Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Death and Sorting

My father-in-law, Harold, with his boys. (courtesy)

My father-in-law died 2 weeks ago.  All three of his sons, AJ, Ben, and Eric were there with him as Harold slipped away in his sleep.  He was almost 90 years old, and quite frail; his hearing and his vision were both fading, and he needed help walking for more than a year.  He had full-time help, and thus was able to “age in place,” in his home, rather than moving to an assisted-care facility.

His wife, my mother-in-law, Doreen, died 13 ½ months ago, in December of 2021.  She, too, died in the night.  We all flew in for the memorial service, and to be together at that time of loss.

And so we did again:  the Saferstein boys and their wives assembled late last week to remember their dad, to tell stories, and to share their grief.

In some ways, that’s was the easy part.  It’s the logistics that were so hard.

First, it is hard to wait a week or more between death and the memorial service.  Jews traditionally bury quickly, in 24 or 48 hours.  These days, the timing is a bit different:  the funeral is scheduled for as quickly as out-of-town relatives can arrive.  But the waiting in that liminal space between death and burial, between the shock of the dying and the mourning at shiva – that waiting leaves one uncertain of how to spend his time, how to mourn before the body is cared for.

Secondly, upon arrival in Arizona, we discovered someone had broken into the Saferstein house and taken Hal’s computer and small safe.  Cabinet doors were pulled open and ransacked; a window had been smashed.  All this because, we think, someone saw the obituary and put two and two together – deciding that robbing  an empty house was a good idea.

But what a violation for us mourners!!  Our in-laws, both AJ and Lynn who live locally and had been carrying the brunt of the logistics of caring for Ben’s dad, and Eric and Gigi, who were staying at the house, these amazing people took it upon themselves to report the crime and clean up the aftermath, both physically and monetarily, cancelling credit cards and other aspects of a stolen identity carved from my father-in-law’s computer.  This work is painstakingly difficult and often obscure; managing the implications of the burglary while in acute mourning was beyond hard.

And then, there is the house itself.  Filled with clothing and cookware, pictures and thank you notes saved over the years, the idea of emptying the place and preparing it for sale was also a challenge.  The Saferstein men, with their wives, looked to see what we might want to keep and packed those up in boxes to be mailed.  And that left. . . well, a house full of stuff.

My in-laws had beautiful taste, which manifested in stunning art:  glassware, sculptures, rugs, furniture, and more.  One the one hand, it seemed that we should keep everything; we should go round the house with post-its, claiming the things we wanted.  On the other hand, we are all adults and our houses are already  furnished.  What is the point of shipping flatware to Denver?

We compromised.  Ben and I took some clothing, some for Shira and some for Ben, and we also took the Judaica, since we are the only practicing Jews in the family.  Gigi thought to put aside a beautiful box with a Mogen David on it, for use for jewelry or anything, really.  But much of the stuff we brought back to Denver for  Shira, we ended up giving away.  There was a nice black tee shirt and a couple of cardigans:  Shira noted that they were lovely, but she already had things like it.

So it goes.  The possessions of one generation becomes the detritus of the next.  I look around our house and picture Shira, many years hence, giving away our stuff.  Having to sort through our books and instruments and saved letters and Pesadich cookware.  And having to do it without siblings.

It makes me want to start the sorting now.  At the same time, the thought of going through all those memories. Is overwhelming.  I have, in fact, culled my library (both the professional one and the one full of novels and mysteries) over the past several years; there are still some shelves waiting to be sorted.  It is hard and yet somehow exhilarating.  But not today, my body informs me.  I am tired and need a break.  I am emotionally wiped out

Grief is funny that way.  Just when you think you have a handle on your feelings and on the physical energy around mourning, it creeps up on you from behind and nails you to the wall.

We are not our stuff . . . but our stuff does help show who we are.  And my in-laws, Doreen and Harold, were kind, generous, classy, funny people.  May they be wrapped up in the bond of eternal life.  And may their memories be for a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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