One of the analogies about grief that I think sums up the experience the best is, “Grief is like peeling an onion, it comes off one layer at a time and you cry a lot.” I have used that in speeches and articles for years and have not found a better or more succinct picture any where. There are many ways to use that analogy and we will explore them in future posts, but for this post I want us to think about, “When should we clean out the closets?” I happen to think we tend to do so far too soon and in doing so we miss the chance to use the personal things left by a loved one as part of the peeling of the onion. Each item can be an experience in gradually letting go. Each item can be a time of memory and shedding of tears which I think are memories in motion.
Of course, this is a matter of choice for each person and we don’t all react the same nor should we. The woman who ran my office for many years had a sixteen-year-old son die of suicide. She met a woman in Compassionate Friends who also had a son die of the same cause one day before her son. They became friends and shared the journey together. The woman who ran my office cleaned out her son’s room within two weeks, painted it and turned it into an office for her husband. The other woman did not touch a single thing in her son’s room for over three years. Both did the right thing. The woman who worked for me did everything fast and never looked back. Removing her son’s things fit her personality to a T. The other woman likewise did it in a way that fit her. There are no right ways nor any rules. We should do things when we feel like doing so without any advice or judgment from outside sources.
With that said, I still think the gradual approach fits most people the best and can be a very healing experience. Often there will be one last thing that can’t be faced or moved. When we can face that thing we know we are turning the corner in our grief journey. So it might help to hang on to some things until we feel really ready to part with them. That fits the onion peeling thing.
But sometimes we don’t have the choice to do so. One of the people I am currently corresponding with by email shared how her husband, which was a second marriage, had specifically indicated what he wanted to go to his children and of course they wanted to take their things home with them. They had come in for the funeral and did not want to make a second trip. My friend had no problem with their having the things and wanted them to have other things that had meaning to them, but coming home from the funeral to watch the items walk out the door was agonizing to her. It seemed to amplify the sense of loss.
I watched with pride as an elderly gentleman stood up to the family and announced that each item in the house had a name on the back put there by his deceased wife. He said, “Every item will be placed exactly where she wanted but none will be placed there today. I am not ready to see her whole life walk out the door. When I can face it, I will let you know.”
And, of course, there will be pressure. Seems like folks think an empty closet doesn’t hurt but a full one does. Inevitably someone will begin telling the grieving person that they need to get rid of the stuff and get on with their lives. Why they think that is their calling escapes me.
After a speech a minister came up to me and said, “My friend died a few months ago and I noticed his widow still has his golf clubs in the back of her car. My intentions were to go there today and tell her it was time for her to move them and offer to help her do so. After hearing you today I think I will not make that trip or that suggestion.” He turned to walk away and then turned back and said, “By the way what business is it of mine if she never moves those golf clubs?” The day she does will be a big day and some more of the onion will have been peeled.
Copyright Doug Manning of In-Sight Books, Inc. Doug’s books, CDs and DVDs are available at www.insightbooks.com. Post originally published on Doug’s Blog at The Care Community www.thecarecommunity.com.
Updated: August 5, 2013