I pull in the driveway after picking up the kids from school. They’re giggling and talking in the back seat. I hit the button for the garage door. My girls emerge from the car with arms full of backpacks, art projects and library books. I somehow balance my own laptop, this morning’s smoothie cup, packages from the mailbox and my youngest girl’s lunch bag.
The girls race inside but I hang back. I walk slowly through the garage past the rows of boxes, the bikes and the stacks of framed pictures. My heart trembles again with a mix of shame and heaviness. I feel shame that we still have all this stuff in our garage despite moving here more than a year and a half ago. The heaviness hangs stagnant in the air because I don’t really want to face the task of sorting again.
I live in one of those neighborhoods where most people pull into their pristine garages with polished concrete floors. Meanwhile, we have a garage full of junk. At least that’s what I imagine people thinking. Someone driving by would never know there are treasures in those boxes, remnants and keepsakes of another life, the traces of a husband and daddy gone to Heaven too soon.
This is the remainder. The stuff left behind.
My husband was diagnosed with stage four melanoma cancer in May 2014. Our little rental on Harrison Street was the hub for family and community gatherings. We had an amazing backyard where I hosted my weekly workout group, volunteer meetings for the non-profit we ran and countless play dates. That summer, our home morphed into a medical care facility. Our master bedroom transformed into a hospital room, a visitor center, a resting place.
My husband graduated to Heaven less than four months after his diagnosis. I knew I couldn’t stay in that house but I needed time to sort through the grief, the memories and the stuff we had accumulated together over the years.
A little more than a year later, I found myself signing the papers for a new home across town near our favorite regional park. I put my name on stacks of paperwork – each page reminding me that I was indeed a widow stepping into a new life without my beloved. Was it any coincidence that the name of the man selling the house to us had the same rare name as my husband? Tears streamed down my face as I signed my name next to his on all those papers. No mistake. No accident. I was reminded of God’s perfect and wild provision for the girls and me.
After signing the papers, I went home and got to work. It was time to begin sorting.
I didn’t anticipate how difficult this part would be. Moving is hard at the base level. It’s exhausting to pack up your life when life is still moving forward. Whether you are married, have kids, or are single, it takes time to categorize and put things in boxes. In my move from the Harrison house, I discovered the work and emotions are magnified when grief is tangled in the process.
I tried my best to simplify things. I organized things in three rough categories: stuff I wanted to keep, stuff I wanted to share with others, and stuff I wanted to donate. Of course, the process was much more complicated than I expected. While it was easy for me to give away my own excess clothes and the kids’ toys, it was excruciatingly hard to decide what things of my husband’s to give away. Should I keep his shirts, his shoes, his journals, his G.I. Joe collection, his books, his CrossFit equipment, his childhood photo albums? What would be meaningful for my girls’ to have? What would we want in the future? My mind swirled with a thousand questions and angles to look at each piece.
I had about a month to prepare for our move. I quickly discovered I needed to tackle it in chunks. It was too heavy for my heart to bear at once – not to mention parenting three kiddos and sorting through their stuff at the same time. Some days I had energy to get the job done. Other days I was paralyzed by the decisions in front of me.
I am especially grateful for a few dear friends who came to help me wade through the hard decisions. One friend came to help me sort through his office. We made a box for keepsakes and items with sentimental value. We shared some tears. He also helped me purge and shred items that I didn’t need anymore. The moral support was a priceless gift.
Another friend came to help me in the final days before the big move. She saw the weight I was carrying as I agonized over what to keep for my girls for the future. My friend grabbed a large box and handed me a sharpie. She instructed me to write the words “Daddy Time Capsule” on the side and urged me to throw in any last items. “You can save these for the girls and just sort through them in the future,” she told me. I sighed relief.
These were just the words I needed.
Some days I beat myself up because I couldn’t get through the sorting faster. Now I look back and realize how important it was to take time. It was a journey not just of the hands, but of the heart as well. I had lived 11 years with my man. It wasn’t a season to be purged in a day.
And I’ve discovered this is how grief is. It’s a multi-layered process that takes place over time. I might try to just pull in the driveway, close the garage door and move on with my life, but three years later the memories are still vivid. I have to give myself grace to peel back layer by layer to sort through box upon box.
I write today to encourage those of you who are facing the difficult work of sorting through a loved one’s things. First, I urge you to carve out time for this task. There are circumstances that require a quick move but if you can help it at all give yourself time. Schedule days when you can move through the memories. Don’t do it all at once. Invite a friend or family member to help you.
And finally, give yourself grace because in the sorting there will be grieving. And that is important work too.
Next week I’ll be sharing some practical and creative ideas to preserve items and honor the legacy of a loved one who has died. Comment below if you have any stories or tips on how you sorted through your loved one’s stuff. What did you keep? What did you pass on? Where do you keep the most treasured items?
Last month I did a series on “Navigating Grief When Life Moves Forward.” In case you missed it, I encourage you to check out some of the articles or share with a friend who is grieving:
The Garden – an introduction to the series
Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children
Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey
When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids
Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey
When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline
When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love
When You’ve Experienced Pregnancy Loss – a guest post sharing a first-hand experience with miscarriage and stillbirth.
Navigating Grief When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly – a guest post sharing about the sudden death of her mother.
Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?
I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!