Belongings, Keepsakes and Time

June 30, 2023, Hospice

Belongings, Keepsakes and Time

My father’s military IDs have been on my table looking up at me for weeks now, since I found them tucked away. They weren’t part of the things my family divided up just after he died, and now I’m wondering who will want them as keepsakes:

  • My oldest brother because he likes to hold on to things for sentimental reasons?
  • My other brother, because he wants to preserve family history?
  • Or me, who just likes seeing a younger version of my father?

I’m thinking it may be a little easier to decide now that some time has passed.

In the Early Months

What happens in those early months, though, after our loved one’s passing, when their belongings are such vivid reminders of who they still are to us? They remind us of what they once pursued, enjoyed, loved or collected. We may fall into the camp of wanting to leave things where they are for a while, finding comfort in the familiar. It can allow us to momentarily forget what has happened, in that foggy way our brain gives us some protective denial of reality.

We may fall into the other camp of needing to move things of our loved one that feel too painful to see every day: photos, clothing, a toothbrush. Maybe we find we need to take some control over our surroundings and make changes early on that help us see a way forward without them.

Whichever way that happens for us, we can accept that we grieve in our own way. It may be reassuring to know there is no right timing, other than when we are ready.

Even so, the early months can present inner conflicts when we may want or need to move our loved one’s belongings but find it difficult to do. For example, if we need space in a dresser or closet but we’re not ready to go through clothing and make decisions, storing items in covered bins can buy some time. Enlisting the help of a friend, neighbor, or professional organizer can take the sting out of handling items we’re not ready to touch.

Useful Strategies

As we navigate our own feelings about our loved one’s belongings, we may have family or friends advising, asking or even demanding how and when things will be distributed. Sometimes a deadline for clearing an apartment or packing to move or sell a home drives the timing. We may not always have the chance to deal with it entirely as we would want to.

In these circumstances, it can help to consider some useful strategies:

  • Negotiating with others for a future date to decide on belongings, and putting a specific timing to it, can reassure them that we won’t put it off indefinitely, and we are considering their request.
  • Asking a friend or someone supportive to help pack, and during the packing process playing upbeat music that has no ties to our loved ones can be a welcome distraction.
  • Breaking up the task into smaller chunks of time and giving ourselves something pleasant to do afterward can make it feel more manageable and help keep up our spirits. It can be surprising how doing something pleasant after something difficult can be just enough of an uplift to keep us going.
  • Taking photos of sentimental things that are not practical to keep can soften the blow of letting them go. At a future time, we can figure out a way to display photos of treasured items that bring us comfort or feel honoring of our loved one.
  • Considering making keepsakes out of special collections (t-shirts, hats, ties, jewelry, etc.) and setting them aside for later can provide some relief from early decision-making.
  • When it comes to dividing up keepsakes with family members, being intentional about when to request or lay claim to something and when to let someone else have it, can sometimes save relationships.
  • Moving items to a storage unit can solve an immediate problem but let us all be aware that human nature can have us paying rental fees for years instead of making decisions. Self-imposed deadlines and keeping a commitment to them can help.

Navigating what we do in the early times can be tricky at best. Our strategies will be trial and error, requiring little or big course corrections along the way. In time, our keepsakes will point us to memories, bring us comfort, and give us tangible ways to bring our loved ones with us.

Laurel Freeman, LCPC, NCC, is a Gilchrist Clinical Counselor.

One thought on “Belongings, Keepsakes and Time

  1. Pat Keller says:

    Thanks Laurel for sharing your sage suggestions. Everyone’s journey is different, as you well state.

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