I recently attended a local community meeting where I met a middle-aged woman who informed me—after learning that I was a grief and loss coach—that she had just finished cleaning her deceased mother’s closet and now felt emotionally drained. I could relate to her experience as I had cleaned out my late husband’s closet several months prior to our conversation, an act that was characterized by sobbing, intense longing, but also laughter.
A Heart Wrenching Task
While my own experience included laughter—a counter-intuitive response I will explain—cleaning out a loved one’s closet is more often a heart-wrenching affair. According to my clients, many items of the deceased’s clothing evoke powerful and poignant memories, as well as their loved one’s characteristic smell. When I sorted through and packed away my late husband Doug’s clothes it was four years after his death and I was in a loving, supportive relationship yet it was still an emotionally-charged event. Before that time I simply could not consider giving away or getting rid of the bulk of his clothes—apparel that was so familiar to me after our wonderful 34 year marriage—many items I had bought for him as gifts over the years.
My reluctance to let go of Doug’s clothing brings to mind a passage from a memoir my book group read this year, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005). In the passage Didion (2005) explains that she can’t part with her deceased husband’s shoes, as he would need them when he returned. The title of the book refers to magical thinking in the anthropological sense, thinking that if a person hopes for something enough or performs the right actions that an unavoidable event can be averted. Perhaps I had been subconsciously thinking that Doug might return if I kept his clothes in a closet on hangers.
Doug’s Magical Return
Ironically, it was when I tearfully removed Doug’s clothing from the clothes hangers that he returned. As I slid his long-sleeved, brown shirt off its hanger I suddenly felt very connected to him. That is the moment when I heard--or intuited--the words “mud puddle.” I hadn’t been thinking of mud puddles until I heard the words, but the significance hit me like a lightning bolt: when he wore that brown shirt with his brown pants for his clinic work as a Family Practice doctor, I used to tell him that he looked like a mud puddle, that it was way too much brown! It was an on-going joke between us. So he did magically return—not for his clothes hung neatly on hangers in a closet—but in the form of a precious funny memory.
1) There is no set timetable for moving your loved one’s clothing from your closet or for giving/packing their clothing away.
2) I recommend that my clients invite an empathetic friend or loved one to share the memories, stories and emotions that arise while they are sorting through and packing their loved one’s clothing.
3) Be sure to celebrate the completion of this task!
4) Working with a grief coach and loss coach accelerates the process of healing and return to well-being. Release your grief, rediscover peace, joy and life purpose, and create your new normal after loss.