“I used to complain about all of the laundry that my son generated, especially the socks. He used to change them about three times a day because he was so active. A few weeks after he died, it hit me…no socks in the laundry. It made me realize…he is gone. I would give anything now for a laundry basket filled with his dirty socks.”
— A Bereaved Mother
What makes an object special to someone often has less to do with the object itself and more to do with the memories attached to it. For those who are mourning a loss, anything touched or worn by the departed can become an item to treasure. A favorite shirt, the chair he or she always sat in, the lawnmower in the basement that he never got around to fixing, the recipe box that she never got organized — anything that is a poignant reminder of the person and his or her interactions with the family can become a kind of shrine. The person may be gone, but the item is still here. It’s as if concrete objects help us somehow manage the abstractness and emptiness of death. Objects that hold the scent of the loved one are especially precious.
What to save? What to give away? These are universal questions, with as many individual answers as there are individuals. And, as is often the case, one person’s treasure may be another person’s trash. It is very important to honor a grieving person’s sense of the sacred. Well-meaning relatives and friends may too quickly offer to “clean out” a closet, attic, garage, or office. They may inadvertently toss away something that had meaning — something “sacred.” They may think that by cleaning out the closets, it will provide some “closure,” when, more often, it just creates an empty space.
Recently, my aunt discovered an item that my mother, who died in 1980, had cherished and preserved. The fabric had yellowed with age and the lace had grown stiff, yet its significance remained. A note was found along with the tattered, frayed fabric. Although this note may seem like just another piece of paper to some, it is the most sacred object that I have from my mother. It reads:
NOTE: This is Karen’s baby pillow — used in her carriage. Don’t ever throw away.
The personal items of famous people are auctioned off for millions of dollars; the personal items of our loved ones are priceless.
On 15 Feb 2006
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.