Cleaning Out the Closet

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.

When to Clean a Closet

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.

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.

Savor the Experience

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.

Getting Started

Start by tackling 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 momentoes 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 delivery of his personal items although it served a purpose at the time.  I wished I had saved more items.

When You Get Upset

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 cannot 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.

Consider what items could be included in a memorial or can become a family heirloom. You may decide that some items would be great for future grandchildren to honor your spouse.

Let Yourself be Overwhelmed

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.  If you are not ready to go through the belongings, don’t –wait until you are ready. Each widow is different and there are no 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 all aspects of loss was part of Rachel’s journey following the unexpected loss of her husband when she was 31 years old. At the time, Rachel was a member of management in a large corporation and a mother of a two-year-old. Having worked in management for Fortune 500 companies, she learned quickly the see-saw created when personal and professional trajectories collide allowing her to providing invaluable insight to Human Resources departments. She created a program providing guidance to co-workers, managers and HR personnel in support of a colleague returning to work after a loss. Rachel speaks nationally to organizations, at conferences and in support of all aspects of loss. She has published numerous articles, books and blogs and has appeared on Good Morning America. Her books, best-seller Living with Loss One Day at a Time, Grief in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide for Being Prepared and her latest Finding Peace, One Piece at a Time: What to do with your or a loved one’s personal possessions have received international acclaim. Rachel lives an active healthy lifestyle in Colorado with her husband running, biking and hiking. She is an avid athlete including a Hawaiian Ironman Finisher.

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