Freedom to Grieve

Protecting grief from "closure," consumerism, politics, and other cultural distortions

Deciding What to Do with "Things" After a Loved One Dies

After her husband died, how did Jane know what to do with his farm tools?

Thirteen years ago, Jane’s husband died at age 45. As part of moving forward in the next few months and years, Jane had to make decisions about what to do with her husband’s “things.”

This is a decision many people have to make. What do you keep? What do you throw away? Who should help decide? It is difficult for many because “things” left behind can take on a new emotional attachment to the one who died. And there is a fear of losing even more of the loved one.

People often desperately want to hang on to everything they can: memories, possessions, pictures. The shoes left in the doorway can become sacred. The clothes in the laundry with a familiar scent may be comforting. So making decisions about what to do with things is a process that varies greatly for people. There is no one way to do it. Individuals decide differently what to do with things; for example whether to keep them displayed, pack them away, or give them away. However, these decisions are influenced by the meanings attached to those things.

Jane describes part of this process for her in describing her husband’s things. She says, “Being a farmer, his things included a lot of tools, so by that next spring after he passed away, we actually did a farm sale. I mean, the kids went through and picked out some tools but, other than that, we sold machinery, tools, and everything.”

What to do with her husband’s tools was not always a clear decision. Jane thought through the meanings attached to the tools and the meanings attached to selling his tools. She wondered, was it disrespectful to sell them so soon after his death? In the end, Jane decided it was the most appropriate thing to do because of how her husband lived and what he valued. This interpretation of his tools helped her to move forward knowing she was doing the right thing. It did not mean she was not grieving, but the meanings attached to her husband brought some peace and comfort. She reflects on this process.

Jane remembers wondering, “Am I doing the right thing in even doing a farm sale? Why am I doing this?” There was another woman in our community who had lost her husband several years before and she had done nothing with the machinery. It was just still sitting outside where he had left it. And so as I’m sitting there talking to myself and thinking, “Why am I doing this? I shouldn’t be doing this so soon. I should hold onto it for another year. And then, I’m like, “No, I should be getting rid of it because someone else could use it. It is too valuable of equipment to sit here and rust away. That’s not good for his memory. That what he had worked so hard to accumulate should go to waste. Somebody else should have it.”

 Jane was able to know that selling the equipment, even just a few months after his death, was the right thing to do because of the meaning she attached to it. Her husband valued proper care of equipment. She believed that he would approve of her decision. She believed that her act to sell the tools and equipment honored her husband’s life. So even though she sobbed during the process, she had peace.

When people can attach meanings to things that remind them of loved ones, it may help them connect their present and future worlds with the past. But people grieving need time and freedom to understand what they want to do.

 

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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