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One Last Kindness
By Billie Criswell

To some people the thought of cleaning up after a person has died, especially when that person was taken at a young age or of unnatural causes, is a horrifying one. Indeed, there are many people who make their living doing this for families who find themselves unable to do such a thing. This was precisely the conversation I found myself engaged in with a friend recently. My friend works with a clean-up and restoration company and they recently expanded to include crime scene clean up a la “Sunshine Cleaning.” (A movie where the two sisters clean up crime scenes.)

At first I cringed when I heard about it, to which my friend replied, “Either you can handle it, or you can’t, and you likely already know this about yourself going in.” I paused as a light bulb in my own head went off. “I can do it,” I said with confidence, and perhaps even a bit of defiance. My friend was incredulous at how I could know such a thing about myself… the truth was, I explained to her, I had already done it. Though, at first when she brought it up, I had nearly blocked it out.

Just over a year ago, my stepsister’s life was tragically ended at the tender age of 27. She had overdosed on prescription medications after what can only be classified as a losing battle with addiction. Though I also blame doctors who prescribed her death, one prescription at a time. Hearing that sort of news never really hits you when first you hear it. After her death, I was so numb I couldn’t feel a thing. I couldn’t make it real, and certainly it took weeks, if not months, to process the gravity of the situation. My stepsister and I had been estranged so terribly from one another pending some childhood events that had divided us deeply–we had not spoken in more than a year.

Trying to make sense of the whole thing, the day after her death, I wandered into her bedroom, where she had succumbed to the medication in her bed. The bed was yet unmade, as if she was planning to return to its comfort at any minute. Looking around, I was immediately stricken with the condition of her room. It was no bloody crime scene, but it was a mess…. there were countless pill bottles lying around; the volume of them was astounding. Trash cluttered the floor everywhere. Notebooks, calendars, and pieces of paper were strewn about. There were spilled remnants of food; coffee mugs, half full sat on the window sills. It was not a nice place to be or to imagine someone living in.

In my grief, I began to clean. And clean. And clean.

I threw away the trash. I went through her pictures, partly to see her face, and then I placed them in a box so that her mother and my father could sort through them. I picked up the dishes, and I placed them in the kitchen. I found all those pill bottles and I disposed of them. I folded her clothes and I put the socks in pairs.

In my cleaning, I learned things I about her that I hadn’t known. She was a regular watcher of the A&E show “Intervention.” She still loved butterflies and fairies, like when we were children. She wrote love letters to her boyfriend. She had not a single picture of me in her bedroom, but she tracked all my birthdays on her calendars, which when I learned this, made me feel like I had been a part of her life in some small way–even through the estrangement.

The next day when I told my mother that I had cleaned my stepsister’s room, she was completely taken aback. She felt, like many, that it was downright “freaky” to be hanging out in a room where a person had just died. She felt that the emotional implications of carrying out such an act would overcome me, but I knew in that moment she just didn’t understand. I was surprised at how much peace cleaning my stepsister’s room brought to me.

In those moments where I cleaned her room, I realized that there was still a sisterly love between us left in the wake of her death. Death is funny like that. At the time, I was not consciously thinking to myself that I was doing her any sort of kindness by cleaning her room she had left behind, but looking back on it, even the next day, I knew that I had.

I lovingly made her bed and made sure that all the things she treasured were kept intact and organized for my father to go through. It was the last kindness I could give to her, and I was glad that I had done it. I also felt that it left her with a measure of dignity. I knew that her friends and family would be coming through that room–that a priest would be coming–and I didn’t want them to see the worst of what she left behind…. I would rather that they see the best.

For some, the act of cleaning up after a loved has passed away may seem a bit daunting, or even scary. But for me, this was the last bit of kindness that I could give, and I was happy that I was there to fulfill this meaningful task. When people came through her room in the following days, they were able to get a sense of what she left behind in a more joyful way, rather than being shocked at the squalor that was initially left behind. This brought unexpected peace and closure that we were all happy to obtain.

Billie Criswell Bio:

Billie Criswell is a freelance writer and blogger from the Delaware Seashore. She writes on a variety of lifestyle issues, is a self-proclaimed foodie, and has been published online as well as in print. Billie has just completed her first book. Visit my blog at http://www.abilliontinypieces.com/

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COMMENT (1) | addiction, drugs, loss, relationships, siblings
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One Response to “One Last Kindness”

  1. Joyce
    December 18th, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Billie, I found your story very interesting and well-written. Some people would have been judgemental about the condition of your step-sister’s room, but you reacted with kindness and much grace.

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