When decluttering, it’s not always as simple as deciding if you practically need something or not.
You can’t always pick up a belonging, decide whether or not it sparks joy, and then let it go.
It’s not about getting rid of multiples, or ‘just in case’ items, or things that no longer serve their purpose.
It’s sometimes a little more complicated than that.
Sure, those factors can certainly help you to declutter the possessions that you don’t have much of an emotional attachment to – you don’t need duplicates, broken things, ‘rainy day’ items or impractical pieces – but these dispassionate factors don’t make it any easier to let go of things when feelings are involved. And especially when we are grieving.
That’s because, sometimes, the item you’re considering decluttering is more than just the item. It’s the sentiment behind it. The emotion you feel when it’s around. The positives (or the negatives) it brings to your life.
Happiness, nostalgia, duty, sadness, peacefulness, regret, longing, love, sentimentality, guilt.
All of these feelings could be triggered by an item and could determine whether or not you’ll find it hard to let it go, even if you want to.
So, it’s important to analyse the emotional attachment you have to the belongings you choose to keep and discover whether they are serving you well or causing more harm than good.
It’s often the case that we gain extra possessions after a bereavement. We might have been kindly left something by the deceased person or we might need to clear out a relative’s home when they go into care or die.
And, when we are already coping with such a difficult time and a complex set of emotions, it can feel like the easiest thing to do is to hold on to items and deal with them later when we feel better able to.
The difficulty with items that come to us during a bereavement is that we feel a duty to keep them. To preserve the memory of the person by cherishing their belongings.
Displaying a physical reminder of the person feels like we are honouring them. Like we are keeping them with us. Sentimental items allow us to reminisce, they serve as a prompt to remind us of the good times. That’s when an item becomes so much more than an item.
After a person dies, many of their most meaningful possessions become family heirlooms, seen by those left behind as for ever containing the lost person’s essence.Christian Jarrett (2013)
However, it might be the case that you’ve gained too many pieces and the other person’s belongings have taken over space within your home – and therefore, space within your mind. You might also find it difficult to see the items every day and be reminded that the person is no longer with you.
But it feels wrong to call it clutter. Simply clearing it out seems uncaring – the person meant something to you, so their belongings seem like they should be cherished too.
You may want to keep some pieces. There might be important items that are special to you, that encapsulate your relationship with the person. Things that make you happy to see them – nostalgic, joyful, whistful – anything that brings positive thoughts and emotions into your body is worth holding on to, if that’s what you want.
But we do already have our own possessions that fill our homes and our time, without adding another person’s belongings into the mix. You’re not being heartless if you’re considering giving any of it up, especially if you’re finding it stressful to have more items in your rooms that you’re comfortable with.
If it’s making you sad to see the items, to feel unsettled in your space, to feel guilty about having them (or letting them go) you may need to rethink whether it’s worth hanging onto someone else’s item if it is having a negative impact on your life. Deciding what to keep and what to let go can be supremely important in this instance.
The end of an era
Of course, grief doesn’t only apply to the death of a person. It could refer to the end of a relationship, a friendship that’s run its course, or a period of time – ‘the end of an era’.
Anything that triggers an emotional response can throw up the same feelings of guilt, sadness, duty, despondency, regret – or on the flip side – joy, sentimentality, contentment, well-being and so on.
Again, it can be tempting to hold on to items that remind us of the time or honour the person. And if you feel it’s positive to do so, there’s no harm in adding possessions to your collection.
But, you can also use the decluttering process to emotionally cleanse. Letting go of physical items can be a powerful demonstration of how willing you are to move on from that time in your life.
Consider the emotional attachment you have to the things you keep around you. Do you have decor around your apartment that you got during a particularly crappy time in your life? Let those things go, but decide what to let go by things about what they make you feel.Brianna Wiest (2017) pp.179
It’s true that simply having residual things from a negative time around can be triggering. It can feel cathartic to ditch those items and start afresh. Perhaps it’ll be a strong signifier to yourself that you’re willing to change or to imagine a different life ahead.
Cleaning and organising can also help to ease stress. So, if you’re currently going through a period of change or upheaval in your life, the very act of decluttering and tidying your space can help bring about feelings of calm and boost wellbeing.
However, making snap decisions when you’re already feeling emotionally vulnerable could cause regrets. You might need to give yourself time to process the end of the relationship or era before you clear out the things you negatively associate with the time.
But once, you’re feeling emotionally strong enough to experience those emotions again, you can look forward to the release that will come with letting go of the things are aren’t serving you.
When it comes to sentimental items, we worry that our memories are tied up in them and that we will forget the person or the period of time altogether if we don’t have that visual prompt. While items can and do act as a signifier of the time/person, our memories are stored in our minds, not within the thing.
So perhaps a photograph of the item would be enough of a visual reminder of those happy memories? That way, we’re not being confronted by the item each time we walk into our room – which may trigger complicated thoughts when we’re least expecting (or prepared for) it – and we can choose when we want to sit down and reminisce with the photo on our own terms.
When we’re grieving – for a person, era or relationship of any kind – emotions run high and it can be a confusing time. Showing yourself compassion no matter what feelings are thrown up is the key to processing your thoughts. And there’s no need to act quickly (unless you feel it would help) when it comes to dealing with possessions that are linked to the situation.
Give yourself the time and space to contemplate, consider and choose what items you want to carry with you and those that would, in any other situation, just feel like clutter to you.
Jarratt, C. (2013) The Psychology of Stuff and Things. [Online]. [Accessed 5th October 2023]. Available from: https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/psychology-stuff-and-things
Weist, B. (2017) 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think United States: Thought Catalog