Last month, I sorted the final box of personal belongings of my late mother. The box consisted of personal letters, mementos, and pictures from her years in high school. While my mother has been gone for over twelve years, sorting through her belongings was an emotional process. However, I also learned it can be a sacred process too.
No matter who you are or how you defined your relationship with the one in your life who died, going through their personal belongings can be emotionally draining and can create relationship conflict as well. There are logistical questions that need to be answered regarding what to do with the items and whose responsibility is it to sort through them. But also going through each picture, article of clothing, piece of furniture, or other belongings can flood those responsible with emotions and memories.
In a 2014 article for Psychology Today, Dr. Nancy Berns described the emotional attachment which can come with our desire to keep everything that belonged to the one who died whom we’ve loved.
“People often desperately want to hang on to everything they can: memories, possessions, pictures.,” she writes. “The shoes left in the doorway can become sacred. The clothes in the laundry with a familiar scent may be comforting. So making decisions about what to do with things is a process that varies greatly for people.”
Certainly, there are items of lost loved ones that are worth keeping, particularly items which may have value or specific meaning. But there is also something spiritually liberating when we allow ourselves to let go of an item that belonged to the one who died. Because not only does each box that is donated, recycled, or given away slowly loosen our grasp of materialism, it also makes us less dependent on that personal belonging as being the only way we can remember the life of the one who died.
While my father had donated my mother’s clothing shortly after she died, it was deciding with my sister to dispose of my mother’s childhood dolls last year that allowed for me to understand how strong the bond our attachment can be to the possessions of those we loved who died. While these old dolls were badly deteriorated and it would be foolish for my sister and me to keep them and bring them with us each place we moved, it was still hard for me as I placed them in a garbage bag as even twelve years after her death, I still had to remind myself that she wouldn’t be coming back for them.
From a Christian perspective, Jesus never addressed what to do with the personal belongings of those we’ve loved who’ve died. But for those of the Christian faith, we are certainly reminded that personal items, even those belonging to ones who’ve died, can act as a barrier in our relationship with the spiritual divine. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus commanded his disciples. Other religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism also teach about the difficulties which arise from being held down by materialism. Certainly, I believe exceptions can be made of keeping some of the personal belongings of those who passed. But keeping all of them can be emotionally unhealthy for us.
So how do we approach the process of going through the possessions of loved ones and how do we make it a spiritual experience that allows us to discover new things about those who’ve departed and to find emotional and spiritual healing?
The first step is realizing the process takes time; instead of being seen as a task that has to be completed, it should be seen as a journey. In fact, it should be seen as a spiritual journey of discovery, lament, reflection, and ultimately healing. Much like the spiritual practices of fasting, meditation, or prayer, by seeing the process of sorting the belongs of departed loved ones as a spiritual journey allows us to validate the emotions we are feeling, permits ourselves the time to process those feelings, and affirms the act of letting go of their belongings as being sacred, rather than the materialistic items themselves.
For my family, the process of going through my mother’s belongings took years as we tackled it slowly over time. For us, deciding what to keep and what to dispose of was at times frustrating, but it was also sacred. Because while my family has gone in separate directions in our lives since she died, for a few moments, this brought us all back to her. Going through each item allowed us to discover something new about her we didn’t know before while also slowly making us less dependent on her personal belongings as being the only attachment to her memory.
And like most journeys, especially the journey of grief, the journey of letting go of the belongings of loved ones shouldn’t be accomplished alone.
Before tackling the task, it’s important you find family members or friends to share the journey with you. For some, this journey of going through the items of a departed parent can help siblings heal together. Or for those who are mourning the loss of a spouse or partner, having any children or relatives assist you makes the process less isolating. Even if that person never knew the one you’ve lost, it will still be a sacred moment that will allow for the shedding of tears, laughter, and the sharing of stories.
There is even an opportunity to bring comfort to others by sharing possessions with others who also mourn. One of the things my sister and I found were old pictures of my mom’s friends from high school. While they didn’t have much value to us, seeing how much they meant to my mother’s high school friends when they received them brought a feeling of peace and conclusion to all of us.
The final step is allowing yourself to find closure when you reach the end of your journey, realizing that once all the personal items have been sorted, donated, or thrown away, there will be a feeling of lament because there is nothing tangible left from which to learn about your lost loved one. However, at the same time, you will also recognize that what they left behind is not as important as the memories and the love they shared with you. For that is something neither can nor should be given or thrown away.
“Grief does not change you, it reveals you,” writes author John Green. You will become someone it would have been impossible for you to be, and in this way, your loved one lives on in you.”
This article was original written for Ethics Magazine. You may access it by clicking here.