Cleaning Out Your Deceased Loved One's Closet

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.

Magical Thinking

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.

To Remember:

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.

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About the Author
Patricia Johnston is the owner of Purple Lotus Coaching and a certified life coach with a specialty in grief and loss. She helps her clients release the pain of grief, find peace, joy, and life purpose and create their new normal after loss. Patricia's professional background includes work as a certified life coach, registered nurse, caregiver educator, caregiver support group facilitator, hospice organization consultant, and cultural anthropology professor who has studied grief and loss customs and rituals around the world. Additionally, Patricia has experienced many personal losses, including her husband of 34 years, Doug Johnston, a former Nevada City, California Family Practice doctor in 2007. After experiencing valuable grief coaching for her own loss, Patricia decided to share the wisdom and compassion gained from her experiences. To that end she studied life coaching with The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC)and opened her own practice, which, together with her engagement to fiancé Larry Casserly, has created a bright new chapter in her life. "The lotus, which rises up out of the mud to blossom above the water, is a cross-cultural symbol of transformation. To me the lotus’s transition from darkness to light represents the journey from grief to growth through the process of grief coaching.” ~Patricia Johnston .
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