I once advised a woman who could not figure out why her sister was so unemotional while going through their father’s belongings. The woman I was talking to would pick up each item and pour over it with memories and emotion, while her sister was quickly going through things, getting rid of stuff, and wanting to get it done as efficiently as possible. The woman was frustrated to tears that her sister didn’t seem to care.
After some discussion, the conclusion she came to was not that her sister didn’t care, but rather that her sister didn’t ascribe meaning to objects the same way she did and that taking care of tasks was one of her coping mechanisms. The emotional value of her dad’s items was something the woman I was talking to needed to explain to her sister and ask that they take some more time.
Often family and friends will offer to help you to get rid of or re-home your lost loved-one’s items. If you are not ready to part with their things, you are under no obligation to say yes to this type of help.
Another of the people we worked with had lost his wife 17 years ago and still had a room full of her things. He was engaged in his community, he had meaningful interpersonal relationships, he also was comforted by the presence of her things. Friends and family really dwelled on that last item and often pressured him to clear that room out. Retaining her things wasn’t holding him back or making him disconnect from life around him and his friend and family just didn’t see that he was doing what felt right for him.
We cannot say this enough times; your grief experience is yours. There is no correct way to grieve, nor correct timeline, nor correct set of actions. If keeping items from your lost loved-one isn’t hurting you and isn’t hurting someone else, then you’re fine to keep them. You’re also allowed to clear out anything you don’t want to keep.
If you’re not the sibling who needs to keep things, rather your process is to clean house, it’s important to communicate to siblings, your kids, or any other person with an interest in the stuff that belonged to the person who died, that getting things taken care of is important to you. And maybe tell them that the discomfort of leaving these possessions undealt-with is adding your grief.
As with most things, communication is key. Talk openly about your feelings toward these possessions, and talk often because over time those feelings will probably change. Open communication with family will also help prevent someone unwittingly discarding an item that was of great emotional value to someone else.
Dealing with their “stuff” is one of the hardest things to face in the wake of loss. It brings individual grief styles head to head, it involves “equal distribution” issues, it’s also a harsh confrontation with the unnecessity of these items given the complete absence of the person to whom they belonged. That’s a lot to take!
Communicate clearly to find a system that works for you and your family. This may mean clearing out things in smaller chunks of time. Or taking more things than you really want in order to have more time to decide if you want to keep them. Or slowing down a little to accommodate someone who needs a little more time than you do. It’s a time to offer some grace to those sharing in this loss. Even if that grace is an accommodating smile to someone, who doesn’t know your grief, telling you it’s time to get rid of their stuff.