Dr. Eileen Callahan, Ph.D.: Cleaning Out a Life

Cleaning Out a Life

Adapted from Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.

After someone dies, we are left with a room full (or even a house full) of their belongings. Sorting through their stuff can be distressing and difficult. There is one right answer for any family. The word stuff is usually putting it mildly. These things are symbolic of a life that has ceased physical existence. They can include clothes and belongings as well as photos and videos. These objects are important, particularly right after the death, because we cling to them as all we have left to remember the loved one by. We know we have the memories but as we integrate the loss of the physical person, we cling to physical objects to help us cope. As we progress, we will not feel the need to hold onto as many items.

Some families might not have the luxury of taking the time to sort through items if a move is in place because a family’s financial situation has changed. If the person lived alone, the dwelling where they lived needs to be emptied. What is important is that families keep some items to remember the person by. It is better to give away less in the beginning and part with it later than to give everything away and be sorry later. Items usually can be stored for some time.

The time spent going through the belongings of the loved one can be very healing in itself. It can be a time of remembering why a particular T-shirt or music CD was bought. It can be a time where stories are shared and good memories previously not known to other family members are passed around. For some people, the smell of the person retained on the clothing is part of the memory of that person. This experience can bring family members together and also help them to explore the life of the loved one whom no one wants  to forget and whom everyone needs to understand in some way. All family members might not want to be involved, although everyone should be encouraged to take part just as in any rituals and grief activities following the death.

When a family turns the person’s room into a shrine, or when one person refuses to let go of the way things were before the person died, then family members will need to help that person slowly part with the items. It is difficult when there is denial that the person has died and a family member believes the person still might need their clothes. Such denial suggests complicated grief, in which outside help is needed for much more than helping to sort through the belongings of the loved one.

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