Sorting through the things of life

One of the difficult but often un­ addressed tasks of grief is dealing with the posessions of the person who died. Each time we look at them we are reminded of our loss. We receive so much advice-friends tell us to get rid of it, to clear everything out so we are not con­stantly reminded of our grief. Others may even make requests, subtly or not so subtly requesting items.

The first rule in dealing with the stuff of grief is that there are no rules. Each of us has to make our own decisions about what we choose to keep or what we choose to give away. One man in my support group shared that, for him, opening an empty drawer that once was full with his wife’s clothes would be far worse than seeing her things.

As in other situations of grief, there is no one way we should cope.

Nor is there a timetable for when we shouid choose to do it. We need not tackle the task (if we choose to tackle it at all) in the first week, months, six months or year. We should do it when it seems right, when we are ready.

If we do decide to clear out some of the person we lost, we may need to consider another question. Should we do it alone? Again, there are no rules. For some of us, this needs to be done at our own pace. We may need to go slowly, stopping at times as we confront our memories and our loss. Others of us may welcome the support and assistance of family or friends.

In some cases, certain contingencies may mandate that we cannot use our own timetable. For example, we may have limit­ed time to vacate an apartment or to clear a house prior to sale. In these cases, support may be especially necessary.

When and if we do it, it helps to create systems. My dad was a person who saved everything. The basement was full of boxes that included World War II ration books and every check he wrote in his life. When we cleaned out the house, my brother, sis­ter and I decided to divide things into five categories.

The first were things that clearly could be discarded. These items had no value-symbolic or otherwise-to us. A second category was for things that we were unsure about, items we felt we should discuss as a group. Once discussed, a decision was made to place them in another category.

A third category was simply “not now:’ We were not ready to make a full decision on what to do here. Maybe others would need to be consulted. Maybe we simply needed to wait a while. In the midst of grief, we realized we might not always make the best decisions. In such cases, there is reason to delay decisions.

A fourth category was for things we would donate or give to other individuals. We knew that my father’s grandchildren and friends would treasure certain items. The last category was for things that each of us wanted to keep. One of the things we know about grief is that we never lose the memories; we retain the bonds even as they change in loss. Sometimes though, it is nice to have items that hold those memories and comfort us in loss. For my sister, it is my Dad’s old flannel shirt. There are days in the long, cold winter of grief that it comforts her to wear that shirt.


– Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, MDiv, is Sr. Vice President, Grief Programs, HFA and recipient of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Death Education and Counseling. 

An excerpt from the August 2022 Issue: Journeys, a newsletter to help in bereavement

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