Cleaning Out the Closet of a Deceased Loved One

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With the longer days of summer upon us, it might be the right time to tackle the organizing of your spouse/partner’s personal belonging.

“Cleaning out your closets” presents a significant challenge for most widows – the overwhelming thought of going through your deceased loved ones belongings and trying to decide what do with the items is by far one of the hardest pieces of widowhood.  When referring to “cleaning out the closets,” it is not just the bedroom; it includes the home office, the work office, the garage, the basement and the pile of papers that have accumulated since the loss.

For many, it is so overwhelming that it is easier to just leave everything as is, for others it is the sad realization that your spouse is not returning and their belongings are now your belongings.

While many may choose to leave the possessions alone for years, others feel a sense of accomplishment organizing the items.  It is a personal decision of what works best for you.  Many friends and family members have their opinions of what is right or wrong when it comes to “cleaning out your closets,” but the true right or wrong is in the eyes and the heart of the widow.

When discussing cleaning and organizing personal belongings in our widow support group, the members are often disturbed by the reaction from friends and family who are insistent that this task should have already occurred.  It is truly impossible for a non-widow to comprehend what it really means to go through the personal items and decide what to do with them.  You want life just the way it was before your spouse passed away so why would you clean out their belongings?

For some widows, an immediate reaction to the loss, especially if it was a sudden death, is to quickly clean out everything.  The thought behind this approach is that you will feel better if you do not see the personal belongings.  The real truth is for most you will not feel better; in fact when time goes by you will have regretted that you cleaned out and had given away the items so quickly.

As the realization of the loss slowly finds its way to your heart, you will want to savor every minute with each belonging.  Be careful not to clean out or advise anyone to clean out the items too fast; there are many ways of approaching the cleaning and organizing when you are ready to attack it.

The magic question is when do I start to clean and organize my spouses personal belongings? And the answer is very simple –when you are ready! Some start the process when they decide to sell their home and others wake up one morning and say today is the day.

Before you begin, think of family members and friends who may enjoy a special item from your spouse’s belongings – maybe a coffee mug for a desk at the office, tools for the handy person, running watch for the running buddy, books for the reader, etc.

Also, think about not-for-profits in your community that can benefit from donations – coats for the homeless and business suits for workforce initiatives.

The best way to get started is to tackle one corner, one drawer or one file at a time.  Create three piles; the save pile, the donation/trash pile and the “not-sure what I want to do with” pile.  If you start this way, you have “an out” if you do not know what to do with some of the personal items they would end up in the third pile.

Be sure to take the time to savor memories of each item that goes through your hands.  If it is overwhelming, take a few items to a different room and go through them at your leisure.  Once you start, you will find that you will develop a rhythm and a balance between feeling you are accomplishing the task and taking pleasure in reminiscing your time with your spouse.

What I learned through my own “cleaning of the closets” is not to give anything away to quickly.  My heart went out to my husbands’ friends and family after he passed so I quickly gathered momentums to give away – whether it was a tie, his running watch, guitar, favorite jacket or cufflinks, I found a special home.  As my daughter grew older, I quickly found myself regretting my rapid deliver of his personal items although it served a purpose at the time.  I wished I had saved more items.

A frequent question is: What happens if I find an item that upsets me such as an unexpected financial document, a picture, a journal or letter.  There is no doubt that it will be a disappointment and disturb the process of organizing the belongings but how you react to the situation will determine how you will recover.  Since you can not confront your spouse and you are already in an emotional state, my recommendation is to find someone you can trust that will be more logical and that will help you work through the situation.

Whether you are “cleaning out your closets” or you are helping a friend or family member clean out their closet, consider what items could be included in a memorial or can become a family heirloom. For example, creating a quilt with your spouses clothing can provide comfort or can be saved for generations.  You may decide that some items would be great for future grandchildren to honor your spouse.

Be kind to yourself while cleaning out the closets – it is something you should do yourself as it is a great way to work through your grief.  Take your time, do not let yourself be overwhelmed and cherish the memories.  If you r not ready to go through the belongings, don’t –wait until you are ready. Each widow is different and there are o set rules.

The box of possessions I could not discard — my memorial of Rod’s personal belongings that mean the world to me as simple as it may seem. When I open the box I can touch him, I can smell him and I can see him.

The box contains his drivers license, passport, the last phone book that included his name, the Wall Street Journal and local newspaper from the day he passed away, the shoes my daughter was wearing when we went to the hospital, his running logs, his business card, a pine cone from when we scattered his ashes, letters he wrote, papers he wrote in college and so much more.  I call it my treasures of Rod!!

Rachel Blythe Kodanaz 2011

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Rachel Kodanaz

More Articles Written by Rachel

The idea of writing and speaking on Life Changing Topics was a direct result of my experiences while grieving the unexpected loss of my husband in 1992. At the time, I was a member of management in a large corporation and a mother of a two year-old. The challenges while overwhelming me drove me down a path of rebuilding and finding “the new normal” for my family. After spending several years recovering and helping other grievers, I began assisting companies who were dealing with grieving employees. I published Grief in the Workplace Handbook and a booklet titled Grief in the Workplace. My efforts led to me writing a column for ten years titled “Grief in the Workplace” for Living with Loss (formally Bereavement Magazine), speaking nationally on the subject and appearing on Good Morning America. As I continued my journey to pay it forward to other grievers who are suffering losses, I joined HeartLight Center, a grief center in Denver, Colorado. I was instrumental in developing the programs and infrastructure and over the years held the position of Executive Director, Program Director and was a member of the Board of Directors. In addition, over the last 7 years since the center opened, I facilitated many groups, including Baby Boomer Widow Group, Loss of a Parent and Facing the Mourning. The research and development of the Facing the Mourning program provided me with the opportunity to not only support those who are grieving the loss of a loved one but also support families who are “anticipating” a loss whether it is a terminal diagnosis or form of dementia. As I continue to provide support for those who are experiencing a loss, I maintain my column for Living with Loss, help workplaces implement grief programs and speak nationally on grief-related topics.

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  • Diane says:

    (I wanted to reply to this when you posted it, but the website seemed to have some problems for a while.)

    Dealing with my husband’s belongings has been, and still is, so painful. He died in May ’09 in a car accident. Allen was a saver. There was a basement full of boxes of his whole life. He was military for 20 years, then worked as an Air Force civilian for 6 years after that, so he moved around a lot, and took his stuff with him from place to place for all those years. Some boxes hadn’t been touched since the 90′s. He had every book he ever owned, including college textbooks and childhood western novels. He had toys and comic books; thousands of pictures; clothes; souvenirs of every country he had visited over 26 years with the military. I found Air Force uniforms, and the coat he wore while playing in the high school marching band. Things that told the story of his life before me.

    We were married in ’02, so that’s when I joined the journey with him and his stuff. I wasn’t a “saver” before we married, but I became one afterward. So I have 8+ years of the story of ‘our’ life; the most joyful years of my life. We were living in Utah when he died, “temporarily,” because of his job. We were planning to try to come back east soon to be near grandchildren. Now I am back east, with our treasures and our memories, but not with him.

    After the funeral and burial, which was in Tennessee where he was born, I went back to Utah to get our house ready to sell. I did this much quicker than usually recommended, because I couldn’t face a Utah winter by myself; we didn’t have family there. The only thing that made Utah winters bearable was being with him and watching his joy at the snow-covered mountains. I really felt panicked to leave. Of course as I discovered, I didn’t leave the pain there in Utah; it came with me.

    I had to go through those boxes containing ‘his’ memories, then ‘our’ memories, and I did it alone. And, yes, it could only be done by me, alone. The pain of deciding to get rid of some of his treasures was extreme. I gave a lot of things away – and yes, I do regret some of that now, but luckily I didn’t make any huge mistakes. I did this work while sobbing and shaking, much of the time. So many things had meaning only to him, but that in itself made them special to me. I felt incredible guilt making the decisions that I knew had to be made.

    One example was the garage full of tools and parts. He did all the work on our motorcycles and cars. You know how it is with guys and their tools. I knew I would have no use for them, so I decided to donate them to a local community college for their automotive program. I think I made the right choice, but it tore at my heart to see it go, as if were pieces of him being scattered.

    The house was on the market by July, and I left there for good in October. I moved back to Maryland, to be near some family, and I was in my new place by December, only 7 months after Allen died. I have surrounded myself with our treasures in this new place. The amount of work I did to accomplish this move is still unbelievable to me. But once I used up that energy in making the move, and unpacking certain things, I couldn’t do anymore. I still have boxes to unpack and deal with, but I can’t do it yet. I feel like I reached the limit of what my heart could bear.

    I’ve heard people say “it’s just stuff” – it is, but it isn’t…..

  • Paula says:

    Dear Diane,

    I know what you mean, my husband and I were married for 35 years, and I have been a widow for six years. One of the hardest things I had to do was to donate his tools, and to leave his workbench behind in the home that we lived in for over 30 years (we weren’t able to get the workbench that he built out of the basement). I was able to donate his radial arm saw that he cherished to a community art center – they were so pleased to have it. And, a young man who was in construction was happy to get the majority of his tools. Some tools I just couldn’t part with because of the many memories associated with them (I helped him with a lot of projects around the house – that meant handing him the tools). He taught me so much, and after his death I was determined to continue to keep the house as we did together, which meant fixing the electric or plumbing…somehow I felt him right by my side…

    I totally agree with you – it isn’t just stuff… it just isn’t…

    Paula

  • Rachel says:

    Diane & Paula:

    Thanks for responding to the article — I have facilitated a widow group for 7 years and I hear over and over again that one of the hardest pieces of the grief journey is how to clean out the closets and better yet, “why do I have to”. It is not “stuff”. Savor the smells, the memories and the stories as you go through your loved ones belongings. Make it a trip down memory lane with a smile on your face and share with those who care.

    Hugs to you both.
    Rachel

  • Rachel

    One thing I would add is that to remember that different family members or even yourself will have different emotional ties to items of the deceased. Some of us are more visual or tactile and may enjoy having clothing repurposed into another item, like ties into a tree skirt for Christmas tree or T shirts into a block quilt for the kids. One of my daughters has several bins filled with her father’s items and the other one just wanted a watch and some photos. As you clear, you open up for more items and experiences to come into your life. Remember that your “closet of memories” may be different from another, even if in the same family. Honor the memory and honor yourself. As my husbands clothes were removed in the the walk in closet I replaced the emptiness with an affirmation quote in a frame and an orchid plant. As time passed I used more of the closet and the shift began. It got to be more of how I used my space to support myself in grief , rather than what I was ” ridding” in my life.

    Repurpose, Refresh and Renew… the items and your life. Susan

  • Beth Waddel says:

    Rob died in 2005 suddenly and unexpectantly. Rob had “stuff” LOTS of stuff. I was able to manage the clothing pretty easily. I saved a box of his shirts and will one day make a quilt or wallhanging of those shirts for each of my three adult daughters.
    The stuff that most confounded me were his tools…tools…tools….Although he was a psychologist by trade, that man LOVED tools and could do almost anything with them. He wired our house, he made furniture, he repaired cars, he did plumbing. He would and could do anything.
    The tools sat in the garage for 5 years. I could not park in my own garage. I didn’t want strangers pawing through his stuff. It would have felt like a violation to what he loved to have a huge sale. It would have been like someone going through my underwear drawer.
    I knew a local contractor here who Rob would have adored. He showed interest in the tools and I was delighted to have him go through them. Each of my three daughters took whatever they wanted from the shop, and then my contractor friend came in and got the rest.
    It was wonderful seeing him touch, admire, and be so grateful for the tools he took. In return he helps me with work on the house. It was a fine bargain for him and for me as well.
    I suspect Rob would have been very pleased with this arrangement. It was a way for me to pay it forward and it was a way to honor Rob’s love of those precious tools

  • Rachel says:

    Yes, a great way to-pay-it-forward. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mary Friedel-Hunt says:

    Hi Beth,
    I felt like you were describing my husband who died March 2010…also a psychologist, I now have an entire woodworking and tool shop in the basement…he could do anything and did….built clocks, renovated antique cars, fixed anything, built anything and everything. At 19 months since his death, the tools sit and the clothes sit and I am far from ready to deal with them…in time I will…each piece of clothing and each tool has memories attached….right now I am doing well to read his poems, get through each day….the rest in due time. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rachel says:

    Beth — there is no timeline for having to clean out, rearrange or organize our loved ones belongings. One day it just happens, usually be a trigger of looking for something, moving to a new home or wanting to “hand-down” a gift. Thanks for sharing with fellow readers.

  • Shine says:

    A very touching topic. It’s a good idea to donate some stuff to non-profit groups. I’m sure a lot of people could benefit from this. There is just the question of the “when to do it.” That’s a good advice that was mentioned too, not to be hasty in giving things away.

  • barbara says:

    I am so thankful for this posting. This morning I woke up and have decided this is the day to clean my husbands office out. He passed suddenly January 2011. I just passed the one year mark. The hardest year of my life. I sorted tools in the summer with sons and again with my brother. We set me a tool box up and the rest are for the boys. His best friend fit his clothes perfectly and actually did not have nice clothes as he was a landscaper and wore things to threads. I have saved the shirts for the smell and a quilt. But the office is going to be so hard. He was a retired CPA and still doing accounting. Boxes and Boxes of papers of people from years back. He also was active in church missionary files and pictures and letters. Ah but I am not alone. God will be with me to wipe away my tears. I will sing and praise God thru this darkness and keep leaning into the light. I know where my sweet husband is. Yes I am so sad but I am not alone. Blessings

  • barbara says:

    I am so thankful for this posting. This morning I woke up and have decided this is the day to clean my husbands office out. He passed suddenly January 2011. I just passed the one year mark. The hardest year of my life. I sorted tools in the summer with sons and again with my brother. We set me a tool box up and the rest are for the boys. His best friend fit his clothes perfectly and actually did not have nice clothes as he was a landscaper and wore things to threads. I have saved the my favorite shirts for the memories and a quilt. But the office is going to be so hard. He was a retired CPA and still doing accounting. Boxes and Boxes of papers of people from years back. He also was active in church missionary files and pictures and letters. Ah but I am not alone. God will be with me to wipe away my tears. I will sing and praise God thru this darkness and keep leaning into the light. I know where my sweet husband is. Yes I am so sad but I am not alone. Blessings

  • Rachel says:

    Barbara -

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me and other readers. You are so thoughtful to share your husbands belongings with others who will appreciate them and have a use for the tools and clothing. Yes, the paper sounds like a challenge — one box at a time, savory the time and the memories.

  • Mary Lotus Butterfly says:

    Well, I just happened to stumbled upon this site. I asked a question thru GoodSearch.Com to find out answers.

    I lost my husband almost 4 1/2 years ago. I am 63 and have been working hard on myself. I think I am ready to
    re-create a new life for myself thru the help of my Pastor. I had already down sized about a year after my husband
    left. He had left instructions with me as to what to do with his clothes…giving them to help others in need.

    I still have a big stuffed Teddy Bear that belongs to me and a big Betty Boob stuffed doll that was my husband’s.
    We married them. Now, what am I to do with them. They are married together for ever. Tonight, I thought that I
    would take them out to a wooded area…tie them with a ribbon around a tree and let them be forever.

    mary lotus butterfly

  • Rachel says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for sharing with all the readers. The story of your Teddy and Betty Boob is extremely touching and loving. Whether you keep the “fluffs” forever or bring them outside for a private ceremony is beautiful. Just like you and your husband they will be together for ever in love and spirit.

    Sending support.
    Rachel

  • Lynnes says:

    After my boyfirend (a widower of one year and single parent to a 18-months-old boy) changed his job I spend huge amount of time in his home so we could say that I have been living with him for few months. But there is some issue making me feel I do not belong there. He gave away some part of his deceased spouse belongings. Still a lot of her stuff is next to mine in the bathroom etc. One day he announced me that he promised to give the rest of her clothes to one of his friend. However, this have not happened yet. We argued about that and I was told he wishes to resolve this issue by himself and by no means want me to interfere. I’ve read that cleaning the house of the deceased sposue belongings should precede new relationship. Sometimes I feel like an intruder in that house. We agreed that he had not been ready for a new relationship at the point we started hanging out however I pointed out that I did not consider leaving at that moment. His keeping wife’s stuff rather seems unfair to me. Yet I’ve decided to wait. There are three options: one day soon he will overcome his clinging to the past and will move on (probably some professional councelling will be necessary), I will resign or I will stay with him and feel the way I feel now for the rest of my life. I perfectly understand that it was too soon and this issue makes our relationship unhealthy in certain aspects. However, I decided to try to survive the issue still keeping in my mind that this may give the least favourable result.

  • Babs says:

    My husband of 7 months died July 2nd after a very short illness. We have been together for 9 years, but he was always a “saver” and has tons of stuff from his long adventurous life before me, which I love because it is all part of him. I have to move almost immediately because our home is going back to the bank. Also, I am not in a safe neighborhood and creepy things are so much worse to face alone. So, while I wold like to take plenty of time to sort through my honey’s things, I really can’t, and I don’t know what to do.

  • cindy says:

    My dad passed away in dec. of 2012. I have a small “shrine” of some of the things that mean alot to me above my washer and dryer which is seen regularly only by me. I have 3 more boxes of “things” that i don’t know what to do with. They are not as important as the “REMEMBER” things. What do i do with these? I find it very hard to even think of the thought of letting the 3 boxes go somewhere. I would appreciate some kind of advice. Thank you!

  • Rachel says:

    Cindy,

    Thank you for commenting on Cleaning out the Closets. I am sorry about your recent loss of your father and happy to hear that you have created a place to be with your father and the “remember things”. I have found the best way to “clean-out” personal belongings is to find the perfect home for the items allowing the surviving family members to feel good about distributing the items. By donating coats to a homeless center you will provide warmth to those less fortunate or by donating clothing to Goodwill or the Vets will allow others to re-use items they otherwise may not be able to afford. Share the personal items with family and friends — a great way to memorialize your father. Take your time and feel good about the distribution.

  • John Watson says:

    I just lost my wife on Feb 7, 2013 and after 3 or 4 days I started to box up her stuff. I am moving from here so I have no choice in the matter. What she didn’t wear went to the battered woman’s shelter. The Christmas items I let her son go through and if they were new or nothing he wanted I am giving them to the Goodwill but the Christmas tree remains with me as she loved it (so did I).

    Now, the hardest part of all of this is the 11 or 12 boxes (14x14x14) of books she read. She was an avid reader and most are hardcover since she hated paperbacks and these things are tough to move. I don’t want to get rid of them but in the same breathe the books are going to end up in my mother’s attic who has 30 years TOPS to go before I will have to deal with them anyway (my mother is 69). So, what do I do with them? I am honestly lost since she loved them so much but there are so many of them that I doubt I will have room in the 16 foot truck for most of my stuff.

  • Rachel says:

    John,

    I am so sorry for your recent loss and having to move so soon that you barely have any time to digest what has happened. So glad you found this article and some comments from others who have walked in similar shoes but with different circumstances. Based on your comment, you feel comfortable with the distribution of some of her items. As for the books, her passion and your desire to keep them is important. While you may have to move them twice, I would suggest storing them for a bit and then when you have more time and a bit less emotional maybe you can go through them and sort out who you would like to give them to whether it is a friend, family member, library, not-for-profit organization or possible keep some. You have made a lot of decisions for now — save some for later. Sending warm hugs, Rachel.

  • John Watson says:

    Thank you Rachel for the kind words and yes I am under great duress over all of this. I have had no real time to sit back and dwell on this but I am not going to lie and say I haven’t cried like a little baby either. I just slept for 14 hours (I needed it but it was not a restful sleep) and had a tremendous amount of dreams. Dreams that when I woke from them it was obvious my subconscious mind is trying to come to grips with my wife’s passing. One I remember vividly and was the one that started a whole chain of them.

    I was being nurtured and shown around a beautiful place and the woman (Amy Winehouse and why her I have absolutely no idea since I was never into her when she were alive) was caressing me but not as a lover but something different. I was happy and we did talk but not really verbally about my wife and this place though I never saw her. Odd thing is this place was sort of like a HUGE castle but in building form not in stone/brick but of huge wooden planks and the lower sections were slanted but if you walked, as I did, on the edge before the curve of the slant down began the other side would come up on you like a seesaw. Curled up on the lower section was our cat who is still alive and he showed no fear while I was starting to get a little afraid when I noticed the great void/ocean type of deal under him. I was told there was nothing to fear and we moved on and she showed me more of this place when straw all around my arm and she caressed it. We sat on what looked like a bed and I seemed to be getting tired but I was getting aroused by this wonderfully sweet guide and I was saying no, I will not cheat on my wife as that is not something I ever did, nor ever would do, but she was there to guide me and comfort me not for anything else and I rested in the bed (same side I normally sleep on in any bed) and she remained comforting me. I can say I had a lot of emotions in this (just about every single one, except anger, you can think of) and I woke up shortly after in my own bed.

    I had another one where we talked about my wife and even more dealing with the passing of my wife but only that first one remains with me.

    Were all of these just dreams to help me cope? I really really really do not know but the emotions were there for sure.

  • Louise Silk says:

    Rachel,
    When your clients are cleaning out the closets of loved ones, they may consider making a memory quilt of the most memorable items. I an a quiltmaker and do this for people as my business. It transforms the materials into a meaningful keepsake that lasts for years.
    Louise Silk

  • Rachel says:

    Thanks Louise for sharing, I have seen wonderful quilts over my years. What a great keepsake….

  • Kathy Wood says:

    My husband died of liver cancer recently 5 weeks and 2 days ago. I know I need to give back his uniforms and have tried before but just touching his shirt to take it out of the closet 2 weeks ago was too painful. He wore those uniforms more than he did his other clothes. I am going to try again to take in his work clothes this coming Friday. I am not ready to think about the entire closet at this point. I think if I can start with his work clothes then in another month possibly I will be ready for the rest of his clothes. His underclothes are still in his drawer, his socks, hankerchiefs.

  • Laura says:

    It has been just over eight months since my husband, 50 years old, died suddenly in his sleep, with no forewarning. I have only given away a few things to our children. It is ok not to hurry this process, and my own thoughts are that when i move, i will store his tools, sporting equipment, etc, The best advice anyone gave me was not to rush about getting rid of things–glad that others understand they are not “just things” to me. Just want to honor him with my choices…and to thank all of you for your comments.

  • Rachel says:

    Laura — so sorry for you loss and you are correct — take all the time you need to decide what to do with your husbands belongings. Whether you want to keep them or give them away that is up to you and your own personal timeline. Thank you for reaching out to us and sharing your thoughts.

  • Alan says:

    I was in tears reading everything here.
    Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and feelings.

    My wife died one month ago of breast cancer that spread to her spine then liver.
    She was ill for over three years, 45 years old, and we – or should I now say I – have two boys 7 and 8.

    I’m mixed up. Part of me wants to move house.
    We’re short of a bedroom – the boys have to share a room, and it needs fixing up.
    But it’s the only place we’ve lived – for 20 years. All those memories, hopes and dreams.

    I can’t bear to part with anything yet.
    Books, needlecraft equipment, wool, clothes, bags, purses etc.
    The cuddly toy she had since she was born.
    It’s heartbreaking.
    I’ve not even returned the wheelchair and other equipment yet.

    Also, my mind keeps jumping into the future.
    It’s like I keep thinking about what will happen at the end of my life, not just to her things, but all the “junk” that I’ve kept for years.
    Part of me wants to clear the place out, and sit here with nothing for the rest of my life, to make it easier for others in the future!

    What if I die before the boys are adults?
    Would their guardian (if I had one in mine) have insufficient space to store everything?

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    Oops – please could you fix the typo on my last line:

    … (if I had one in mind) …

  • Rachel says:

    Alan –

    I am sorry for the loss of your wife and the mother of your children. So sad for all that is involved. Thrilled you found Open-to-Hope, an online community who can provide wisdom and support. Being widowed many years ago when my daughter was 2, I could feel your pain as you shared your concerns of your wife’s belongings as they relate to family memories and lost dreams. As a fellow widow, my advice to you is not to do anything yet — you have plenty of time and as your emotions find their place you will see a bit more logically. I work with widows all the time and the first 6 months to a year are not the best time to make life changing decisions. I promise you it will become a bit clearer. All your concerns are valid and you do need to find answers but one month out is not the best time to do that. Please try to hang in there – spend time with your boys and catch your breath. With hope, Rachel

  • Alan says:

    Thanks Rachel

    The understanding to be found here means a lot – this is a valuable site.

    Because it’s less common to lose a spouse/partner – especially at a younger age – it can feel like there’s nobody around me that really understands.