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Organizing

Cleaning Out a Space After a Loved One's Death

Letting go isn't easy, but it can be done, one day at a time

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Photography: Shutterstock

Death always brings a heavy, pregnant silence. It's never easy to return to the place you call home knowing someone is missing, and yet you're immediately faced by things that your loved one has left behind—a room, a bed, a piece of furniture. While some items may have good memories, there are others—especially in the case of illness—that can trigger trauma and intense anxiety.

How do you clean after a loved one's death? 

Take all the time you need to prepare to face the space your loved one has left, but do your best to set a specific day on when you'll start. You don't need to do a big task right away: even something small, such as sweeping the floor. Items that are disposable or those you don't have a special attachment to are easier to deal with, so working on them is a good place to start. 

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If possible, involve the persons closest to your loved one as well. "Ask family members and friends, or hire a professional to assist you," says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC on Well and Good. "This can help manage emotional triggers and reduce physical strain while going through your loved one's possessions." 

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Decluttering with family and friends can offer you the emotional support that you need, and can also be a good time to bond over the memories. With everyone important present, you can all decide which items to hold on to and which ones to let go of. Make a list of things you are deciding to keep, dispose of, and donate/sell, and take note of who will be receiving those that you decide to keep.  

Of course, it's easier said than done. There will be times when you'll get upset, or when you can't seem to let go of something that you have to, and that's okay. It's part of the process. As clinical psychologist Carla Manly says on Apartment Therapy, “So many of the objects we collect through life are imbued with the energy of the giver, the event itself, and the recipient’s own emotional cognitive state. As such, the physical item may seem to have an energy or presence of its own.” When you feel doubtful, set it the item aside first, and go back to it on a better day.

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You can't keep everything, and there will even be items that you love but you know you need to let go of. For these things, it can be helpful to create your own ritual of release. Marie Kondo's process of thanking a keepsake for the memories before letting it go can help. Acknowledging is an act of acceptance, and you'll find that this can be a gentle balm to your grief. 

Finally, be patient with yourself. Cleaning after the death of a loved one is an emotional journey through your memories that pushes you to face your loss. You don't have to put on a brave face or force yourself to be efficient. Allow the process to work on its own time. Pause, but don't stop, and with your efforts, create a space for healing. 

Additional Sources: Huffington Post, Grief and Sympathy

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