Our child’s belongings feel sacred. Letting go of them is unbearably painful. Instead, we become guardians of their possessions. We look after them as if our lives depended on it.
But what happens when we have no option but to downsize? Or circumstances dictate that we must get rid of what’s been left?
No matter your child’s age, at some point you may well have to make this impossibly hard decision: what do I do with my child’s belongings?
And it matters not what it is, each and every item that our child touched, used or wore has the power to bring us to our knees.
Most loss parents want to keep it all, from the photo albums to school books, sports awards, clothes, bedsheets, even dirty laundry. You name it, it’s staying.
It hurts too much to part with any of it.
Each item evokes powerful emotions. We need to touch our child’s things, to breathe in their scent. It makes us feel they’re close.
In my case, both my parents are dead, so I know how difficult it is to let go of our loved ones’ belongings.
But my own child’s? That’s seriously one of the hardest jobs I can imagine having to do.
Yet for the last three months, it’s exactly what I’ve beein doing – sorting, gifting, throwing out. It has been emotionally exhausting.
Often, I’ve sat on the floor, crying, hurled back into the depths of despair.
At other times, to my surprise, I’ve experienced an emotional release, a lifting of the weight of grief. On those occasions, I’ve realized that the safekeeping of so many of Alex’s things is no longer a prerequisite to feeling comforted or close to him.
In that sense, my grief has shifted.
When my 23-year-old son died in 2014, I had to ask two girlfriends to help me pack up his belongings. I couldn’t do it by myself. We traveled to his apartment in London and brought it all home.
At the time, I couldn’t decide what to keep and what to let go. I was overwhelmed and in shock. All of it mattered because it was all I had left of him.
Now, five years later, I’m moving house. I need to reduce the number of things that are coming with me, and that includes letting go of some of Alex’s belongings.
This time around, I’ve chosen to face this difficult task alone. It feels intimate and right that it’s just me doing the sorting.
The physical act of packing up his belongings has made me ask what these things have to do with love and loss. I’ve examined the power they hold over me.
It’s as if I’ve discovered myself anew, willing to free myself of inanimate objects that my son would himself have gotten rid of long ago. I’ve looked at them afresh and decided which ones I want to keep, with honor and respect, and which ones should go.
In deciding to let go of so many of his things, I’ve been forced to re-examine my grief. I’ve had to re-evaluate the beliefs I held when he was killed and compared them to what I’ve learned as a bereaved mother.
This time it’s an act born out of choice, not fear or despair.
I now know that Alex resides in my heart, not in coats and T-shirts. Most of his things are not his personal history but instead just stuff.
To let go of so many of his belongings has been daunting yet, at times oddly liberating. What stayed or went came down to what the individual item meant to me.
This process has shown me that material things are just that – things. What counts is love, connection, and the memories we make as we share our lives with others.
What I’d originally packed up in numerous suitcases and crates back in 2014, today fits in two boxes. Knowing I can now take my son’s personal belongings with me anywhere I choose to move has taken a great weight off my mind.
His precious things will forever stay with me until it’s time for me to finally let go to be with him. It was tough to do, but I’m glad I did.
Seven Things To Keep In Mind:
1. TIME FRAME:
Don’t do anything until you’re ready! There’s no time-frame for this, no matter what others will have you believe. Many parents keep their child’s room exactly as it is. Others never go into the room because it’s too painful.
However, if you must decide before you feel ready, then pack up the belongings and keep them safe. You can revisit this question five, ten, or twenty years from now.
Reducing the number of things over time is often the least painful way to do this.
There is no right or wrong way to go about changing your child’s room or of getting rid of their personal belongings. Make the best decision you can at the time about what you keep, donate, or sell.
Perhaps ask a trusted friend to help you sift through the possessions and decide what goes and stays. Maybe they can help you sell or take away large individual items for you?
If you can’t face selling online through Ebay or Craigslist, there are companies that will do it for you. Donating items or furniture can be done through organizations such as the Salvation Army, Oxfam, or your nearest homeless shelter.
Listen to your heart, and if in doubt or feelings of guilt arise, err on the side of caution. If you’re not sure where a belonging should go or who to gift it to, leave it where it is or pack it up safely in a box and store it where you can retrieve it at a later date.
Numerous loss parents have told me that they regretted selling their child’s car or musical instrument, and some eventually repurchased it. So go easy, and take your time to make any decision that could be final.
Some of us like to wear our child’s clothes. Others leave the clothes exactly as they were in the closet and drawers, and even in the laundry hamper. But what happens if we’re moving?
It’s a good idea to make three piles — ‘to keep,’ ‘to gift’ and ‘to donate’ — before boxing up. Siblings, family members, and your child’s friends may wish to keep special items of clothing.
Consider a homeless or domestic violence center as a place to donate clothes, in addition to charity and thrift stores.
Some parents make quilts or pillows out of their child’s clothes and combine material from curtains or bedspreads. Some make stuffed animals out of shirt fabric for younger children to keep who’ve lost an older sibling or parent. What’s important is that you do what feels right for you.
4. ADAPTING THE BEDROOM:
Changing a child’s room subtly can be a good alternative for many loss parents. Instead of choosing between keeping everything in the same way or packing up all of our child’s belongings, the room is adapted.
For example, repainting the room, putting up new shelves where items can be displayed, buying new curtains or new bed – these are things that change the feel of the room without deleting our child’s presence.
5. MEMENTO CORNER:
Create an area in the house where you honor your child. Place photos, mementos, personal items, or their ashes here. This beautiful corner is just for your child and allows you to reduce the number of belongings in other parts of the house.
A memory box is also a good idea, as it can contain the most precious belongings and be kept within easy reach.
Photos are among our most treasured possessions. Print photos off computers and enjoy what would otherwise have lain hidden in the cloud. Make copies of photos out of old albums and display or gift to family members.
Take photos of the belongings you gift or donate, and of their room, and keep in the memory box. Significant moments in your child’s life can become a part of your every days if you frame and display them instead of letting them sit on old film or SIM cards.
7. USE THINGS:
Keep and use the things that bring you pleasure. Use their computer, phone or iPod, drive their car, wear their jewelry or clothes.
Many loss parents, myself included, like to know that their child’s prized possessions are still being enjoyed. Alternatively, donate to someone who needs them, such as schools or domestic violence organizations but ensure that all information has been deleted beforehand.
Organizations such as Music & Memory gladly accept iPods (they refurbish them for use in Alzheimer’s support programs), as do Oxfam and Recycling for Charities.