If your spouse has died, being surrounded by his belongings might provide great comfort. Removing her clothing from the closet might feel too final and bring up too much sadness so there they remain. In the months after his passing, you might still buy his favorite cereal. After your spouse’s death, every little thing reminds you of her and sometimes its months or years to take a step back and decide what to do with all her things. What DO you do with all the things that meant so much to the one who meant the world to you?
- There’s no time limit: Even if people are telling you to take down the photos and give everything to Goodwill, know nobody can tell you when it’s the right time for YOU to go through your loved ones things. Going through your loved one’s belongings can be incredibly exhausting and emotionally draining and if you’re battling traumatic grief and all the symptoms that come with it: PTSD, chronic anxiety, insomnia, adrenal fatigue and other health issues, you really need to pace yourself when it comes to events that trigger you or are just too much at the moment. I have learned that the body is incredibly good at protecting your mind from getting too overwhelmed all at once. I believe your body will also tell you when it’s the right time for you to face going through items and deciding what to keep and what to give away. Might be months, might be years. It’s OK, the stuff isn’t going anywhere so give yourself the time you need.
- Art: When I decide to keep something of my late husband’s I think very hard about how I want to use it. I try to display things in a way that have meaning to me and a story behind, but something that is not overtly a shrine or altar. I think, “How can I create art out of this?” Another widowed friend I have hired someone on Etsy to make bears and pillows out of her husband’s clothing. I chose to have quilts made. Other ideas include:
- shadow boxes you can buy at hobby stores and display smaller meaningful items
- You can scan handwritten letters and writings and make a photo book out of them
- Re-purpose furniture and decoupage paper memories—just a little or a lot, up to you
- Create montage videos and photo books
- Donate: You don’t always have to ship off boxes to random donation centers if that feels to impersonal and scary to just leave your precious loved one’s belongings to be handled. You could be a part of the donation process. Finding places to volunteer at and personally giving away items to people you feel moved to give to may help you feel closer to your loved one, but also feel like their items are helping other people. For instance, visiting a shelter for single moms and donating your wife’s clothing. Or going to serve in low-income housing and giving a coat or shoes to a dad in a family that wouldn’t have any otherwise. It’s incredibly difficult to let go of these items, but seeing them benefit others may ease the pain a little—when you’re ready and have given yourself the permission to do so.
- Dealing with family and friends: It can be traumatic to watch people pick through your spouse’s things when you are not ready. Remember that these items are now yours to decide what to do with and to whom they go to. Don’t let family members and friends pressure you into getting rid of something too soon or like you feel like you owe someone something. You don’t. If it doesn’t feel right to give it away or it makes sense to give it to one person, but you’d rather give it to someone else—give yourself the permission to do that. It may take weeks it may take years, but don’t feel rushed in feeling like you need to get rid of it all in order to “move on.” I remember how I had to move shortly after my husband’s death and I needed to get rid of some of his work equipment. At that time, it was appalling to me to even consider selling anything of his so I wanted to give it away to fellow business-owners. I found out later that some of the equipment was sold and I was crushed. Now, two years later, I figure that I wanted the equipment to be a blessing to someone else, so if it meant it had to be sold, then so be it. However, some great advice from another widow from a group I’m a part of also said to give yourself permission to ask for something back if you really weren’t ready to give it away.
- Dealing with guilt: For a long time I felt if I got rid of things that belonged to my husband or put things away then I was guilty of forgetting him. It’s taken a lot of grace and patience with myself to talk through why a certain item is so important and if it’s not, to give myself the permission to let it go and to remind myself that nothing tangible I could give away could make me forget him. (See the post “His stuff. My treasure.”) You knew this person at the deepest, most intimate level that no other person knew. No friends or family hold the same memories of your spouse that you do. Remember, what you had together can’t be held in a single item and if there are those several things you just can’t get rid of or put away, don’t feel guilty about that either; like you’re not “moving on” fast enough. Which brings us to the next entry…
- Dealing with the “You should’s:” I was lectured about taking down photos of my husband early in my grief. I just didn’t want the happy reminder of what I used to have staring me in the face every day. Eventually after a lot of processing I was able to put the photos back up, but in an intentional and honoring way. Don’t let people tell you what you “should” be doing. “You should really be taking those photos down now…” “You shouldn’t take the photos down that’s dishonoring…” “You really need to go through his closet and donate things, it’s time…” The worst of the “should’s” come from ourselves: I shouldn’t be feeling this way anymore. I shouldn’t be sleeping with his jacket, it’s been two years. I should really put his toothbrush away, this is ridiculous. I should not buy his deodorant anymore because it reminds me of the way he smells. One thing that is common in almost every grief group you go to is giving yourself grace and trusting that your heart will know when it’s ready to tackle all of these things.
Ultimately, you and you alone will know when the time is right to give things away, pack things up or take things back out of the boxes. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. It’s the life you built together, it will take time to take it down and reassemble however many times you please. Your grief is your own and a big part of that is having to go through all of the things left behind. Give yourself permission to own your grief and do what you need to in your own time.
Read my personal experience here:
I’d love to hear more ideas of how you dealt with your spouse’s things; clever art memorials, stories on giving yourself permission, or questions. Please comment below!