Zero Waste Death and Dying
Life has been overwhelming since our 12 year old son Christian passed away. Summer has been ice cream, vacations, and swimming like it should be, but planning for those things and then recovering for them has taken more wind out of my sails than they normally would. So many zero waste ideas and so little energy to write about them. But since I’m here with this as the next thing on my to do list, I’m optimistic that my logistical brain is making a come back.
There’s been no shortage of zero waste activities – I just tried a safety razor for the first time (and loved it), have been gardening like crazy (and getting a TON of produce which is super exciting), and made home made clif bars that tasted super close to the real thing. We even went away with friends and they were all supportive of composting our food waste which we brought it home, diverting at least 15 gallons of garbage from a landfill. That trip also made me think about how zero waste is really more about what you buy than what you do with what you buy, but more on that soon.
Back to Christian’s death.
If you’ve been through this you know that death goes on for a long time after someone dies. It’s not just the death but the heaps of logistics forced on you in the aftermath of a horrible loss. Dealing with it is a huge time and energy suck and makes the whole grieving process that much more intense.
So it was with our son’s death.
He was ill but it happened suddenly and we’d made no plans for what to do with anything except his body. We’d decided quite some time ago to donate it to an anatomical donation program for a number of reasons. The first is that his life was difficult medically and we wanted to give back somehow to the medical community. The second was that we’d known his death was coming for ten years and didn’t feel attached any longer to his physical body. Additionally it was cost prohibitive to do a standard burial. Finally, after his body had been respectfully used for one to two years, it would be cremated.
After he passed away peacefully at home, the first thing was to call for his body to be taken. It was dark and silent in our usually noisy house at 3 am. My in-laws came over to say good bye. My husband helped carry out his body. We’d thought he was fine that afternoon and then learned his lungs had filled with fluid and then his body quickly shut down. I’d had no time to process anything and these people in suits came to our house and took him away. I didn’t want to keep his body but I didn’t want it gone either. I wanted to rewind to his conception and fix the broken letter in the genetic code.
It was really hard to let go, in spite of a sound, logical decision.
The next step was getting rid of all of his medical equipment. It didn’t bring me joy and I didn’t want to remember any of it, really.
Christian was born with full mobility but the disease process left him unable to walk around the age of 7. The morning he died I looked at his wheelchair and felt pissed off that he’d ever needed it. I posted it for free on Craigslist and it was gone in 24 hours.
The person came to pick it up at 7 am so I said I’d leave it outside. He probably thought I was crazy but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. When I walked outside and saw the chair gone, I gasped involuntarily. It was another step along the “this is real” road.
The next thing I did (for the same reason) was to pack up all his medications. A friend came by and asked if I needed anything and I gave her a box of narcotics and asked her to take them to be incinerated.
I hated that he needed underpads for incontinence and bandana bibs for drool. His classroom had use for them so off they went.
I tried to sell his bed and shower chair, but when no one nibbled, we donated them to a local camp that works with physically challenged children. They even came and picked them up.
I had positive emotions watching the first set of things leave but for some reason watching them take his bed away was like watching his body being taken away again. Grief has no rules.
I was able to sell feeding tube bags, diapers and formula on eBay. I couldn’t donate them anywhere and selling them helped cover some of the unexpected costs we incurred related to his death.
There was a lot of random medical equipment like syringes and loose feeding tube bags and medical tape that I was able to donate to a local charity called InterVol that I’d never heard of before that takes unused medical equipment and distributes it internationally.
Next up was selling his hoyer lift, which we were able to do on eBay again. This was our favorite piece of medical equipment because it was so discreet and practical. We used it every day to get Christian out of bed and it helped his quality of life tremendously. It was the one thing I felt really excited to share with someone who needed it.
It was also a remarkable pain in the rear end to ship.
There was an arm chair in his room we no longer needed that we gave to a friend, and an extra hospital bed mattress the camp didn’t want that we sold on Craigslist.
In a way I feel like I got rid of things quickly – I’m pretty much done and it’s been almost three months. But on the other hand, I knew for a decade that he would pass away and a huge part of me was ready to get rid of the medical things because they didn’t represent his life. I hold close the memories of the time before all the drool bibs and diapers and hospital beds and narcotics.
While he generated more waste than the average person in his life, it was important to me not to throw anything away that we could salvage and I can say that we threw almost nothing away.
Never underestimate the power of posting something for free on Craigslist
My number one tip to anyone cleaning out anything is this: never underestimate the power of posting something for free on Craigslist, or googling for a random charity that might take something weird. It does take more time and effort, for sure, but the flip side is that you’ll be really blessing someone and diverting things from landfills. People often say “no one would want this” but I can almost promise you it’s not true. Someone somewhere wants whatever it is.
Today, his room has essentially turned into a minimalism/zero waste room – it’s filled with gardening supplies and other things I’m minimizing that I have posted for sale or for free and am waiting for people to come pick up. I still call it Christian’s room and hold his memory close to my heart – just not through the things that he used.
(Note: I would process the sudden loss of a healthy child very differently, ever grief story is unique).