When a loved one dies, there are almost always objects and heirlooms to sort through – and then decisions to make about what to do with them. After my parents died, I felt a responsibility to keep many of their belongings – my father’s neckties, my mother’s scarves, their books, home videos, photographs, and more. And for a while, these possessions made me feel closer to my mom and dad. Surprisingly though, so did repurposing them and not keeping them at all.
Purging objects and upcyling others drives resilience after loss. Deciding what to do with belongings, instead of unceremoniously packing them away in a closet, attic, or basement, sparks a sense of control. Death makes us feel unmoored; taking ownership of what comes next makes us feel empowered. Being proactive also increases the likelihood the belongings we choose to keep will be truly meaningful to us and won’t weigh us down.
Below are five opportunities for using spring cleaning to build resilience after loss. I explore many more creative strategies for remembering and celebrating family and friends in my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.
Frame Their Handwriting — Frame a handwritten recipe or locate your loved one’s signature on a letter, car title, or passport. Doing so not only gives you the chance to sort through these items, it provides new opportunities to talk about your loved one when family and friends come to visit.
Upcycle Clothing — Reimagine your loved one’s favorite sweater, shirt, or pair of jeans. Gather a few pieces and transform them into teddy bears, throw pillows, or bean bags. Pieces of fabric can also be used to create one-of-a-kind quilts. Read my post on upcycling and how I created a quilt with my dad’s neckties.
Curate a Gallery — Gather your loved one’s official documents (college ID, driver’s license, military papers, business cards, etc.) and turn them into decorations around your home. To create a cohesive look, frame objects in like-colored mattes and frames. A collection that spans multiple generations often works best —no need to arrange documents in chronological order.
Donate Objects — Items of all types (ceramics, costumes, sports memorabilia, stamps, textiles, typewriters, etc.) are of potential interest to museums and historical societies. Giving objects to professional preservationists and curators helps ensure the individuals who owned them will never be forgotten. Consider what types of objects you have and find organizations that maintain vast collections of them. By donating these items, you may also alleviate any guilt that bubbles up from parting with your loved one’s possessions.
Approach Textiles Creatively — Show off and enjoy meaningful fabrics – table linens, towels, ties, scarves, even curtains. Frame a portion of a wedding dress or display a religious garment or uniform in a case. Wrap a love-worn tablecloth around a large canvas and mount it on a wall.
Giving yourself permission to toss or transform your loved one’s possessions accomplishes two distinct and complementary goals. One, it decreases the likelihood the items will become a burden; and two, it increases the chance that what’s left will make you smile. Embrace spring cleaning as an unrivaled opportunity for healing and renewal. And if you want even more strategies, I share additional ones here.