When Christina was a teenager, her mother and several younger siblings died in a car accident. During the first week after her mom died, Christina and her remaining siblings would go through their mom’s closet and smell the familiar perfume on her clothes. Christina recalled, “She was a nurse and worked evenings so she had a robe that she always got ready in. It smelled like her perfume and it always smelled like that. So right after it happened, I would go and smell that all the time. I would just hold the robe and it was like she was still there. It was very comforting.”
But that comfort would not last.
A week after her mom died, while the kids were at school, neighbors came and took over. They washed all the clothes, including that precious robe. Christina recalled, “When they washed everything, that was gone and I had nothing to smell. So that upset me terribly. I thought, ‘Why would they do that?’"
Thirty years later, Christina still gets tears in her eyes as she reflects on what the neighbors did. Christina said, “I was really upset because I thought there was no getting that back.” Christina wanted to hang on to what she could. The smell of her mom’s perfume created a social presence, a comforting memory. Others took that away from her.
When a loved one dies, “things” are no longer “just things.” In everyday life, the shoes someone leaves in the middle of the room can be an ongoing nuisance. But when the person who wore them dies, those shoes left behind can become sacred. The act of moving them represents a new challenge. Picking them up acknowledges the reality that they will not be left there again.
You may long for that “nuisance” of picking up shoes once again. What do you do with them? Do you leave them out? Pack them away? Give them away? Throw them away? And these questions are multiplied by all types of spaces, places, and things. We may hold on to special items as a way to keep memories and stay connected to those who died.
Sometimes, well-meaning individuals want to go into a grieving person’s home and clean out things that they think will bring too much pain or, from their perspective, do chores that “should just be done.” For example, when a mother suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth, others may think it is a good idea to take down the nursery for her. Or in another case, a woman’s husband dies and people think they should remove his clothes, wash the dirty laundry, and pick up as a way to help out. STOP. Don’t do it. Do not put anything away unless you have permission from the people most directly connected.
Yes, it is very painful to be surrounded by the clothes, books, toys, shoes, and every other material item belonging to the one who died. But identifying the meaning attached to these items and deciding what to do with them is important in the grieving process. These items might also be a source of comfort. The meanings of those things often change over time. But we should not force the change for others.
If a person does not know what to do, and is not ready to make decisions, he or she may want to pack up items in order to decide later.
It is possible that those grieving know they want to remove items such as clothes right away. That is fine. The problem comes when we do not give those grieving a chance to decide. It is complicated when a family cannot agree on what to do with things. It is important to have conversations about these decisions.
Sometimes friends and family can be impatient wondering why months or years later a person continues to hang on to something. Rather than judging the person for still having an item, ask why it is important to them. There typically are powerful, and sometimes funny, stories connected to those things.
Thirteen years ago, Jane’s husband died. They were in their mid-40s. She shared a story about why she still keeps a jacket:
“To this day, I still have a Chicago Bulls rain jacket that he bought our daughter. She was in 4th grade and needed a new spring coat. It was a sunny afternoon and I was doing a long-term substituting job so I said, “You take her shopping.” He said, “Okay, what does she need.” I said, “A new spring jacket with a hood. Don’t get one without a hood.” So he comes home with this really cute, half-zip, Chicago Bulls jacket because she really liked that team. It had no hood. I said, ‘Where is the hood?’ and they both look at me like, ‘but it’s a Bulls jacket.’ And I said, ‘But where’s the hood?’ She wore one of those warm headband things all spring to keep her ears warm. To this day, we kept that jacket because he bought it for her and it was not the jacket Mom wanted for her. And it was kind of that joke but also that it meant that it was something that Dad gave in to her for when Mom never would have.”
That jacket with no hood holds special memories for Jane and her daughter. They would not need the jacket to remember the humor and bond between father and daughter, but it is a nice physical reminder and something to grasp, too.
In time, people generally learn what it is they want to keep and what they are ready to move elsewhere. People vary widely in when and what they decide. Give each other freedom to grieve.
Resist the urge to tell someone to take off a wedding ring, sell a car, pack away pictures, give away clothes, or dismantle a room. If you are interested, ask genuine questions. What does this item mean to you? Tell me about it. If the person wants to talk, sit back and listen. You may hear some deep stories of love.
Nancy Berns is the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.