6 Lessons I Learned Renovating My Dad's Home After He Passed Away

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Image Credit: Edgary Rodríguez R.

After my father died of COVID-19 in January 2021, I assumed the responsibility of organizing and renovating his house in Venezuela. It wasn't a whim; the repairs were necessary. My dad knew this, but he delayed the project for a couple of years. In the past, the house went through a major expansion that was delayed for months. Meanwhile, another house he owned was left in the middle of a renovation when the builder took his money and disappeared. My dad wasn't feeling lucky when it came to home improvement.

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The decision to take on renovating my dad's home was not immediate. I waited eight months to get the strength, and even so, it was a rough few weeks of transformation. Dealing with restoration issues is not easy — doing so while mourning is exhausting. You have to remove memories, discard objects, and stay on your feet.

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Although I accepted my dad's death right away, grief is not linear. We have to go through different stages to really understand that our loved one will no longer be around. Mourning is necessary and denying reality can hurt us more down the line. Acceptance was about loving, respecting the process of life, and being grateful for the years my dad and I had together.

However, when it came time to work on the house, I was already worn out. This fatigue added up when I spent weeks worrying about my dad during his hospitalization, dealing with the unsolicited opinions of third parties, grieving, and partaking in my old habit of thinking I could carry other people's baggage on top of my own. Also, I had my own encounter with COVID.

My brother and I made all the decisions regarding Dad together. We are very close and he has been a great support to me all my life, but he lives on another continent. Although we talked every day during the renovation, the field work was mine to do this time. Meaning, I had to source the building materials, keep an eye on the budget, manage workers, organize, clean up, and not abandon my own work. However, headaches can also be learning experiences, and this is what I began to understand during the days when I renovated my dad's home.

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1. Start with priorities.

We can get overwhelmed before even taking the first step, especially when there are many tasks to accomplish. I decided to start with the most urgent: the roof. A previous bad roofing job had reduced the life of the existing structure, so if I didn't want the walls, foundation, and other elements to be damaged by leaks, it was the best place to start.

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In the meantime, I forgot about the mess in the garage after moving some items. Sorting and organizing could wait a bit. Although I wanted to finish all the tasks on my list at once, I didn't have the capacity to think with the hammering that rumbled through the house in the first few days.

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2. Get help with the heavy chores.

Many people are handy around the house — I am not. With my skills clear, I knew what situations to avoid. It is important to hire professionals for electrical work, plumbing, and major repairs. Otherwise, we run the risk of accidents.

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For painting, cleaning, and organizing, I talked to my uncle and aunt. A two-story house with five bedrooms and four bathrooms was too big for one person to tackle. If I wanted to finish the repairs before the end of the year, I had to accept assistance. If I wanted to keep my sanity, I had to ask for help.

3. Hunker down in a room that is not under repair.

Living inside a house while it is under renovation has pros and cons. Since I can work from home, I could keep an eye on the repairs. If the workers needed material, I could acquire it faster so they would not stop the project.

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The negative aspects were greater, and I had to live with the chaos. Even though, in the early days, not all the spaces in the house were taken, as time went by there was not a single room to sit in. It was crucial to have my own space to rest, and I wish I selected one room to have as my safe haven.

4. Delays are normal.

Everyone would like life to flow smoothly, but unexpected events are common. Usually, when it comes to home improvements, the estimated completion dates end up being extended.

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The work started with days of torrential rain that changed the schedule. Although the weather must be checked for the type of repairs we plan to do, we cannot control nature. Delays in the delivery of materials, or health problems among the workers, are also possible. We must breathe and try to stay calm. "Soon it will all be over" is what I kept repeating to myself.

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5. Don't run, it's not a race.

Until the last day of improvements, it's a lie that a house under construction can be kept clean. I thoroughly cleaned each room about twice, only to later find that it looked like a house five years abandoned. So I gave up, convinced that the real cleaning would be done in the near future, which had no date yet. I thought once a task was finished it was the end, but sometimes it becomes a cycle until we learn to release. Patience is key.

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With that in mind, I slowly began to organize — however, this step was unavoidably sad. With each box, I remembered I was ending a life stage. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. My dad used to accumulate things, and I had to go through invoices from the '90s, finding among the papers the photographs of him I had not seen before.

6. Don't cling to material things.

My brother and I were always very close to my parents, which is why we know that the best things to keep are memories of family gatherings or photographs of trips. I knew it was not logical to hold on to material things. As memorabilia, I kept my dad's medical school medals and a mingo (the smallest ball that's part of bolas criollas​,​ or Creole balls, a popular game among Venezuelans). For my brother, I saved a couple of items he could later share with my niece and nephew.

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One part of me wanted to leave everything behind and run away, while the other knew it was a necessary task for me to go through my dad's belongings — just like it was necessary for me to bring my dad's ashes to the precise place he had always wanted. I had no problem keeping the promise. I was the only one geographically close to him after my parents' divorce, which happened a few years before he passed away. My brother couldn't leave his job and take an eight-hour-plus plane ride. It was no longer my mom's place, although she would have done it for me if she wasn't also on the other side of the world.

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When my mom changed her residence shortly after the divorce, I realized how little material things mattered. Her whole life was reduced to a couple of suitcases when she emigrated. After my dad's death, I realized that even those suitcases don't really belong to us; he couldn't take anything with him. We don't know what we take with us once we die. It's definitely nothing material, but I hope — for my dad at least — that it was memories and love.

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