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

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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