The Grieving Place

There’s a special space in my house I’ve whimsically named The Grieving Place. Admittedly, it’s a gloomy name, but it’s actually a cheerful little spot in the corner of my dining room.  It’s kind of like a Hospice for things I’ve identified as unnecessary, but I’m not quite ready to cut loose yet.  As a student in Joshua Becker’s Unclutterd course, I’m learning to see my “precious” belongings with new eyes.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but when your own treasures start looking like trash, you know their days are numbered!

Clearly the goal of a class called Uncluttered is, well, to unclutter.  I had already started decluttering my home 6 months before joining the class, so the low hanging fruit has mostly been plucked. I’m working on the harder to reach branches now, namely sentimental things.   These items are much harder to declutter than I imagined and I’m struggling to part with some of these tangible scraps of my life. Inevitably, as I wade through this flotsam and jetsam,  I notice an object that sparks a flood of memories.

Like time passages, these objects launch me back to moments and seasons that have rooted themselves in my heart.   Moments like my child’s first steps, time with my Grandmother in her kitchen in Maine, my son’s artistic achievements in the First Grade… a wedding ring from a broken marriage.   Some good memories attached… some I would rather forget. These objects, like touchstones, seem to be the carriers of my memories and my emotions return to that place whenever I see them.

Some sentimental things are obvious keepers. They are simply too precious to de-own.

The difficult items for me are the ones that hold subliminal value.  They have meaning I didn’t even realize they possessed until I started decluttering.  Some hidden force seems to clutch at these objects and I struggle to commit them to the donation pile. This pull usually takes me by surprise. Some things have been around so long they’ve come to define “home” as a familiar, comforting place. Letting go feels like excommunicating a family member.  Other items lay like hidden landmines, bursting their heavy emotional charge when I happen upon them while searching for something else. Out of nowhere, I’m blindsided by memories long buried and I find myself reliving the emotion of those tough seasons again.

I sense the urge to hold back when I first begin to realize a really familiar object has actually outlived its usefulness in my life. What is this force that suddenly causes me to cling to things that have been unused or left in storage for years?

I’ve come to the conclusion that this halting pull represents the first pangs of a rudimentary kind of grieving process.  These items usually have no value to anyone but me, and letting them go feels a little like a death sentence to that season of my life.  With the touchstone gone, I fear those seasons will evaporate from my mind like Brigadoon into the mists.

Sometimes, letting objects go represents the final nail in the coffin of a dream.  It’s the ultimate harsh reality check. The disappointments of my life are memorialized in these items: Brochures from a trip that was disappointing, the cute little jeans this body will never fit into again, baby clothes from a child who has grown up… and grown distant.  These objects are silent sentinels of those shattered dreams and I grieve the loss of the hope they represented. The death of a dream is still a kind of death.

Over 33 years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her landmark book, On Death and Dying in which she observed various stages individuals seemed to experience as they dealt with impending loss.  These “stages of grief” included denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  She theorized individuals deal with loss in different ways, and the “stages” Kubler-Ross defined merely reflect the most common reactions she observed in the grief process.  These are not required stages that must be entered into sequentially. Each stage can appear in no particular order, or not at all. (See The Five Stages of Grief and Other Lies That Don’t Help Anyone, by Megan Devine.)

Interestingly, I’ve seen hints of the grieving process rise up in myself as well as in others in my online Uncluttered class.  We all seem to be going through various degrees of grief as we move toward accepting that it’s time to let some things go.

As my classmates and I really start sorting the wheat from the chaff of our belongings, common themes arise:  depression that they allowed themselves to be consumed by so much stuff to begin with;  anger that they’ve wasted so much money on “junk”; questioning why they hung onto baby clothes for decades, or a wedding gown from a failed marriage. Still others, in a form of bargaining, have not quite reached the place of de-owning objects.  They seem to gamble that reorganizing their surroundings will somehow restore value to really familiar items they now realize have become  more baggage than souvenir.

Reorganizing and removing the low hanging fruit has its value.  It opens the door to start questioning the presence of the object’s in our lives.  As for me, my cheerful little grieving place serves as a staging area for emotional reorganization… where I can come to terms with impending loss with no performance pressure. The days are numbered for the objects in this pile, and I know it.   I’ve recognized they no longer hold the value to me they once had, or they don’t represent who I am today. Either way, I know they are on their way out.  I just need a little time to get used to the idea.

These transitional items may sit in the grieving place for quite awhile, being bypassed for thrift shop runs two or three times.  On rare occasions, I rescue an item only to return it to the grieving place shortly after. Eventually, I’m able to emotionally release it and it goes into the donation bag for good.  The transition is complete.  I’ve given myself time to process the memories attached to them and I get used to the idea of releasing them from my life. More importantly, my focus for the future becomes forward reaching rather than backward. When  I reach the point of contented acceptance, I open the donation bag and unceremoniously stuff the object in.  Then I’m good.

My little grieving place gives my heart a bit of room to release the object and an amazing realization hits me. I’m free of past baggage and I don’t have to carry touchstones of memories around like Jacob Marley’s chains.  I’m learning to free myself from sentimental clutter. The good memories live on in my heart forever.  The rest can finally rest in peace.