When our loved ones are gone, but their things remain: Handling the stress of possessions
Now that they’re gone…
Natalie got involved right away. She cleared out the house and handled all of the affairs of her mother’s estate. Within a few months, the house was on the market and was sold. Now, as the weeks and months pass by, she cannot help but drive by the house. Natalie wonders what they’ve done in the kitchen. Did they change the sitting room that mom used to enjoy morning coffees while saying her rosary? Did they rip out the mustard and ketchup roses along the fence line? Her brother Nick took a different approach. He never thinks about that old house. In fact, he wouldn’t care if they burned it down.
The story was different for Jeannette. After losing her spouse, Nigel, Jeannette found it difficult to go through even the simplest of his things that surrounded her in their home. She remembered all of the special dinners they shared when she opened the cabinets in the kitchen. She struggled looking at the recliner that Nigel watched Sunday football from. And she has not been able to open his closet or even look inside his dresser to go through his clothes. It wasn’t just “her” home. It was still “their” home.
Clinging to “stuff” is a normal part of grief
Does Natalie or Jeannette’s experience sound familiar to you? Have you faced the same feelings of stress, anxiety or extreme sadness dealing with your loved one’s possessions? Going through your loved one’s stuff Grief is made up of many loses. There is the primary loss, the loss of your loved one. There are secondary losses, the accumulation of other “hidden losses” you experience after your loved ones death. It includes the loss of family structure, primary relationships, roles, support systems, lifestyles, financial security, sense of purpose and your identity. The loss of family structure, for example, may see you taking on new responsibilities that you never did including jobs around the house like mowing the lawn or fixing the faucet.
One of the early challenges you will face while confronting these secondary losses is the challenging task of going through your loved one’s possessions. As many people stare down the piles of books, the closets full of cloths, the boxes in the basement or the cans in the pantry, they feel a wide array of emotions including:
- Guilt. You may feel that these items were important to your loved one. How could you think about selling it or giving it away?
- Fatigue. You may feel an overall lack of energy or lack of passion to engage in this type of a project.
- Overwhelmed. You have likely been given so many administrative duties in managing the estate. One of those tasks probably includes the “house cleaning” projects. This sense of too much to do can leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
- Being stuck. You feel that you’re not able to take the next step or to open another box. You’re not sure where to go first and you’re not sure how to decide who gets what items. Sometimes, facing these options, people freeze. They make no choice at all and begin to feel stuck in place.
Strategies for managing “the stuff”
As you begin the hard work of going through your loved one’s possessions, here are some tips that may make the challenge a little easier:
- Take your time. You are on your own timeframe, don’t feel pressured to meet anyone else’s preconceived expectations of when you have to have the house up for sale or when you have to clean out the closet. Work to your schedule.
- Start small. You don’t have to tackle an entire room on the first day. Choose a single thing. One drawer or one shelf.
- Create a treasure box. Set aside special mementos and things that may trigger strong emotions for review at a later time.
- Segregate items. One strategy is to create six different categories: save for me, save for others, sell, donate, throw away, and not sure. When you work with these categories, you can try to limit the number of items in the “not sure” pile to make sure you’re doing the hard work. You can determine if you want to keep multiples of other items.
- Bring a camera. Some things will be very hard to let go, no matter how much you talk yourself through it. Think about taking photographs of items that are difficult to get rid of to put them in a memory book. Later, you can even journal about it and add those thoughts to your memory book.
- Ask for help. Sometimes, the job of sorting through the possessions gathered by a loved one is too daunting to do alone. It can be another relative, or just a friend who will sit with you as you work. Or someone who will take on the task of throwing away less sentimental things, like the half-empty shampoo bottle and the Italian dressing in the refrigerator. That person can not only help lift and move boxes, but they can provide you with much needed perspective and emotional support.
The “stuff” in life is only a small part of the memory of our loved ones. As the grief journey continues, you will come to embrace the true essence of your loved one that has never been represented by an object, but has always been reflected in the love that you shared.