When we lose a loved one, dealing with their possessions can be one of the hardest parts of our grieving journey. As we begin to grapple with the notion of a life without them, knowing whether, when and how to part with their belongings can compound our grief and leave us feeling even more confused and upset.
Whether you’ve experienced a sudden loss, like I did, where my husband Simon was here for breakfast and gone by lunchtime or whether you’ve lost your loved one following a prolonged illness and you’ve had some time to discuss what to do with their belongings, knowing what to do and when to do it is still incredibly hard.
Our person has gone, they have physically left our world and yet, there is so much around our homes that reminds us of them and connects us to them – their shoes by the front door, their clothes in the wardrobe, their slippers by the bed, even their toothbrush in the bathroom. Every corner of our house is filled with constant reminders of their presence and the life we shared with them. Therefore, even thinking about throwing their belongings away feels like a betrayal, as if we’re somehow erasing them from our lives and moving forward without them and this is something that causes us a lot of guilt and anguish.
And, in many ways those items, as much as they can sometimes be a painful reminder of our loss, can equally be a great source of comfort for they allow us to retain a connection to our person. And at a time when we are struggling to process our loss, to fathom our life without them, this connection is something that we desperately need.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to clear out your person’s things. As with everything in grief, what works for one person may not work for another. Some people remove their wedding rings very quickly and are keen to start clearing out their loved one’s possessions as it enables them to move forward. Others, who are eight to ten years into their grieving journey and perhaps in another relationship, may still wear their ring. They may even hold on to their person’s ashes and keep items belonging to their loved one lying around the house. It’s a very individual choice and we should never feel pressured to do things a certain way or stick to a specific timescale.
By sharing my story of how I dealt with Simon’s possessions, I hope parts of it will resonate with you. Some of it may not, and that’s ok, but I hope that you take from it what you find useful and that in some way it offers you some support.
Around the end of April 2017, seven months after Simon had died, my friends, family and I came together to complete a charity mud run to raise money for Winston’s Wish (the U.K.’s first bereavement charity for children.) It was an incredible experience, one that I’m proud I was a part of and that I’ll never forget.
For health and safety reasons, those of us participating weren’t allowed to wear any jewellery. The course was going to be tricky and there were going to be a lot of obstacles and understandably they didn’t want anything getting caught as people made their way around the course. I knew that this would mean I would have to take my wedding and engagement rings off. I had prepared myself for this and given some thought as to how I would manage it and I remember thinking, I’m going to take my wedding ring off and I’m going to leave it off. So, I took both off and I never put my wedding ring back on. I now wear my engagement ring along with my eternity ring on my right hand and I know that’s where they will stay. Forever.
It so happened my 40th birthday was in April and so I asked my dad to buy me a ring for my left finger because I didn’t want that finger to be bare, to have nothing on it, after having had my wedding and engagement rings on there for such a long time. It would have felt wrong.
I placed my wedding ring alongside Simon’s wedding ring in a drawer in my bedroom, where I keep a lot of special belongings, because that’s what felt right for me. People do different things with their wedding rings. Some have their loved one’s ring resized and wear them with their own. Some have their wedding rings blended and made into something else. Others wear both rings on a chain around their neck. There are so many creative and meaningful options available these days, but I wanted our rings to be together in the house. Did it feel a little strange? Yes, it did a bit, but it also felt like an enormous honour, because I was recognising how blessed and fortunate I was to have been married, to have enjoyed the togetherness, commitment and security that marriage can bring. I did feel that I needed to explain why I wasn’t wearing my ring, to make people aware that I hadn’t just taken my ring off out of choice, but because I had been widowed. I wanted desperately to avoid other people’s assumptions and judgements. I almost wanted to wear a banner around my neck explaining the absence of my ring and I found not being able to, really hard to come to terms with.
With regards to Simon’s clothes, around six to eight months in, I just had this desire to get on and do it. It was hanging over me. I knew it was going to have to be done and I didn’t want to keep putting off the inevitable, because it would start to weigh on me. So that’s what galvanised me to act, knowing that putting it off was making me feel heavy.
I decided that I wanted to sort through Simon’s clothes on my own. I knew that I didn’t want to have to justify my choices or run anything past anyone. I also knew I didn’t want to have to hold myself together in front of my girls, so I asked my mum to have them.
I had already done some preparation for this task. I had asked Simon’s mum and brother if they wanted any of his items. Some of Simon’s close friends wanted items of his clothing clothes and we’d had some of his shirts made into pillows and cushions. However, the day was still horrendous. It really was. Going through everything Simon had ever owned or touched - his shoes, his slippers, his toothbrush and toiletries, his clothes, pants, socks and pyjamas, was so excruciatingly painful.
I put on my ‘Simon’ music. I got his ashes out. And I sobbed my heart out. It was so hard, but I needed to do it and I needed to be able to do it without anyone else being there.
There’s one moment during the day that really sticks in my mind. I remember bagging up Simon’s shoes and the clothes that I knew nobody was going to wear again and giving them to a friend who lived in another county. Whilst I wanted them to go to charity, I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing other people in clothes like his and wondering whether they were Simon’s. So, I remember thinking, if they’re in another county then I’m not going to dwell on these thoughts.
I also recall feeling utterly devastated as I stood poised over my green wheelie bin with its lid open, having bagged up Simon’s underwear and socks. I remember just standing there thinking, I can’t do this. I can’t just put them in the wheelie bin and throw them away like I would rubbish. Yes, it was only my husband’s underwear, but I really felt, as I stood their sobbing, that I couldn’t just throw them out with such disregard.
I took a moment to compose myself and thought, he’s gone - just because I’m throwing his pants and socks away doesn’t mean that I don’t love him, or that I’m disrespecting him. I was simply being practical. I thought about what Simon would think of me crying next to my wheelie bin, clutching his underwear and I knew he’d be telling me to get rid of them. He wasn’t a very materialistic person. He didn’t care much for stuff. I started to have a conversation in my head where I convinced myself to just do it, to throw them in, because I knew I wasn’t going to keep them or wear them. And so, in they went. I closed the lid, went back inside and sobbed some more.
Although I cleared out an awful lot that day, there are still items of Simon’s I have held on to: a suit, his dressing-gown that still hangs on the back of my bedroom door and Simon himself actually. His ashes are still in my bedroom cupboard. I get varying responses from people when they discover that I still hold on to his ashes. Some are disbelieving and others just get it. I initially struggled with my decision to keep his ashes, but I have made my peace with it now. I know I am listening to my instincts and doing what feels right for me. Right now, keeping them is what I need to do. I know I’m not ready to get rid of them. Although they are out of sight, I know they’re there. I know Simon’s there.
I have learnt to let go of items that no longer serve a purpose or that bring me pain and keep what feels good. There are some things that just remind you of your person and connect you to them in such a beautiful and positive way that it fills you with contentment and you can say to yourself without judgement when you look at that item, ‘You’re here, you’re still with us. There’s still a part of you that’s with me. And I need those reminders.’
It’s very easy following the death of a loved one to listen to and prioritise the thoughts and opinions of others, whether that be society or friends and family - especially when it comes to clearing our loved one’s personal possessions. Well-meaning though it is for them to encourage you to part with your loved one’s belongings, ultimately the decision to do so is yours and yours alone. No-one else can know when you’re ready.
You may even find that you are succumbing to pressure you’ve placed on yourself to get things cleared out and to start moving forward. We are often our harshest critic. We tend to judge our thoughts and ignore our instincts, believing that we should be doing something different, something that conforms more to other people’s expectations. But it’s important to remind ourselves that there are no ‘shoulds.’ The sooner we learn to accept how we are feeling, to make peace with our reality and validate it, the easier it will be when the time comes to start clearing out our loved one’s things. We’ll know when the time is right.
A good way to start the process of clearing out your person’s items is to begin with the least sentimental things. There may be items such as a pen, books, notepads, or even technical equipment, that your loved one used and that you have little emotional attachment to and that you find easier to deal with initially. There may even be items that you disliked and feel no pain in throwing away. Starting with these items will help to ease you into the task and build up to the belongings which feel harder to part with.
If you don’t know where to begin, break down the clear out into bite-size chunks. Perhaps start with a drawer or a cupboard and if throwing items away feels too difficult, perhaps think about moving them and storing them elsewhere temporarily. Maybe there are a pair of shoes by the front door that you can bag up and move to a place where you won’t stumble upon them daily - a spare room perhaps or under a bed or in the garage. You’ll know they are there, that you haven’t yet parted with them, but having been moved out of sight, they may cause you less turmoil. You can always put them back if it feels too hard. And slowly, but surely, over time, you’ll feel ready to take them from their holding place and throw them away. There are no timescales that you need to adhere to, so be gentle with yourself and go at your own pace.
It’s important when sorting through your loved one’s possessions that you start to build some awareness around how things are feeling for you. You can then use this to work out what still has meaning and brings you a sense of solace and ultimately feels good to keep, as well as what doesn’t. If seeing your loved one’s slippers by the door or their toothbrush in the bathroom comforts you, then there’s perhaps no need to part with them just yet. If wearing your partner’s wedding ring on your finger is deepening your connection to them, then it’s worth keeping it on. If, however, every time you see these items, they cause you greater sadness or simply serve to remind you of what you have lost, then perhaps it's time to reconsider. Learning to ask ourselves whether items are serving a purpose or prolonging our pain is a useful way of approaching the task of clearing out our loved one’s belongings.
And for those items that no longer serve a purpose, rather than throwing them out, perhaps try reframing your goodbye and saying thank you to them for the good times they brought you or your partner. Try to understand that you’re not just thoughtlessly throwing them out, you’re thanking them for their service and creating space for other things in your new life.
Sifting through your loved one’s belongings is unimaginably hard. It’s can give rise to so much emotional and physical pain. As such, if there are things you feel you physically can’t tackle yourself, reach out for support from a trusted friend or family member. Don’t feel bad for asking them to remove a toothbrush, take away some slippers, or bag up your loved one’s pyjamas. Those around you will be desperate to support you in any way they can.
I myself wanted the time and space to clear out Simon’s items by myself. I didn’t want to be observed, pitied or questioned by anyone. This can sometimes feel selfish, as if you’re shutting out others that cared about your person. But the truth is, you’re looking after your needs, you’re prioritising yourself and that’s so important. It’s not easy to lean into your own needs. We all know what’s right for us instinctively, but often fail to act on it because when we grieve, we feel lost. We question everything and we end up judging ourselves and criticising our choices. So, trust your instincts and go with them. If you’re worried you are alienating others, perhaps you could ask them ahead of time, if there’s anything they’d like to keep. Or maybe you could save some items which don’t mean much to you, but you think may be more meaningful to someone else.
Creating keepsakes from items that mean the most to you can help to ease the pain of your loved one passing and help you to feel closer to them. Whether it’s a memory bear, cushion, pillow or even a scarf, repurposing a belonging can spark happy memories of time spent with your loved one and can help you to heal with more love than pain. You may even consider re-moulding jewellery or getting a tattoo with their ashes. There are so many creative ways we can make use of our loved ones belongings. Explore what feels most meaningful to you and go with whatever feels right.
As overwhelming and difficult as it can be to deal with your loved one’s possessions, holding on to their things as a way of avoiding dealing with your grief is simply going to prolong your pain. However, that doesn’t mean we need to set a timeline by which everything has to be cleared. Just as with all things grief related, we all do things differently and when we are ready. If we can learn to trust our instincts and treat ourselves with compassion, if we allow ourselves to be guided by own desires, we can mitigate some of the stress involved in clearing our loved one’s belongings. You’ll know when the time is right to begin, just as you’ll know when you have had enough and need to take a break. When you do feel the time is right to start the process, consider some of the tips outlined in this blog. These may help to make your experience less traumatic.
And please remember this – your person lives on in you and always will. Regardless of whether you keep their clothes, their shoes or any of their belongings, your love and that connection you shared with them, will continue forever. They will reside in your heart and in your mind eternally and go forward with you as you start to create your new normal.