Saying Goodbye to Stuff:
Six Steps for Letting Go After Loss
Sorting through our loved one’s belongings can feel daunting and overwhelming, not to mention emotional. We often find ourselves clinging to their material items because we no longer have their physical touch. Every “thing” seems to hold a story. But deep inside, we know we don’t want to haul around a truckload of stuff for the rest of our lives. So we embark on a journey through the tangible diary of their life, developing a more holistic view of the person we love. We begin the process of exploring, and purging, their stuff.
As I near the end of this chapter of my journey – sorting through my childhood home, including countless years of my mom’s, dad’s, ancestors, and my own childhood stuff – I came up with six steps that have helped me let go through the process:
1. Allow Yourself Time
Don’t let anyone tell you that purging your loved one’s belongings should be done in a day, a week or a month. The reality is, every situation and relationship is different, so consult your inner self to determine how much time you need. In cases where belongings must be moved immediately (like hospice or assisted living), plan a place for temporary storage along with a comfortable place to sort through things. My sister and I had the opportunity to deal with our family “stuff” within the walls of the the house we were raised. We are wrapping up our purging process at the two-year anniversary of my mom’s death. It’s taken longer that we both thought it would, but in the end it feels just right to us.
Beware of extremes.
Attempting to immortalize your loved one by leaving everything “just as it was” or storing away boxes to go through at some later date may prolong your grieving process, preventing you from moving forward with your life. On the other extreme, you may have impulses to purge everything right away, wishing yourself to push through or quickly “move on” . This too can be a sign of denial of the magnitude of your loss. If you are feeling either of these extremes, take a break or talk to a friend or therapist to help you re-center.
2. Start Easy
As much as I experienced the extreme of wanting to hold onto everything right after my mom passed, we also had family flying in to stay at the house for her memorial. My mom had a habit of keeping clutter, so in the first week after my mom’s death, I circled the house several times a day, throwing away anything I had zero attachment to and doing some general cleaning and organization. This actually felt good, like I was paying the house and my mom respect.
In general, start with whatever feels easiest to you and leave the harder sections or rooms for last.
Pay attention to your heart and gauge your feelings as you go. If something is too much to handle at the moment, close it up and start somewhere else. This gives your heart and spirit time to prepare for the more emotional tasks.
3. Let Go in Rounds
It can be difficult to think clearly and make decisions during grieving, so my sister and I adopted the approach of letting go in rounds. When we were on the fence about an item, we would put it in the “keep” pile to revisit later. As we entered the second and third rounds, our “keep” pile kept getting smaller and smaller. More often than not, the items on the fence ended up in the give-away pile. In later rounds, we even found ourselves purging things we had thought we really, really wanted. It just goes to show that heightened emotions can get the best of us. Letting go in rounds can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by decisions and can make the process much more relaxed and forgiving.
As you get down to the harder stuff, ask yourself, “Was this important to him/her? Did he/she like this?” if not, it may become easier to let go. If the item was important to your loved one, ask yourself, “Is it important to me? Do I like it?”
Keep things because you like them, not just because you think they did. Remember, you are going to be living with the stuff you choose to keep.
4. Invite Company
It’s important to have alone time and private time with our memories, but I am SO GRATEFUL for having amazing friends who helped me through the purging process. Many days, I just didn’t have the energy to clean out another closet, and if it weren’t for the help of my friends, I would have stooped into a much darker place and still be struggling to get out. Having company was extremely therapeutic and strengthened my friendships as well.
Inviting friends who knew your loved one can be especially healing – you can share stories while you purge.
However, make sure you consider the energy of those you invite to help. The more grounded and supportive they are, the better. You don’t need extra stress during this process, so if you have a negative gut reaction about someone who has offered to help, politely decline and seek out friends that you want by your side.
5. Cry, Laugh, Feel
This may seem obvious, but for many people it’s not. Remember, this is not an emotionless time – so don’t pretend like it is. Know that it’s going to be emotional and be careful not to overextend yourself. Emotions are exhausting, so when you feel tired, stop and rest.
You will find things that make you cry, that make you laugh, that make you angry so do your best to embrace and care for those feelings.
I shed a lot of tears in the past two years, but also found things that made me laugh, like funny cards and old photos. I found things that made me angry, like letters addressing my dad’s former partners around the time of his death, and lots of little things that irritated me, like why did my mom have so many bottles of shampoo and conditioner and 20 pairs of reading glasses? All of these emotions generally boiled down to sadness, missing my parents and all of their quirks, along with self-empathy for the fact that I was having to go through all of this.
Fortunately, I was able to transform some of these frustrations into good, donating my mom’s personal care products to a women’s shelter and her glasses to a eye-care mission in Mexico, and we are donating the majority of clothes and household goods to local charities.
6. Remember: Your Loved One is Not Their Stuff
As I have been working hard to limit the stuff I keep to a box for my mom and a box for my dad, I recently asked myself, “If I could keep one thing of my dad’s, what would it be? If I could keep one thing of my mom’s, what would it be?”
My answer was clear and concise, and also surprised me.
“I would keep my dad’s hugs and his sense of humor. I would keep my mom’s kindness and her wisdom.” I immediately felt lighter knowing no material items could come close to what I really want to keep from my parents.
At that moment, I knew that I could have what I wanted by simply nurturing the best qualities of my parents that are already inside me.
If you are still struggling with holding onto stuff after reading this, you can practice saying these words to yourself: (Insert name) is not his/her (insert item).
For me, it is: My dad is not his records, his Ranchero, or his running shoes. My mom is not her sweaters, her books, or her rocking chair. Even for things you decide to keep, this can help separate the person from the thing, and help you make decisions based on what you want in your life.
Good luck letting go, dear friends!