As a counselor, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is “People are telling me I should get rid of his/her stuff, but I don’t want to. What should I do?” Soon after a death, it is common for us to want to hold on to things that remind us of our loved one. This “stuff” takes on a special meaning and in our desperate attempt to stay attached to our loved one, these things seem to help us feel close. In other words, they have become “linking objects” – they link us to our deceased loved one. Therefore, a widow may want to keep all of her husband’s tools because they were important to him, or keep all of his clothes and sleep in one of his tee shirts. Parents may want to keep their daughter’s room exactly as she left it and then sit in the middle of it, in the midst of her world, remembering the long, late night talks before she died. Everything that was important to the deceased becomes important to us simply because it was important to the deceased! Therefore, what do you do with all of the “stuff?” Keep it as long as you need to. Over time, as the new relationship forms, many things that were important at the beginning lose their importance. You begin to dispose of the unimportant things and keep items having special significance that you would not ever get rid of. For example, a client of mine lost her husband a couple of years ago. At first, she treasured everything he owned, and it was a lot. He was a tinkerer, a fixer-upper, a musical instrument builder, and a collector of junk. He had tools and uncompleted projects strewn over the garage that she could not bring herself to get rid of. They were all important to him therefore, they were important to her. However, over time her view of these things turned from reverence to one of “they’re in my way and I need the room.” She has begun the process of winnowing down his possessions to only those special ones she really wants, such as a particular guitar, and starting to get rid of the others.
How long does this winnowing process take? It takes as long as is needed. For my client, it has taken two years for her reach the point where she is ready to begin removing her husband’s stuff. For others, it may come six months, three years, or five years. It may happen in stages – you may be willing to let go of some stuff this month, more 6 months from now, and more one year from now.
I would also like to add that linking objects are not just physical items. A song, a smell, or a photo can also link us back to our loved one. Many times, I have had clients who have suffered a perinatal or infant loss take the baby’s clothes and seal them in a plastic bag. This way, the parents can go back occasionally, smell the clothes, and be reminded of their baby. Linking objects provide vital connections to our loved ones as we reconstruct our relationship to them.
There is another type of linking object and it can blindside us – a trigger. Triggers are those sights, sounds, smells, and places that are associated with our loved one that pop out of nowhere and cause an unexpected reaction in us. We may experience a sudden welling up of emotion and crying when we hear a particular song our loved one liked, a sinking feeling when we go by the hospital, or a bittersweet happiness when we hear an old joke our loved once told. After we experience a trigger, it typically begins to lose its power and, sometimes, becomes a heartfelt linking object that brings us closer to our loved one.
I had a client whose husband had died after a liver transplant. One day she annoucnced to me that she and her 12-year old daughter were going to the Texas coast, a meaningful family vacation spot. She later told me that as they walked along the beach, they both cried over their lost husband/father. The walk was full of triggers: the particular beach, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of the surf and seabirds, etc. However, in the midst of their crying they also began remembering the happy times and started laughing. It was truly a bittersweet time! What was exceptional about their experience was that they purposefully sought out their triggers so they would aid them in their grieving process. Knowing what is happening when triggers and our reaction to them arise can take us a long way in reconstructing our relationship with the one we have lost.