to allow for grief. There are many agendas when families gather — the more emotional the occasion, the more likely it is that needs will clash. The more fatigued or stressed people are, the more difficult their interactions.
  • Before thinking of how to divide things, think about grief. There is a great sense of loss, which hits each family member differently.
  • Each small item can seem indispensable. Be clear about your priorities. If your strongest desire is to maintain or improve your family relationships, realize why we are so involved with material things. Things have an emotional history — the tools Dad used, the cradle Mom may have slept in. Some seem to embody a moment of closeness with a parent, a special memory or a family event. Try to give yourselves time to think and talk about the underlying meanings and memories.
  • If there are any items that everyone wants, they can be shared. A favorite pair of silver candlesticks? How about deciding that they can spend a year in each child’s home? Passing the candlesticks around can become a ritual with each family.
  • And what about the things no one wants? One person’s throwaway is another person’s treasure. This will help with the initial sorting: Each family member is given a batch of stick-on dots in a different color. Each can go through a cupboard, closet or drawer and put a dot on anything we can.

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