When the closet must be cleaned

My mom was a bit of a conundrum. She was not a princess, but she loved wearing a heavy diamond on her finger (I should say, on most of her fingers). She was not a fashion queen, but the woman had a closet bigger than most people’s bedrooms. Really, it had a TV and chaise lounge. It’s something that used to make us all laugh but, when she left us, that place became sacred, and painful.

I slept in her closet for days following her death – it was like we were still together; her smell and her aura clung to the room. I hugged her sweaters in disbelief and they convinced me that she wasn’t really gone. She had just worn that outfit a few days ago… her laundry was still fresh in the bin.

Everyone has their thing – their hardest thing; their I don’t want to go there thing. Mine was her closet. I am not usually one who deals with things by avoidance, but I stamped a big fat “A” on that one; I didn’t want to think about empty shelves or cold walls replacing her warm, familiar things. I envisioned her being scattered like ashes as her stuff was dispersed – I would have no control over where she’d end up.

But it had to happen, and it happened sooner than later. I will tell you, however, that it was easier to move on afterwards than it was to anticipate it happening – I learned a lot about letting go of the things I most tightly clench in my hand. The lessons were this:

  1. An object is not a person.  Lucky for me, I used to watch a lot of Clean Sweep on TLC… They were forever reminding people that memories are stored in our minds, not in things. It’s true, objects can remind us, but we hold the memories. In fact, I’ve found that some items that I’ve kept have even been devalued by my keeping them – memories associated with these objects change from what they were when she was here to what they are now in my own house; they have returned to their pure state of “thingness” and lost their warmth.
  2. What I expected to comfort me often became a burden. I assumed that as long as I held on to her stuff I wouldn’t have to deal with the emptiness – it would fill the void and free me from the loss. In reality, some of these things actually weighed me down… I can’t get rid of this or she will be gone! If this item disappears I will forget everything! It was burdensome and produced fear. In reality, letting go of physical objects, without holding them responsible for my okayness, is what actually freed me.
  3. It had to be in stages. Some things are impossible to give up at first, and that’s okay – our minds and bodies only let us handle bits at a time. My “mom collection” gets smaller as time goes on; I no longer have the same emotional ties to the things which I could not let go of in the beginning. Letting it happen naturally over time has significantly reduced the pain of the process.
  4. Letting go had to be creative. Pulling all of her things out of the closet, stuffing them in bags and shipping them off to a thrift store would have made the situation cold and unbearable. Of course, some of that happened, but to be creative about it made things even almost enjoyable at times… almost. For example, thinking about who my mom would want to help with a clothing donation, or asking her friends to pick out their favorite items of hers. It took away the mystery and the lack of control about where her things would go.
  5. Holding on had to be creative too. When it came to keeping things, I knew I would never wear her clothes, and I didn’t like the thought of them hanging in my closet for the rest of my life because I couldn’t let go. How could I keep things in a way that they would acutally be loved and used? I took some time to think about how this could be done outside of the box. One thing I came up with was to pick out some memorable pieces of clothing and save them to make a blanket for my future kids – I can’t wait for them to get their first Nana hug with it. Her clothes would have eventually lost their meaning hanging in my closet, but the blanket will hold her aura and pass her spirit on to others. This and similar ideas have helped me to focus on keeping what will create more memories, and letting go of things that will get lost on the shelf.

There is so much else that could be said about this process, but each of us has our own experience and we gain our own understandings as we travel through it. I invite you to leave your own words of wisdom for us here. Thank you all for sharing the journey.

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20 thoughts on “When the closet must be cleaned

    1. This brings back so many memories of when my Mom passed. You explained and shared your feelings so well.It is so hard to part with “stuff.” And seems to be part of the grieving. A process,not an event. I still have some of my Mom’s things all these years later. Sarah and I each wore a piece of her jewelry to my Brothers Memorial last year.I felt we were bringing a part of her.
      The things that matter most are the lessons she tried to pass on to us. The love and laughter shared and fact that I think of her everyday now. Not in sadness,but in happiness and gratitude, that she taught me so well.I too love the idea of your Nana Blanket. What a lovely thought.

      1. Wearing my mom’s jewelery is the most special to me too – Adam had my engagement ring crafted from her wedding set :) It does make it feel like she is right there… It is nice to hear your story and that you relate, thanks for reading and commenting!

  1. I must say I’m crying while I read this. Jennelle you have such a gift of putting pain, loss, grief, passion, hope, and love into words. Since Nichole has passed away I had to pull up to my sister’s house one day, walk on the porch another day, step in a stay 2 minutes one day, and then stay longer another. I still have not been able to go there and be there for very long and I certainly cannot go down the hallway where her room is. Grief sneaks up on ya and kicks you in the gut when you least expect it. You are on tough lady and wise beyond your years. Your strength inspires and your ability to share where we were and where you are is comforting. Much love and respect from me to you <3

    1. Thanks Steph, I think of you often as you face this loss in your life. I’m sending so much love your way! (And hugs.) You describe grief well, it’s always in baby steps, sometimes one foot forward and a couple back. At least we’re all doing the shuffle together… Much love lady xo

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your journey. I have a lot of my mom’s belongings to still sort through. She passed nearly a year ago. Coming up on that anniversary brings some extra ache for me, for some reason. Remembering all the moments we shared before she passed. Her name was Janelle, too. I was so interested when I found your blog. I don’t know anyone else with the same beautiful name. I sorted through many of my mom’s belonging this weekend. You are so right sometimes letting go of the things opens up some space and allows just the memories to stay. Sending you hugs as you continue on your journey. Thank you for your words and blog.

  3. After my mom died and I’d go to visit my dad, I would always go upstairs, open her closet door, and just stand there. It was like I was enveloped by my mom. Slowly, I began to take some of her clothes home to wear, and, eventually, all the clothes that I knew I’d wear and were once my mom’s came home with me. My mom was sensible and practical, but she had good taste in clothes and most of my “good” clothes now were once my mom’s. I didn’t expect my dad to keep my mom’s clothes in her closet forever. But one day I went upstairs, opened the closest door, and noticed immediately that the closet no longer smelled like my mom. I then looked at the clothes hanging there and realized that they weren’t my mom’s. It was a big shock. A jolt of reality. A realization that my dad was moving on and my mom was really gone.

  4. As per usual you have written this so perfectly and beautifully. Its nice to read your words again because I always find such comfort in them. I have had a similiar experience and wrote on this a few months back, but reading this today has helped me so much. I have yet to go through and do another “purging” or eliminating of a few more things. It was as though I have only been able to do it that one time and now what remains in the closets and drawers has to stay….. like its keeping me pulled together. I know that isn’t true, but I think that is my rationale behind it.

    Absolutely adore your idea of the blanket. Alicia and I, the girl who lost her husband in the same car accident as Zach, have thought of using their shirts to make a quilt. Her husband had about 100 Polo’s and Zach probably has about 250 various t-shirts so we have thought of doing this type of craft. She wants to make one for each of her daughters and well…. I just want it for me. We’ll see if this idea comes to fruition, but maybe you’ll have more success than us.

    Sending my best as always to you!

    1. Thank you Krista! Your support and friendship mean a lot to me! I think it’s an amazing idea for you to make a quilt… We should keep each other updated about these projects :) I think about you a lot and hope things are well. XO!

  5. December marks one year of my mom’s passing. We have this tradition, an age-old practice, that no one can touch the things of the deceased. This december, we will. My sister and i are tasked with that responsibility. How will i deal with it? I do not know. I will cry for sure. I admire your bravery and i hope i will have the same. I have a few things in mind which to keep and to give away. It will be hard, i expect. I dread it. So much…….because i will miss her more.

    1. Wow JJ, all my thoughts are with you and your sister as you face the daunting task. It is so hard, and it’s okay to feel scared and sad and unsure of how to go about things. There’s a secret strength in all of us, waiting to shine in moments like these.

  6. I lost my mother two months ago and reading this helped me confirm I’m not alone. You write beautifully and I found much comfort in your words. I have also spent time in her closet. I couldn’t clean one of them out for fear the smell would leave. It’s time to let “stuff” go. Thank you.

    1. I’m so glad you could find some form of comfort here Claudia. I’m incredibly sorry to hear about what you are facing right now, thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. Hugs to you.

  7. I have had to clean out my beloved mother, father and daughter’s closets. I felt like a gravedigger. I have made provision in my will for a professional company to pack up my belongings. Everything will be donated to Hospice. It was very, very difficult! I know it is part of the healing process, but it also pulls scabs off raw wounds.

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