Wednesday, April 23, 2008


One of the questions frequently asked in the grief support groups I facilitated was, “When is it time to clear out a loved one’s belongings?”

What a loaded question, and it never failed to generate a myriad of responses.

Truth is, there is no “right” time. Or I should rephrase that and say there is a right time for every individual, and that person’s right time may never be the right time for anyone else.

Many people theorize that it is not healthy to keep clothes and other items as they are just daily reminders of the loss. Because of that, they are quick to encourage “clearing things out and getting on with life.” But that is not what a grieving person needs. A grieving person may need those things to touch and reconnect and remember for as long as it takes until they are ready to let go.

When a couple we know lost their five year old son in a tragic accident, some other friends cleared out the boy’s room while the parents were at the funeral and took everything away, including furniture. They meant well and thought they were doing the right thing by sparing the parents from the painful experience of sorting through his room, but they had no idea that facing the empty room was harder than facing all the boy’s treasures.

The parents were too kind, and maybe still to numb, to express anger at the friends’ misguided help, but later they told me how devastated they were at the time. There was not one thing left of their son except some pictures, and they wished they had something that belonged to the boy to hold on to.

Several months later, the father told me that he found a matchbox car in a far corner of his closet. He figured his son must have left it there one day while he was playing and watching Dad get ready for work. That became the father’s most treasured possession.


Elaine Williams said...

As a widow I have come to understand there is a large amount of ignorance that abounds regarding the grief process. I would not wish it on anyone, but people can be insensitive without realizing it. As you say, grief works through its process in each individual's own timeframe. There is no wrong or right way to do grief. It takes its time and yet sometimes it speeds us along. Many times we're just along for the ride, but hopefully, we learn to move and grow through the experience and come out whole, and many times better, on the other side.

Maryann Miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Elaine, and my condolences on your loss. You seem to have a good handle on the process for yourself, and your comments add another dimension to what I wrote. Thanks.

Julia Buckley said...

What a noble thing you do, Maryann, and what a heartbreaking story. When I think of all the places I find my children's toys . . . I guess I should appreciate those as little gifts.

Maryann Miller said...

Thanks, Julia and I am humbled by your reference to my work as noble. Never thought of it as noble, butit certainly is blessed and I am blessed through it.

After this happened to our friends, I never took my children for granted again.

Ned Barnett said...

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question for reasons beyond those Maryann mentioned.

Nine years ago, I lost my youngest son in a one-car crash - he was driving to school (early band) - the details are unimportant. I kept a few things in my office to remind me of John - but my wife kept so many items that we ultimately emptied a walk-in closet and she put them all in there. Mostly, she couldn't bear to look at them, but they were important to her.

Late last summer (on Labor Day), my wife of 20 years took her own life. She'd lost two children (counting our son) and over time the pain had only gotten worse. She died with no note or message, and in a way that caused the police to suspect murder (until the Medical Examiner found 37 hesitation wounds and other evidence of previous attempts I didn't know about - and the police found some things on her hard drive that reinforced the ME's conclusion).

Let me tell you, the nature of her departure put me through two kinds of Hell (her loss and a six-hour police grilling that started while the body was still cooling upstairs). It was made worse because her sister called the police to "rat me out" - that she hadn't seen Karol in 20 years and had no direct information (just her intuition), that was only insult on top of her sister's injury.

I say all that to say this. I kept nothing. Not one thing. Not a photo, not any kind of memento, no clothes, none of her extensive book collection (she was a published novelist)... nothing. I sent as much as I thought appropriate (about $750 worth of shipping) to her daughter - and got rid of the rest. Goodwill got a lot, the land-fill got the rest.

Except for a few minor twinges - nothing that gave me any pause or any real regret - I believe that I made the right decision, at least it was right for me.

My actions - according to my counselor (I got back into counseling as soon as I could - same week as the suicide - knowing I was out of my depth ... and my counselor told me I'd been in grief for the marriage since our son had died years earlier) - were, for me, the right actions. Others may need mementos - but when the predominant feelings are not grief and loss but anger and betrayal, purging everything can make a lot of sense.

Hope this gives some who experienced the "other side" of grief some ideas and concepts.

By the way - because this is such a big decision, if you've got friends or relatives - or a counselor who knows your history with the departed - get lots of input and consider it deeply. For myself, I did it in phases. First the stuff for her daughter and her book collection (things I had no interest in like UFOs and weird "Art Bell"-like paranormal). Then it was more things for her daughter (the art Karol had hand-crafted) .. then the little things around the house (which were first locked away before I got rid of them).

Finally, when I got back into life and ultimately found someone who chose to share my life, I decided that there was no part of that past worth hanging on to. So the last few items went to Goodwill or the landfill (that's when the photos got deep-sixed). My new life partner didn't ask me to do this - in fact, she tried to talk me out of it (she's a great and deeply insightful lady) but I knew what was right for me. Right then, still right now.

One final note - our first ten or twelve years had many good moments - I don't need "stuff" to remind me of them, and I am not shy about bringing those memories forward in solitude (many revolve around our late son, but not all of them) - and I think that's a good balance. Lose the memorabilia but keep the good memories.

Hope this helps somebody.


Maryann Miller said...

Ned, thanks for your insights on this topic. Wow, you sure had more than your share of grief to deal with. I remember when you shared part of this with the All About Murder list we both belonged to. Tough stuff, and I am so glad that you are in a better place now with someone who cares so deeply for you.