Essay

Letting Go of Objects Connected to Grief & Lost Loved Ones

by Kelli Kehler

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My Mom, up until a month or so ago, had a three-car garage full of furniture and mementos. Antique dining set chairs long past their prime, gilded vases and adornments, a rolling wooden cart that once housed treasured vinyl records, frame upon frame of custom artwork, Persian rugs, and a leather recliner. Save for the space needed to park her car, these beloved furnishings bulked up the garage, a looming shadow of the past — memories too painful to summon, but too sentimental to truly forget. So they stayed there.

This was, after all, a vast improvement from a handful of years ago.

About four weeks before my Dad passed away on November 5, 2011, he and I sat across a round wooden table in the kitchen of my parents’ house in Arizona. Willing the tears back into my eyes — “Kel, if you get too emotional during this conversation, it’s over” — I coaxed my Dad’s end-of-life wishes out of him. He was frail from stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer, and we could all see it but him. Positively (and stubbornly) swearing he had a year or more left to live, he begrudgingly told me how to write his obituary, where he wanted to be laid to rest, and all the other stuff no child, no matter the age, wants to hear.

“…And you’ve got to get Mom out of this house. It’s just too much for her. There’s just too much stuff.” I had a laundry list of duties he wanted me to execute, and it was important for me to carry them out for him.

In February 2015, my Mom moved out of the home she and my Dad built together. Mourning him, the home, their lives there together and an abundance of other sentiments, she hung onto most of the furnishings that once filled it — knowing in her heart they’d never fit in her new, smaller home. Though she was trading a Tuscan-inspired home for a white Craftsman contemporary house, a truck full of dark wood, mustard- and rust-colored fabrics, wrought iron decor and the like made its way along with her.

But I can’t claim to be any better at this than she is.

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Over time here in California, I’ve culled most of my decor-based memories of him down to a closet and a few boxes in my garage. At first, every time I removed something he either owned or bought for me, it felt like a betrayal. When we’re fresh with grief, everything is sharp around the edges and everything hurts like hell. Everything reminds us of the person we lost — a song, a favorite place, a specific meal, nostalgic smells, household items.

After my Dad died, I particularly clung to items he had more recently purchased for me. I have memories of driving him around in the rain one day, because it was important for him to have something to do or look forward to each day. We found ourselves at a store perusing home decor, and he picked out some things for me, including a pearlescent blue and green plate in the shape of a flower. I remember scolding him on the way back to the car as the rain poured down and he insisted on carrying our purchased wares himself; I was terrified he was going to slip and fall in his weak state. But he was proud to usher home these things for me, and I let him.

For years my family and I split rent on a home in California so they could frequently visit my husband and I from Arizona, and we morphed our styles and unused family furnishings. Time passed after my Dad’s death, and my design style evolved greatly. What was once a shared style between my parents and I dissipated after my husband and I bought our own home. I experimented with my newfound aesthetic, and pieces of my parents’ influence began to fall away.

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Some things were given away to friends or donated, and others shuffled around the house — some of them to the dark corners of the closet or garage. Every time I removed something, I thought my Dad would be disappointed. I felt my stomach drop — every time. A framed print, a table, a rug, a decorative object: was I erasing him? As time barrels forward and I’m left trying to remember what advice he’d give me on a rough day, or what he’d order to eat at a certain restaurant, am I doing myself a disservice in choosing to remove the tangible memories?

When I do finally remember exactly what he’d say about this, I realize the answer is no.

He’d tell me we can’t take it with us. He’d shake his head and chuckle at me for vacillating over whether or not to keep a vase he once got me, or a years-old candleholder he forgot he even owned. He’d remind me to keep the special things between us — the ones that brought the best memories. He wouldn’t want me, or my family, burdened with the things he left behind. Moving on from these tangible memories doesn’t mean I don’t love or miss him more than I can fathom. It’s a hopeful, progressive part of the grieving process.

In my house now, I can count a few items on one hand in each room that hold good memories of him. Like the small red hutch with built-in wine storage (he loved red wine), framed vintage Bruce Brown surf film posters he found for a few bucks apiece, and the flower plate, which moved around the house until it landed on a bookshelf upstairs. In the closet of my daughter’s room I have a few of his shirts he wore when visiting me in California, and we would walk around our beach town at night after dinner, talking about music. In a few boxes there are things I’ll probably relinquish to donation bins next, but I’m not there yet.

I’m encouraged by my Mom’s slowly dwindling collection in her garage.

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A couple of weeks ago she was standing in her garage, watching as a volunteer from Goodwill hauled the old items onto his truck. All steeped in some memory of my Dad, one way or another, she allowed them to be plucked from the refuge of her keeping. She was handling the process remarkably well, even surprising herself, until the volunteer loaded up the leather recliner.

“He could tell I was hesitating,” my Mom told me. “He asked if I was alright with him taking it, and he asked ‘what memory does it bring you? Is it a good one or a bad one?’ And I trusted him, because he said he does this a lot; he goes to people’s homes where someone has passed away. It’s amazing how many emotions are attached to some of this stuff, he said.”

My Mom answered him, “Well, we bought the chair when my husband was sick. He never sat in the chair when he was healthy.”

The volunteer looked at her and asked, “Do you have another chair he loved when he was healthy?” and my Mom said “yes.”

He smiled: “Focus on that one.” —Kelli

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Comments

  • My Mother passed away from Ovarian cancer that had spread significantly July 31, 2011. I still hang onto hold pantie hose of hers, she was a big swing dancer and business woman so her tights and hosiery collection was vast. After listening to the Girlboss podcast interview of Grace, I came to the site and this is the first entry I have explored. It was meant to be. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and photos and inspiring others. Please thank your Mom as well. In love and light…

  • this was a wonderful article. My grandmother passed 18 months ago and I took half her furniture… It’s mid century and it feels special to see her things here… I have a lot of vintage items I have collected, and I have been selling those off. I would rather have grandma’s belongings in my home… but there is a fine line with keeping too much… storing items. I have some things I will need to let go of. I keep trying to pass them off on other family members… I guess I’m the only “object sentimental” one, lol

  • This essay is actually really well-timed for me. My father died last December and I’ve had all of his things from a storage unit and his truck (he was a long-haul truck driver) stacked carefully in boxes, like Tetris, in my garage ever since. I just started going through them a couple of days ago and although most of it is tools and vehicle service receipts, a good portion of it has been like a punch in the stomach. Who knew I could be so sentimental about a coffee mug? Who knew I could feel such crushing guilt and sadness over throwing away insignificant things he in all likelihood had forgotten he even owned? Grief as it relates to objects is a really hard thing to navigate. I just keep telling myself that I’m doing it the right way for me, because there’s no wrong way to feel in this kind of situation.

  • Thank you so much for sharing. My fiance passed away this past April and I’ve already had to get rid of some of his stuff due to having to down size. It was hard, these things are never easy, but like the Goodwill guy said focus on the things with the good memories. So the things that are left, are the good memories.

  • I sobbed as I read this, too raw, too real for me. Loss never leaves us, but on the flip side it’s the penalty we pay for having experienced love.

  • I had an on and off relationship with my mother. We weren’t talking when she passed but my brother and I managed to coordinate donating or keeping her things with peace. After it was all said and done, I regretted throwing a pillow I had made for her in the donation pile. I would check our two local St Vincent De Paul’s every now and then, hoping to spot it, as if it would help me have closure. I finally moved on, thinking that one day I’ll spot it on Etsy or in a garage sale and THEN I’ll get closure. It’s a good reminder that things are just things and it’s better to place value on the good memories instead. Thanks for the reminder.

  • my dad died about six months ago, and he only lived in their house for a year. they had downsized from an old two story house on a 40 acre farm to a 60s ranch in the suburbs.
    i am often very thankful they did that move before he died, when we were still hopeful that he’d get better, because it made downsizing their belongings so much easier.
    my mom has spent the last two months renovating her house, largely because the master bedroom and bathroom had only ever been his while sick, and she couldn’t stand to move in to it when it looked like it did when he was dying.
    she vacillates between being greatful that she has the means to make these changes (my dad had significant life insurance that has paid for the changes) and excitement to have the house just how she wants it, and feeling guilty for using the insurance money and that my dad will never get to enjoy the house as it is now.
    i don’t know what the point of my musings are, i guess, but this is hitting very close to home for me.
    the one thing we did right after he died (about a week after the funeral) that i think was very good, is we got rid of everything that was specific to him as he was sick. all the tracksuits that he bought because he got so skinny, all the home health and mobility aids, all the furniture like the author’s dad’s “sick chair.” it was all so incredibly sad to be reminded of how hard he fought to improve (he died two years after a transplant, effectively due to complications from the transplant) but never did, and my mom couldn’t get to the process of mourning her loss while being reminded of how sad his last two years were. so i’m glad we did that.

    • Thanks for sharing, Alice. We share experiences in that at first, our freshest memories of them are the sick ones, so we think we need to hang onto the recliner and the tracksuits. But once we dig further back in our grieving memories, we get to the healthy memories and the way they’d want to be remembered :)

  • We buried my father 9 months ago today. Having just read this essay, Facebook messaged to me by my sister, I wept softly. My heart spurt. Dad died in the kitchen, his favorite room in the house, built with my mum, almost 40 years ago….memories, mementos, food, recipes & things &…stuff…. I struggle daily w little altars to him – a workhat, watch, lock of hair….a tattered tshirt… Every morning, the ritual of solo cup bialetti stovetop coffee making honours his gift & Italian heritage….. There’s so much more…My gratitude to the author… The mere reading of this text is a tool to letting go that our stories are isolated. In grief, I feel connected & understood in my story & my family’s trajectory in losing & continuing to love our papa. xo

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, you finding peace and healing in reading this gives me peace and healing in return, Carina.

  • What a beautiful, touching and sad/uplifting post this is. I cried reading on and I am often thankful that, when my parents (when both were still alive but my dad already too weak to be left in my blind mum’s care) moved to a senior citizens residence, they had to get rid of most of their stuff. A few precious pieces of sentimental value got distributed to those around (I lived abroad and couldn’t have taken anything anyhow), the rest went to good ’causes’. Now that my mum might not live too much longer, she won’t leave any of her children with the task of clearing out much – and we all are treasuring our parents every day, with and/or without touchable mementos.
    The chap taking off furniture off your mum was wonderful…. I pull my hat to him – pls give fondest greetings to your strong mother. She took the right decisions – and thank YOU for this article and the two lovely photos. Hugs from across the big pond.
    And may all of you go to vote!

  • Beautiful and timely for me. This is something I think about a lot as my mother is in her decline. Thank you.

  • Beautiful Kelli….grief is a hard lesson..difficult to go through. But it is amazing how much we grow as human beings while dealing with it as well as watching friends and family deal with their sadness. We miss your dad too, he would be so proud of the 3 of you. Your mom is still amazing and it is wonderful to watch her truly smile & laugh again. I listen to her talk about all the new things but can hear her still feel a little of the guilt. Your dad would want her to move forward with her life – she gave him everything while he was here & then some. She deserves to be happy- as do you, Erin & Cameron. Cherish the memories and remember the laughs. Thanks for the article – it was a wonderful read – as I sit here wearing my dad’s pajama shirt -it is like he is hugging me from heaven this morning.

  • One of the things I did when my grandmother died was photograph every room in her house, as it was at the time. Before we started moving and shifting things. That has been quite comforting to me – to be able to remember her *place* as she had it.

    Family relations were fraught, and the reality was that I had an afternoon to take whatever portable mementos I thought I might want, without discussing it with anyone else (which was awful – what if I took the vase I thought was pretty, but was really *meaningful* to someone else? Who takes the photo albums?)

    But it did pare things down very quickly and easily, and it feels almost satisfying, somehow, to have just three items to focus on.

  • What a beautiful essay. I teared up at the end, and am reminded how important it is that we reach out to each other as human beings, even in seemingly small ways, even when we are strangers.

  • Thank you for writing about this. While reading your voice and your story, my own stories pop up and converse. And I think about fugly things my husband and I can not let go of, I am talking to you, pink-chintz china egg, on gold stand!) as well as the lovely ones we use every day (the etched glass stemware water glasses, that I prefer over any other drinking vessel, daily! Not just for holidays!)

    Our people ARE always with us, and the pain of loss is sure persistant, and that is how it is, for sure.

    The practiced wisdom of that Goodwill truck driver, who asked “Do you have a chair he used before he was sick? Then hang on to THAT one”…that is compassion at its best.

    There is almost a superstious feeling, for sure, about parting with things that our loved ones selected, used, handled. The things are witnesses, with us, of the real-ness of their missing masters and mistresses. There is a fear of being even more alone, by letting the things go!

    At the same time….I am a frequent and avid second-hand shopper, and visitors frequently say “it is so cozy here! Or “it is so nice!” I know it is not the cost of anything adding up to being pleasing, it is that these things have spent time making a home before, they were carefully chosen and proudly displayed before, they have been part of a home-sweet-home before, wether it was with someone I was close to, or a stranger that I never got to meet (but I know we would have gotten along!)

    So here’s hoping the things that I let go of get re-shuffled in the same way, picked up where they are appreciated anew, by somebody without the sad memories, only fresh, glad eyes for them.

  • I recently lost my father, and spent the last two days going through my parents belongings. I randomly fell across this blog article, and started reading, searching for insight. Suddenly I became fixated upon the “Bruce Brown” vintage poster. Why? My Dad’s name…Bruce Brown. Coincidence or message from heaven? I’ll go with the message from heaven.

  • Such a beautiful post, Kelli. My Mom and I had to sell our childhood home 2 years ago after my Dad died from cancer, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I still pass the house almost every day, and sometimes I want to turn up that familiar street, and drive into the driveway and sit my car in the garage. I miss it a lot.

    • Thank you for sharing, M. I know the feeling, it will probably always be hard, but focus on the memories and what they gave you :) Sending you good thoughts!

  • I’m glad that cleaning out is good for you. For me, I do not clean out; touching things connects me to my lost family

  • Thank you for sharing this. My father took unwell while visiting me n we lost him to ild all in a matter of 2 months. After I returned home… It took me a month n a half before I had the courage to go back in the room he stayed in at my place. Losing a parent creates a hollow within oneself.. seeing them suffer and go is even more terrible. I am finding strength with each passing day focusing on all the love he spread.

  • Thank you for sharing your story Kellie.
    My Dad died last year and now my mom is down sizing and moving to a smaller house that is more manageable & comfortable for her. We as a family are helping her decide what to take & what to give away. It has been an interesting process for me as my attachment to “things” is very different than my sisters. The process has brought a new level of compassion & understanding that I had never experienced before. It has been a reminder to me that grief is a personal journey & we all navigate it in different ways.

  • What a great article- we lost my dad in the Oso mudslide 3/22/14- my parents didn’t live in the slide zone, he owned his own plumbing business and was there for a small Saturday morning job. Though its been almost three years, my mom still has some of his clothing hanging in the closet. She has managed to change some decor in the house, saying she needed to make the house look less like the home the made together, I don’t think she actually got rid of anything, instread I believe its all hiding in the garage. I’m going to show her this article- I think it helps her to realize that many people who lost someone deal with the same complicated feelings towards “stuff” they owned or that reminds them of their loss. Thank you for such a personal and insightful article!

  • Thank you for such a thoughtful and real life post – this is one of the countless invisible struggles of many who have lost a loved one and I found your words to be so poignant.

  • Some things one should not shed. I have treasured mementos from family members long deceased. My children, and grandchildren love hearing about them. They no longer cause pain, but love and joy and attachment to the past which is so lost in today’s sleek and shiny homes. Hoarding is another issue entirely.

  • We recently said goodbye to two of our dear family members. In clearing the homes, we found all sorts of treasures that brought such memories we thought long forgotten. We knew we couldn’t keep everything so we shared what we could with family, gave to the thrift shops and gave to the church sale. In the process of passing the items to new owners, we took clear photographs of each item that held a special memory. We then put a photo book together, adding the memory as the photo’s caption, some items had two or three stories! The final book has been copied and shared with more than one family member. Oh and my mother in law’s bridge group requested copies!

  • Thank you for journaling your journey of grief. I too lost my mother this July, the last of my family, Dad died 12 yrs ago, my only sibling died 7 yrs ago and I am all that’s left. Mom purchased a sofa for our home a few years ago. It was a cheap one in the back room of the shop, cheaper yet because of some damages. I didn’t want her to spend much. After a few years it was no longer fitting me well with my back issues. This fall I purchased another and sold that one last week. I never knew how hard it would be to see it leave our home. The stories that we shared as I sat on the sofa and reminisced with her came to mind along with the tears as I let go of it knowing I couldn’t hold on to it. Mom had dementia, the hardest thing for me was her memories were leaving her and sometimes she didn’t even recognize me anymore. It’s tough, but I have wonderful memories of my family to hold on to. Thank you.

  • Like you and some of the readers above I lost my dad 15 months ago to cancer. Watching such a strong and dominant man whither away in front of my eyes with him knowing what was going to happen was utterly heartbreaking. I find it difficult to remember the good times as all I seem to recall right now are the bad times leading up to his passing. Hopefully in time I´ll be able to look at a photo of him holding my son when he was just born or remember him playing football in the garden with all the kids with the happy memories they deserve but it´s still too raw. Thanks for your sharing your feelings and I wish positivity and love to you and your family.

  • This post caught my eye – I lost my mother 10 years ago and the items I’ve kept have dwindled down to the essentials. She also had neuroendocrine cancer – and I have never heard of anyone else who has had it. Thank you for sharing <3

  • My divorced mom died of a glioblastoma when I was 22. I am now 38, and Kellie expressed this feeling perfectly. My style had not yet been fully forged (and it’s regularly evolving), but it is definitely different from my mom’s. As I struggle under the weight of things, I have to remember that she would say the same thing: keep the important stuff and pitch the rest! And she would laugh about the dishtowel that I still use that is in rags and she would scold me about the ugly paperweight we bought at an art fair. It is so comforting to know that others really struggle with this, and that it’s ok to say goodbye to some of these material objects.

  • Thanks Kelli, I found it very difficult to work through my late husband’s possessions and that of his parents who predeceased him. It was so confronting it was life changing. Twenty years on and I am now a counsellor, coach and consultant helping support clients through life transition and grief recovery from any major loss and especially bereavement and multiple losses. I refer my clients to professional organisers for hands-on-organising.

  • My mom died 10 years ago and I still have a house and garage full of her items. It’s been very hard to let go, but your words helped me go through 8 boxes today. I’m completely alone in this process, which I think is why I’ve just left it, with no one looking over my shoulder. But it’s not where I have ever wanted to be nor is it where my parents would ever want me to be (both deceased.) It’s so frustrating to know that it’s now taken up a significant portion of my life and stolen peace from me by having this task hang over my head every day. Thank you for your words and reminding me that others struggle with this too.

  • Beautiful article…..it is VERY difficult to part with things associated with someone we love. Thanks for writing this!

  • Thank you for this brilliant article! My dad died suddenly Christmas Eve in my senior year of high school. For the entirety of that day I spent time rereading letters and notes he had written me while away at camp or other important milestones. With great excitement I discarded every one of those letters and prose with a knowing that I would be going to college in the coming months and the letters from Dad going forward would likely be infinitely packed with other wisdom, humor, and guidance.

    By midnight my Dad was gone. No letters to anchor me accepting that I had “etched all of him in my heart” and that carried me through many future opportunities of missing him. Suffice to say by “letting go” I was free to grow in other ways always and in All Ways seeking to re-member with a powerful influence. Thank you for validating my experience all of these years later.

  • I came by this site by a hotlink from another artist’s site. I find it very timely for many of us who are walking with our parents in the last days of their lives. My father died a year ago at 94, having outlived his wife, parents, one son who died early in life, and walked with me during the last 5 years of his life as we triaged his affairs, sold his last home where he hoped to die, and moved him into a retirement home. It became our journey together, and I viewed it as such. I left my military career and spent 5 years with my military dad, with whom I had always been close and the youngest of 3. We talked all the way through the passages of letting go, selling the house, the car, keeping some photos, giving away furniture, making trips to the dump for other things. My brother wished for all household affects from his little cottage at the home and then casually sold them off for money. I treasured key items and took them home with me bit by bit. When it was all done, there were but the framed photographs from his nursing room, a Samsonite briefcase, some cards, the few things which listen to quiet conversations of our last moments together. After burial at Arlington, I was pleased finally, that we had painfully walked this journey. My task was finished and each remainder is a bit of goodness around me. The pain & suffering of the journey is now eclipsed by rest.

  • Just from reading this article and seeing the photos, I can tell that your dad was a really cool guy. And your mom sounds brave and strong. You clearly take after both of them. Thank you for this beautiful article.

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