(This blog entry was originally posted in August of 2013)
I learn more and more with every client about how emotional of an experience organizing can be. The emotions can range from sadness to anger to discontent. Some clients experience defeat that they have allowed their space to become cluttered. Some are so emotionally attached to items that it literally causes them pain to see them leave. And others are so overwhelmed by the thought of organizing that they simply cannot bring themselves to begin. And adding even a small dash of grief to any of that already built up emotion? Suddenly the idea of organizing being uncomplicated is turned on its head.
As a Professional Organizer, I strive to be compassionate with my clients. I won’t come into a space, cracking my organizer whip, demanding they TOSS, TOSS, TOSS. I want to strike that happy balance between making your life easier with some organization (which yes, will likely mean some degree of letting go) and making sure the client feels content and at peace with their decisions. This balance becomes even more important (and even more perilous) when the project comes after the passing of a loved one. As it would turn out, I quickly had to learn this balancing act when I found myself playing both organizer and client.
My brother, Erik, passed away 19 months ago. Although his passing wasn’t exactly sudden (he had been ill for 10 months) it still was shocking. He was here one day and then simply gone the next. My mom, sister and I retreated to our gang of 3 to mourn, to grieve and to remember that smiling face. When the fog lifted slightly, we all knew there were practical things that needed attention. His car, his items at my sister’s house, his other things in a storage unit needed to be taken care of. I had expected myself to lead this charge. This was, after all, my career path, something I did every day. And yet, I couldn’t do it. I wanted to keep his car (even though it was completely impractical), wanted to keep his closet just the way it was and the thought of going through his things in the storage unit? I wanted to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. But sooner or later I knew we (and especially I) would need to start this project because it was another part of the grieving process. He wasn’t “this stuff” nor did letting go of it meant I was letting him go.
I wanted to share this rather personal journey because it is one most of us will have to take at least once in our lives. We started with his clothes. Most were donated but we each kept one or two things. I have one of his favorite shirts hanging up in my closet and it makes me smile every day when I open my closet. I was nervous about giving his things away to friends and family. I certainly didn’t want to burden anyone with items they may not want but it was such a relief to know some of his most special items went into happy homes. We choose carefully, taking a long time to find items that would fit (literally and personally) into each person’s life, carefully finding that balance (yet again). A favorite statue went to my best friend along with a backpack I knew her husband could use. His Steelers jersey went to my dad, who places it in the game room on Sundays. His sunglasses went to an online auction that raised money for a cancer patient. I had no idea how much easier it would be to let go when I knew how highly the items would be valued. I took pleasure in seeing how perfectly these items went into everyone’s homes, almost as if they were meant to be there. With the release of Erik’s most beloved items, letting go of “the other stuff” was a much easier experience. His furniture and kitchen items were donated to charity that runs a retail store. His older computer was taken to be recycled. It was still hard to see these things leave our lives but I knew holding on to “the stuff” (there’s that phrase again) wasn’t going to dull his memory.
To anyone who has begun this grief journey, I advise you to go slowly but realize that you won’t be able to hold on to everything for emotional and practical reasons. You can and should keep things that will help carry on your loved one’s memory: things that you will look at it and immediately be flooded by a happy memory. Find specific homes for specific items but not for everything. Don’t put other family members and friends into the awkward position of having to take trunks full of items because they don’t want to add to your pain. Do find a meaningful charity that will make you feel good about donating items. Maybe it’s a battered women’s shelter or a veteran’s society. Having that emotional tie to the organization, knowing the items will go on to benefit something your loved one believed in, will help tremendously. If it gets to be too much, take a step back but don’t abandon the process.
At the end of the several month process, there were still a lot of emotions but the job was done. The tremendous weight had not only been lifted but in fact freed us to continue with the grieving process. It makes me smile to think that Erik’s things are on display everywhere from Los Angeles to Nashville to Washington. I hope that the sale of his couch went on to help supply dinner for someone or that the sale of one of his books helped the library buy another new novel for someone to enjoy. 19 months later, this emotional and sentimental girl can truly say that she doesn’t miss the stuff she gave away. She only misses seeing her brother every day.