Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tips on Sorting a Loved One's Personal Belongings

[Note: Since its original appearance, this post has been updated ~ most recently on August 31, 2017.]

If the future seems overwhelming, remember that it comes one moment at a time.  ~ Beth Mende Conny

A reader writes:  When you have a bajillion things that have to be done, but you can't do anything because grief has taken control of you, what gets you going again? I've been doing pretty well, two months into my journey. But I haven't done much with my husband's personal belongings. So far, I've been telling myself to wait to tackle all this until I feel stronger. But now I'm getting anxious that these tasks are piling up around me. I'm confused about what to do first, and my inner parent is telling me, 'These things won't go away, slacker. You have to do something about them, ASAP.'

Case in point: yesterday I was determined to start clearing out my so-called "junk room" so I can paint it and have new flooring installed. (I need to do this because my employer is closing their local office and wants me to work from home.) There's some urgency about this task. But I didn't do anything about it because I broke down after I came across a TV show about touring the Grand Canyon. It triggered so many memories of the good times my husband and I had camping there. I couldn't shake the depression afterwards. So what did I end up doing the rest of the day? Cry, watch television and bake cookies. Real important stuff. Now I feel weak and guilty for not doing the urgent tasks. I know I can't go easy on myself forever, but it's still so easy to get sidetracked by sadness.


My response: You might think of sorting through your husband's belongings as a task that you will get to eventually, if and when you feel like doing it, and in your own time frame. Like everything else in grief, there is no right or wrong time to get this task done ~ there is only your time.

This topic has been discussed many times in our online grief discussion forums.

I'd like to share with you just a sampling of the sage advice some of our members have shared with one another on this matter of sorting:

"All I can say is, you will know when it is time to go through your loved one's things and no one can tell you when it is time. You will have this feeling about you that I can't describe, but you will know it when you have it. You will think about going through their things, and instead of dread or fear you will have this peace about you. I won't say that it won't be hard as you go through your beloved’s things, because it will be hard and it will bring up memories, but you will know that it is the right time to do it. Until that time comes, don't rush it and take your time."

"If you are an organized person who has always been on top of things, you will have a hard time accepting anything less in yourself. But if you had cancer, you wouldn't expect to accomplish everything you used to. You would give yourself permission to slow down and concentrate on what you needed to do to survive. Right now, you do not have cancer, but you do have grief, and that can be every bit as much to deal with. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect, to accomplish less, to slow down, to take the time to grieve. Your body has had a hard jolt and it is hard to deal with it."

"As far as taking care of personal effects, things like that, there is no hurry, those things can wait. Anything that has a deadline, maybe expend effort on those things, but most things can wait. All the things you feel you need to do will still be there when you're ready. If you feel there are 'urgent' things to get done, just swallow and put one foot in front of the other. They'll get done."

"When things get to be overwhelming for me, I just look at everything in 3-hour sections. I don't think about anything beyond that time frame. Maybe break it down into 1-hour sections. Do as much as you can in that time frame and then take a break. Some days all I could get done was to take a shower, but I felt like I was accomplishing something. Try to focus on one task, one hour, one day at a time. It is overwhelming to have to take in the whole picture. When I tried to see it all, do it all, what I ended up doing was shutting down."

"I remember some days I could be the Energizer Bunny, although I readily admit I was running on adrenaline. Other days I felt immobile, paralyzed, as if my feet and arms were concrete. There were days that were easier than others. And I learned: It’s okay. That is just how it is."

"Sometimes I pushed myself and got some things done, and once I relaxed about it a bit I realized I would have better days and get even more done. So I didn't worry much about taking a day off from it here and there. Because sometimes I really think we need those days off from it."

"Sometimes you just aren’t able to do things and that is okay. I used to worry that I would get nothing done. I finally said to myself that in time it will happen. When I stopped putting pressure on myself the anxiety stopped and I did a little at a time. Some days all I could get done was one little thing. I finally started praising myself for that and it helped. It will all get done! Just don't pressure yourself."

"It's natural not to want to go there. I dreaded it. But I had to force myself sometimes and then once I was there and got busy I realized I didn't have that dread anymore. It became all about getting things crossed off my "To Do" list. I had to have lists or I felt like I had no grip."

"Evaluate your storage situation at home. Do you have some room somewhere, like a basement or attic or garage? This way anything you really do not know what to do with right now you can always go through later in your own time. If you must store things in your living space, try putting things in a corner somewhere and get a pretty sheet or throw and drape it over it until you’re in position to go through those things. If you have children old enough to help, let them help you. Are there people at your church or hospice who could assist you? Most of my help has come from strangers. Although it was really difficult to ask for help, it was totally necessary."

"Instead of going through everything now, try putting it all in boxes and number the boxes. If you don’t have any extra room and you need the space right now, consider renting a temporary storage facility. Try putting as much as you can in storage until you are ready to go through it, then when you are ready maybe go through one box a week until you are done."

"Plow through a bit at a time and keep realizing what you have already done. I found I had to make myself look at what I already accomplished and give myself a pat on the back or else I would only see what I had left to do and feel even more miserable. So don't forget to recognize your own efforts!"

"Do a quick sorting. Make piles of Save, Toss, and Donate and/or Give Away. If you know to whom you want to give things, label them that way. Or put those items in a ready-to-mail container with the addressee’s name on a sticky note until you’re ready to go to the post office."

"Toss stuff each time you sort, as it makes more room to work each time. Returning to the task is easier when each time you see less stuff there."

"What has helped me a lot is doing just a little bit at a time instead of handling everything in one day. When you start feeling sad, get up and go do something that will take your mind off what made you sad."

"Anything with your loved one’s writing on it is something I would personally treasure too, as it's something unique, something nobody else in this world has the same."

"There are websites where people make memory bears, memory quilts and so on from loved ones’ clothing. This is something I really want to get done eventually: having a quilt made from my loved one’s clothes. It's something I can wrap around me, for now it's as close to a hug I can get from him. So if you like this idea then maybe hold onto some clothes, ones with nice colors, nice materials, and imagine a quilt made from those."

"Try to get rid of those weak and guilty feelings. You're doing the best you can. You're not superwoman, right? Hang in there because it does get better. I'm here as proof."

And there is this cautionary note:

"I was so overwhelmed that I made some decisions about my loved one’s personal belongings that I now regret, so don't rush into anything right now. I had to clean out his car and sell it right away to pay some bills, and that was hard. Harder still was cleaning out his tool shed. I wanted his tools to go to someone who could put them to good use, but believe me, it was way too premature for me to have to go through his things. This was not just a shed; it was where he spent so much of his leisure time. Everything in the shed was totally him, his stuff, his taste. His hands held this, and that. He used this to fix something in the living room. He made my beautiful pot rack using that. He made birdhouses with these. Every tool seemed to hold a memory, an entire sequence of events, emotions, actions, and intentions. You could feel him in there. It was agonizing cleaning it out. Looking back I never should have attempted it so soon, I should have waited at least a year. I can't even tell you how gut-wrenching it was. Listen to your heart, and if you don't feel like going through something, don't. Wait until it feels right and you’ll know that it's time."


Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC     

4 comments:

  1. So much wisdom in the suggestions above.....


    What strikes me is, that there is also a WHY involved. The why you want to - or don't want to - or cannot - or can - sort your loved one's belongings differs. Therefore, one way of addressing it (besides doing it or not doing it depending on what is right for you) is to take a moment to look at the "why". Ask yourself: Why do I want to (or why do I not want to) do it? Remember, that whatever that "why" is for you at that moment is what it is - and it is OK. It can be helpful to be aware of it because it supports the inner process. But it doesn't mean that you need to change anything...

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  2. An excellent point, Halina, and I thank you for making it!

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  3. Nothing Forgotten is a business that dispatches compassionate organizers to families who need the outside objectivity of what to keep and what to donate ... not withstanding, a lot of black garbage bags for the things that need tossing! (www.nothingforgotten.com)


    Another great resource for what to do with the more sensory-rich belongings of loved ones (like a breast pocket of a suit jacket that still smells of your Grandpa's tobacco) is BereavementArtists.com. Artists and artisans on this site fashion pieces of a loved one's belongings into everything from jewelry to pillows to urns.

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  4. I agree that you will know when "it is time". You will know, inexplicably, when the time comes.

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