When your spouse or partner passes away, you are left behind with a lot — a lot of emotions, a lot of memories, a lot of pain, and a lot you now have to do on your own. You’re also left behind with a lot of stuff. At first, all of it will be priceless. Each precious item is attached to a beloved memory of your life partner, a person you may have even spent the majority of your life with. Your identities are wrapped up in each other, and that is why in death we sometimes also grieve for ourselves.
Moving forward from the death of a spouse is a process that takes time and patience. What you may feel ready and prepared for one day shifts into something intimidating the next. Unfortunately, there’s no textbook answer out there for working through grief. Each and every person’s experience is unique, and if you try to compare yourself to others, you’ll only burden your heart and mind even more.
That being said, there are many steps you can take, big and small, to ease your path forward. Reorganizing or downsizing your deceased loved one’s clutter will likely be bittersweet, but can also bring you the relief of a fresh start.
Step One: Know When to Start
Like moving through the grief process, knowing when to start organizing your spouse’s possessions is more like a feeling, an instinct, than a day circled on your calendar. When you start to feel like the bedroom you shared is now really your bedroom, or the guest room covered in memorabilia could be better served as a yoga room, then you might be ready to move a few things into the garage or storage.
Before you even get going, take time to prepare. Not only will getting boxes, labels and supplies ready help you prepare for the physical purge, you’ll also have time to get ready mentally and emotionally. Even if you’re not ready to sell or donate items now, go ahead and get a few boxes labeled that way, even if they’re going into storage. This way, you’re looking ahead, taking small steps to declutter your life.
There will be times you want to do this alone. Maybe the items are too personal to share with others, or perhaps you’re not comfortable breaking down in front of people. But, there will be rooms, closets and spaces you can declutter after a spouse’s passing where friends and family can be helpful. Be mindful of the time you need alone, but also be courageous enough to reach out for help. Friends and family will likely jump at the chance to come to your aid, but they don’t have a direct line to your head or your heart. Be sure to prepare a list of tasks that they can work on to be productive and feel supportive.
Step Two: How to Let Go
Throughout the 30 years of your marriage, your spouse constructed an expansive collection of baubles, mementos, porcelain figurines, or cherished, but now dusty, books — these items made them happy, but you were more or less indifferent. Believe it or not, these might be the hardest items to let go.
Here are a few ways to minimize guilt as you purge clothes, knick-knacks, books and other memorabilia:
- Keep one set of something as your keepsake, and let the others go. Did your spouse have a favorite piece of art or collectible? Instead letting all of them line the shelves of your house collecting dust, consider keeping just one or two really meaningful pieces. You can keep the one that reminds you of a treasured vacation or one that was a special gift.
- How does it make you feel? Every morning, when you wake up, how do you feel seeing your partner’s clothes still hanging in your closet? If these everyday sights bring tears to the surface, consider moving them into a different closet or boxing them up in storage until you’re ready to donate and sell. You can even keep a favorite shirt nearby, or give some items away to friends and family members who might find it meaningful.
- Give yourself space to savor. Chances are each object has some kind of memory attached — unwrapping a gift on a snowy Christmas morning or an impulse buy on a vacation somewhere hot and tropical. As you work through these items, take the time to enjoy the memory, to enjoy feeling how you felt when you were there together. Remember, it’s the memories that matter, not the materials.
Step Three: Break it into Chunks
There is no reason this has to happen all at once. Take your time and break each downsizing project into manageable chunks — both physically and emotionally. This is especially true if you plan on eventually moving into a smaller house. If you’re organizing a deceased loved one’s belongings, think about:
- Starting with possessions that are easy to toss out, like shampoo or old socks. Getting rid of the basics will get you ready to purge items that might cause more of an emotional reaction.
- Categorizing items into keep, sell and donate boxes. Put them in storage and wait until you’re ready to act on the labels.
- Removing one item from a room each day. You can start with the possessions that your partner has less of an attachment to or that you don’t need or want.
- Taking pictures of items you want to remember, but don’t want to keep.
- Keeping cost in mind. What is the emotional cost of seeing these items, even in boxes, every day? Is the monetary cost of purchasing a storage unit for these keepsakes worth the peace of mind? Keeping things in storage temporarily is a good way to downsize your home without having to make tough decisions when you’re emotionally overwhelmed.
- Creating a timeline for downsizing and moving. Selling your current home, buying or renting a new place, and all of the packing and moving in between will be time-consuming. Set some goals and milestones that are realistic and give you time to process what’s happening. Most importantly, be patient and flexible with yourself.
Step Four: Making Other People Happy Helps
Happiness is contagious. Doing things with your partner’s belongings that make other people feel good will also make you feel good. Say your nephew is getting married, and he’s the same size your husband was when the two of you tied the knot. You feel a strong urge to offer him your husband’s tuxedo. Listen to those urges. Using your deceased partner’s belongings to make other people happy is a great way to eliminate the guilt of letting go.
These things, items attached to a person but that do not necessarily have a use after they’ve passed, can weigh down your heart. If you decide to give an old coat away, you might feel guilty or even a sense of betrayal. You’ll be bombarded with memories. But when you give that coat away to a homeless person who really needs it, or see a woman struggling to find work look professional in your wife’s business attire, you’ll also feel really good about paying it forward.
Whether you take giant leaps or baby steps, the path forward is your own. Part of the healing process is making the space you shared with your spouse yours again. Sometimes, that means organizing and packing, but that can also mean finding a new space entirely. The most important thing you can do is recognize what is bringing you joy and what is causing you pain, and take action. Stay strong, and give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel without judgement.