Letting the little things go

5 min read

How to make letting go a little easier

  • Stop, breathe, and let yourself feel what you are feeling without rushing or judging it.

  • Limit yourself to saving three items that are a good representation of the memories you shared with your loved one.

  • Separate yourself from your loved one’s belongings by using a storage unit, which you can visit and sort through periodically.

  • Ask yourself how your loved one would have wanted each item to be treated.

After someone in your family has died, the question of what to do with their belongings can loom over your immediate grieving period. Everyday things like clothes, keepsakes, or even kitchenwares can become emblems of the life they lived, and they often bring up associated memories and emotions. It’s human nature to attach emotions to objects—and that impulse is especially strong when we’re grieving.

On a logical level you understand that your loved one’s spatula holds no real importance to honoring their memory. And yet you find yourself struggling to let the most basic things go. This is sometimes known as “grief hoarding,” the idea that you’re holding onto your loved one by holding on to their stuff. 

In her column Dear Sugar, author Cheryl Strayed recalls going through her mother’s things a few months after she died, describing the process of moving her things out of the family home as “devastating” and “brutal in its ruthless clarity.” If you’re experiencing similar emotional ties as you clean out and organize a loved one’s home, her reflection on this may resonate:

“In the months after my mother died...I believed that I could crack a code...That in those objects my mother would be given back to me in some indefinable and figurative way that would make it okay to live the rest of my life without her.”

In these intense emotional moments, it’s extremely difficult to discern which belongings are actually going to continue to hold remembrance and honor your memories with the person, and which might be weighing us down in the future. To avoid getting buried under a mound of physical objects and emotional baggage, you’re going to face tough choices, choices made even more complicated by your desire to “crack the code” and find meaning.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to deciding what stuff to keep and what to let go of, but there are a few strategies you can use to try to keep a clear head during the process. 

Deciding what to keep

As you sort through your loved one’s home, you should be prepared to face these moments head on. If you’re confronted with a wave of grief while sorting through mundane items like a DVD collection, what do you do?

The first thing to do is stop and breathe. Let yourself feel your grief. It can be tempting to push it down for the sake of “getting things done,” but ultimately that will not serve you. Feel what you are feeling without rushing it or judging yourself.

Once you feel centered, ask yourself what the emotional resonance or usefulness of these belongings might be. What about this particular pile of stuff is bringing on these emotions? Did these objects mean something special to the person? Do you have shared moments with your loved one that involved these items? What will keeping them mean to you in five years? Ten? 

In our DVD collection example, it might be that you have memories of enjoying certain movies together. It might be helpful to save one or two of your particular favorites, and then allow yourself to let the rest of the collection go.

House cleaning guru Angela Brown recommends picking three items to bring home that are a good representation of the memories you shared with the person. Focus on things that meant something to you both and that represent nostalgic moments between the two of you. 

Letting it go

Allow yourself the time and space you need to get comfortable with releasing these pieces of your loved one’s life. In the immediate days and months after a person dies, your grief can cloud your clarity on whether things are just things, or whether they have special emotional resonance and long-lasting meaning. 

Brown’s strategy for dealing with this in-between space is to use a storage unit. By separating yourself from the stuff and returning periodically to sort through it, you’ll be giving yourself the time you need to process your grief without being buried under a mountain of belongings. 

Focus on things that meant something to both you and your loved one, and that represent nostalgic moments between the two of you.

Once you begin to find that emotional balance, you can start to divide the person’s things into categories rather than just tossing them aside. You can also consider whether to give stuff away to other family and friends who might feel an emotional connection to items you hadn’t considered particularly significant. Or you might want to donate useful items like clothing and housewares to a charity in their honor, especially a charity your loved one supported.

Continue to ask yourself how your loved one would have wanted each item to be treated. You will realize, with the distance of time, that certain objects would not have had any real significance to your loved one, and that will make it easier to let them go. 

The process of meaning-making after the death of someone you love is fraught and filled with ups and downs. Yes, their things can be a way to hold onto and extend our memories with them—a way to honor their life by integrating their stuff into our own. But the reality is that in the end it’s just stuff. It’s the feelings we have for the person that we’re really trying to preserve, and those will never cease to be there for you.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.