Toss Out the Illness, Save the Love

Vic a few months before he died (photo by Herbert Shapiro)

Vic a few months before he died
(photo by Herbert Shapiro)

A few months after my husband Vic’s death, I opened the kitchen cabinet to get my vitamins as I did every morning. My eyes drifted to Vic’s medicines on a higher shelf, but I didn’t avert my eyes and close the cabinet door as usual. Instead, I felt an urgent need to sort and toss.

After eating oats and yogurt and half way through my thermos of tea, still in my pajamas with unbrushed teeth, I pulled plastic vials of prescription medicines off the shelves. I put them on the kitchen counter along with the supplements—the ones to relieve swelling and replenish minerals or counteract too much blood thinner. I scraped off the “Victor Mansfield, use as directed” labels and dumped the tiny pills into the garbage—pink circles, bicolor capsules, white ovals of various sizes, blue ones, ones with numbers.

DSC04665“No, they can’t be recycled,” the pharmacist said on the phone. “Don’t flush them into the septic system. Just pull off labels and dump pills in the garbage along with the amber plastic vials.” I recycled glass jars and put unused needles in a hospital bag for hazardous waste disposal.

I willed my way down the cellar steps to retrieve the cardboard box I stashed there the day Vic died. It held the plastic pill organizer, bottles, and potions that were on the kitchen counter the last year, the “use as needed” meds—pale lilac Ambien for stupor more than sleep and white Tylenol with codeine to dull the cough. Various potencies of prednisone to urge the body toward life, red codeine cough syrup, and yellow anti-bacterial liquid.

Healthy Vic, 2005

Healthy Vic, 2005

How did this happen to us? We lifted weights, grew our own organic food, and rarely took aspirin.

I moved on to the downstairs bathroom and spread pills, liquids, ointments, and salves across the linoleum floor. The history of his two-year illness was in those drugs. I remembered the order, what came after another failed to help. I remembered waning hope with the last prescriptions filled. In the beginning, we tried to avoid this mountain of medication, only to succumb in the end. We tried every natural solution, too, whether Vic believed in it or not. I wanted him to feel better. I wanted to hold off death until tomorrow.

DSC06154I cleared out his illness to make room for the good memories before the last sick years. I did it to clear space for my unimaginable new life. The task had felt unbearable. I had borne it, but my body ached with grief.

When I was done, I took gladiolas to the place where Vic’s ashes were buried. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I told him about my small triumph in life without him.

“Your medicine is gone, Vic, but so is your body. I’m grateful your love is still here.”


Have you sorted someone’s possessions after their death? It’s almost six years since Vic died, and I still haven’t gone through his slides and books. One day, when I least expect it, the urge will come and I’ll begin. Jessica McKimmie wrote a helpfult article Six Steps for Saying Goodbye to Stuff at Peace through Grief. I also recommend Catherine Tidd’s article The Memory Bomb from the Widdhahood. For more resources and inspiration, see an article by Marty Tousley of Grief Healing called Tips on Sorting a Loved One’s Personal Belongings.

  1. Such difficult times. How we miss our loved ones who have gone beyond.

  2. I do love that picture of Vic even though he was sick. Just so Italian.

    • Yes, he was swollen and ill, but more and more Italian in an interesting way. The hands and his postchemo haircut? It was a difficult time during illness and the first years after his death, but it was also a time of great love. Thank you for being part of my circle of love.

  3. Thanks as always E. Helps me keep perspective when I’m having a bad day.

    • Thinking of you, Dennis. I hope the warmer weather helps. Not so warm today, but at least they took snow out of the weather forecast. Oh no, I see snow coming out of the sky. Soon it will be hot, but not today. Wishing you relief.

  4. To answer your question, No, not yet. My mother, still alive, has sorted her things and passed them on to others, so very little of value remains in her home. My Aunt, on the other hand (in a nursing facility never to return home) has a whole houseful of possessions–antiques and the stuff of everyday living which we will have to sift through. It will be a bitter-sweet time, I’m sure.

    As to Vic, he lives on in the faces of your handsome sons, who probably exhibit some of his
    personality and character traits as well. You are continuing to take healthy steps toward healing. I admire your candor and you willingness to record your true feelings and actions for the benefit of many!

    • Thank you, Marian. There was love and intimacy in these hard times. We knew each day was a gift. and I look back through a lens of love and gratitude, too. My life was blessed with love and it still is. One of the main things I try to pass along in bereavement groups is the idea that grief is just another form of love–a natural longing for someone we miss.

      I don’t want my home to be like your aunt’s house. I have some clearing out to do, but the most valuable things are books and photographs. Few items of objective value. Yes, my sons look like their dad and carry different qualities they got from him.

  5. Oh, Elaine, I remember the day I sort the pill bottles…after that day it took me a year before I took them to our pharmacy where they do whatever they do with them…i.e. dispose of them. I, like you, sat and wept. Each bottle told a story, a chapter in the book of his slow death to Alzheimer’s. Each bottle reminded me of reactions to it or hope it would help and in the end…of course, no pill helped anything much more than calming his poor body/mind. His clothes still hang in his closet. His tools sit in his workshop. His books are on the shelves and their presence is a comfort…assuring me that he existed on days when it all feels unreal. Slowly I will move more clothes on to someone who can use them keeping a few treasures. It all takes time to be ready. Thank you for this piece. I do know the pain….

    • Mary, we do it when we can and anything goes. I cleaned out the room where Vic was sick just a few days after he died. Washed and gave away the bedding and threw out pillows. Too much suffering in them. The pills came next. Then a long, long pause. I’m just not ready to go through all those slides. Too many memories in the images–but many good times and stories. It will happen when it does. I know you know. Sending you love, Elaine

  6. Dear Elaine,

    I read your latest blog while sitting near Tom’s hospital bed days after surgery to remove a large cyst on his pancreas. After spending a week with him in the hospital, I have a much greater appreciation for all those who stand vigil over their loved ones while they go through a health crisis.

    I am always moved by your writing, and I look forward to reading your book.



    • Kathleen, I’m deeply touched thinking of you at Tom’s bedside when reading my post. I logged many computer hours at Vic’s bedside. I hope Tom is home or will be soon. I’m in Cambridge, MA visiting my brother who is recovering from an intense surgery. He’s obviously been through a lot, but he’s doing all he can to get stronger. Recovery period will go on for many months. I’m glad to give him a big hug.

      I also look forward to your book. We’re both preparing for a birth.
      With love,

  7. Thank you for another loving and helpful post. Just today, I came across more of Paul’s meds from his illness. My gut tightens and I add them to the “to deal with” pile. These moments still knock me sideways sometimes.
    As always, I enjoy your writing and photos so much.

    • Patti, those meds show up everywhere. I found some empty amber vials with Vic’s name on them as I pawed through containers to pack for my trip. I’m with my brother as he recovers from a rough surgery. No dancing yet, but we’ll walk in a sculpture garden tomorrow. It’s hard to see the people we love ill, but their vulnerability makes love all the stronger. I want to mother him.
      I enjoy your writing, your creativity, and your photos and look forward to Patti’s publication stage.

  8. I found your lovely blog thanks to my friend Jean Raffa on FB and I see that another friend Marian Beaman is here too.

    I am interested in your work with people in the latter stages of life. I feel drawn to that work also.

    This post and the last show me that you are a great storyteller.

    • Hi Shirley,
      So nice to know our connections. I know Jeanie in a few ways. My husband and I met her at a Jung workshop he gave in FL many years ago and we stayed connected. And now her publisher will publish my first book this fall.
      Aging people (like me) need lots of resiliency to make life good despite losses and setbacks. We have a huge aging population and there is need for help.
      Thanks for the encouraging comment about storytelling. I take personal experiences and turn it into “teaching stories.” My book is memoir, but I hope it will help many deal with grief, loss, and creating a new life when the old one no longer works.
      I’m visiting my sick brother and his family right now, but wrote down your website address and look forward to exploring.

  9. Elaine, tears came to my eyes as I read this. How hard these rituals are.

    I kept the plastic pill organizer with Adrian’s name on it after he died, and I use it now. But his prescription medicine had to go–when I was finally ready to do it.

    There is more space on my shelves now.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts and life.

    • Thank you, Lynne. Your words bring me to my sweet feelings. I’m taking many supplements right now to support my adrenal system and guess whose pill box I use to keep them organized? You guessed right. I think you’ll agree we don’t need to throw out what’s useful–only things that make us feel stuck. I love hearing from you.

  10. Hello Elaine and new Friends
    Guess I’ll jump in too. My husbandJacques, died many years ago, in 1996 but I still have wonderful little moments of missing him and some tears. Just brief moments. Our life together was so intense as we embraced 30 years together, my husband, Jacques, his unrelenting neurological pain, and his physical handicap as a quadriplegic. I was not too nystalgic about his clothes which I later regretted as my daughter hung out in one of his custom made pink shirts. His disability had distorted his body but those pink shirts have his wonderful warm vibs.
    But i do have those many beautiful love letters that he wrote (his trusted secretary typed them) and many little note cards he wrote, yes he struggled to write them one letter at a time with his special tipped felt pen as someone held the card, moved it and readjusted the fingers and pen again. Jacques ran his own jewelry business for 45 years and always insisted to sign his own checks and letters. This little gold colored pen, I have saved and actually keep on a small alter I have in my bedroom. That pen still has his vibs. Our lives, like many of you, were so untwined that he is still a part of me. How could he not be. ?
    I appreciate the wonderful sharing that you all have done inspired by my long time friend Elaine. Thank you for calling forth my own thoughts.

    • How beautiful, Carol. Jacques was a powerful man from his wheelchair. It was hard to remember his physical disabilities. I remember meeting you both for the first time and I remember Jacques asking the Dalai Lama a question about suffering. He had so much of it and yet loved life. Ah, pink shirts. How like him. I’m glad your daughter kept one. And the love letters seems most important of all, the ones with his ideas, the ones with his signature, and the gold pen. I have Vic’s books and his huge slide collection. Those slides hold many stories. You make me think it would be interesting, at least to me, to write about what I kept.
      I’m grateful you shared your memories of Jacques and your experience of being a woman who lost her husband well before I did. I had no idea what it would be like, Carol. You’ve been an inspiration.

  11. Interesting post about meds Elaine. I too live, most holistically and try to live without any pharmaceuticals in my body. It’s puzzling when we try our best to live in health and some awful disease strikes and we question how this can happen and then are forced to put those meds in our systems. Almost ironic that living healthful isn’t enough to ward of terrible diseases and then we ingest chemicals, usually with far worse wide effects than the cure itself. 🙂

    • Debby, the medicines gave Vic extra time and I am grateful. It seems he needed to live until just the time when they stopped working. We did everything right since the late 1960s–organic whole foods, great exercise habits, and a lifetime of meditation. Yet, cancer struck. That story is common. If Vic hadn’t been as healthy as he was, he wouldn’t have survived to finish his work. We were grateful for those last years–and we kept eating healthy food and he kept exercising except when in crisis–and then he’d get himself on the move again. There was no cure for him, and the medicines helped and sometimes caused new problems. I’m less rigid about conventional medicine and medication now, because they can be great in crisis.

      • I don’t disagree, certain diseases require pharmaceutical intervention. I was trying to say that it is just so bewildering that when we do everything we can to live healthy that this terrible disease can still find us.

        • So true, Debby. I see this over and over in my health-minded community–organic vegetarians who meditate and exercise daily receiving hard diagnoses and needing pharmaceutical help. At one time I imagined healthy living would protect us from an unhealthy environments, childhood exposures, and the luck of the draw. Now I take care of my body to feel well today. I can’t dance if my legs are weak. So, let’s keep exercising while we remember our mortality.

  12. Another beautiful piece, dear Elaine. Clearly your wise and lovely voice is being heard by so many others who are walking this path with you. I love reading all the comments from your readers, along with your loving responses. Such a gifted teacher you are . . . ♥

    • Marty, you make my day since you are the best teacher of all. Thank you for reading and commenting. Book baby is on schedule for October. I applied and will give a workshop at Camp Widow in Toronto and, if that works out well for all involved, in Tampa in February. I love their spirit. AZ Death and Dying conference is on hold. Thanks for your helpful advice. With much gratitude, Elaine

  13. I have been through the process with my mother, my two sisters, and my stepmother, and I know that soon it will be time to face this with my father. But none of this has prepared me for the day (if I am still alive) when I have to say goodbye for a while to my husband. I believe in eternal relationships, and I know of the closeness of loved ones, even after they pass on. Still, it is such a trial to lose the closeness of someone you have been with for so many years. Thank you, Elaine, for this post.

    • Susan, I feel deep connections with my husband as you probably know. He’s present in my life every day and especially my heart and spirit. Despite our lasting connection, I miss his body every day–his friendship, humor, shared history, and hugs. Now I watch my brother trying to recover and remember the time when I knew there was no more struggle. Only surrender. Thank you for your wise perspective. I hope your dad is OK with the new procedure and hospitalization. He seems like a gentle warrior.

  14. Thank you for sharing with such honesty and openness, Elaine. It took many months for me to open the boxes I’d brought from Eason House after my mom died. (And literally years before that to empty her house in preparation to sell it.) There are still piles of clothes that I haven’t done anything with. In fact, the nightgown she was wearing the night we transported her to the inpatient hospice facility is still sitting on my laundry table. I just haven’t been able to move it. That was such a difficult night, and it feels like so much sadness is folded up in that gown….

    • Ann, I know you know you can hang on to that nightgown and those clothes as long as you want. One of my son’s wears Vic’s woodsman clothes (overalls, boots, jacket) when he’s home, so this gives me an excuse to keep things of Vic’s. I really would like to deal with Vic’s slides. So many stories in those images. This weekend my sister-in-law asked me if I have any flower portraits taken by Vic. I have a hundred of them. She wants to enlarge and hang some. I promised I’d get to it. I wonder how many years it will take me.

      Sending you love as stores and the internet remind us of Mother’s Day and the mothers we won’t buy gifts this year.

  15. Elaine,
    There is such strength of presence in these pictures of Vic. Especially in his eyes and the kindness in his smile. All alive and held in wholeness within your heart as you honestly share in your writings. thank you.
    I can imagine that Vic’s photographs of flowers–and the slides–demonstrate his presence, strength, intellect, and love of nature.
    They too will make meaningful shares when it comes in your time frame. I find a peaceful stillpoint when I read and reflect on your posts.

    • Thank you, Tanene. I’m grateful for your loving encouragement.

      Vic took on the practice of kindness during his illness. This photo taken in his last months shows it. Vic became a devotee of the Dalai Lama’s message: “Kindness is my religion.” Vic said, “I don’t have the focus to meditate and study anymore, but I can still be kind.” V became sweeter and more open as he became sicker and suffered more. It was a huge gift to his family. I write about this in my book. Also write about the times when we didn’t do so well.

      I love your image of the peaceful stillpoint. I brings me back to my teacher Marion Woodman who loved this concept and encouraged me to write my book.
      Must dig into those slides–sometime.
      With gratitude, Elaine

  16. What I remember is when I finally finished sorting and cleaning out my daughter’s bedroom, I was faced with this barren dull white room that was no longer the beautiful chaos that was my daughter. It made me so sad because it was like erasing her completely from the upstairs. But I started wearing her clothes then. So I could keep her close.

    • I’m glad you found a way to keep Marika close, Robin. I needed space between me and repeated traumatic memories of illness. His books are here, his chainsaws and tractor, and my walls are covered with large prints photographed and framed by Vic. Mostly portraits, many from India, a few from Taiwan, and some desert flowers. I’m surprised how close he feels.

  17. A gentle and lovely piece, Elaine. And yes, I too remember the days of purging the drugs and other of Bill’s bottled and boxed attempts at healing or at least comforting him. It was difficult and I did that early on unlike all the treasures that still sit here. Someday I shall deal with his workshop and what is left of his clothes. But I, like you, needed to clear the house of the reminders of our struggles to heal or comfort his body. Thank you for sharing.

    • I tore apart Vic’s “sick room” right after the memorial service–throwing out pillows that couldn’t be washed, washing linens, moving his hospital bed out of the house. I was in a shocked surreal state, but knew this must be done or I would never go in the room. Too much suffering there. The pills in their plastic vials were only visible when I opened the cabinet door, so they took longer. I don’t know when I’ll get to the rest. Definitely not this month.
      Sending you sunshine and love and a good long walk,

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