I stood frozen in the doorway of my parents’ walk-in closet again, my eyes darting from Mom’s red party dress to Dad’s sports jackets. Cleaning out a loved one’s closet is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks for the one left behind. I put it off for eight years.
I’ve heard this job described many times. It’s never easy, and it’s always filled with memories. And emotion. Clothes become a part of people. They hint of character, style, personality. They harbor the memories of events – a suit for church, a dress for celebrations, a uniform for war.
My dad died 11 years ago. My mother died eight years ago. I had cleaned out all of the bedroom closets except for this one. What is obvious to the mind isn’t so obvious to the heart – for me, cleaning out the last clothes closet was like a declaration that my parents aren’t coming back.
But after all these years of inching toward cleaning out the house, I was running out of places to turn. So I landed in the doorway of their closet this weekend for the umpteenth time.
I stared at Mom’s party dress, strapless with red velvet trim. I remember it in photographs taken before she married Dad. She’s sitting in someone’s lap with a huge grin on her face. With those years behind her, she altered the dress for me the Halloween I was in second grade and painted my face with makeup. I was a princess. I won second place in the school costume contest.
My dad’s checkered sports jackets, covered in dry cleaner’s plastic, hung to the right of the dress. Having switched from an office job to delivering mail, he’d stopped wearing business clothes in the last decade or so of his life. But I’ve got so many memories of him wearing them during our trips to church. Sometimes when I’d get cold, he’d give me his jacket to wear.
I’m not sure what was different about this weekend. Maybe after having emerged much improved from weeks of illness I was ready to look ahead, not backward.
I took out the party dress and brought it home to pack away. I selected one of Dad’s sports jackets to keep and put the other two in a bag to cart to Goodwill. Within a half hour, I was finished.
Take Your Time
We need not rush this job of cleaning out closets and tossing out clothes. I’m not suggesting we wait eight years, but we shouldn’t feel pressured to confront this task the week after the funeral. We also shouldn’t avoid the job, nor delegate it. Sorting through my parents’ stuff has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It helped me sort through my grief.
Bring a Friend
Though my husband didn’t assist me this weekend in the closet, it helped having him in the house. He worked on a project in the living room while I was in back, and he’s helped me sort through other things when I’ve been stuck. Having a supportive, understanding friend to help us go through closets or drawers or other belongings is a real asset. We don’t have to do this alone.
Snap a Memory
I took photographs of the closet before I disturbed it, and I also photographed clothes I wanted to remember but didn’t keep, like Mom’s Lilli Ann dress coat. She used to brag she bought the stylish coat at a “bargain basement” price. After all these years, it was too tattered to save.
Going through our loved one’s clothes to decide the fate of their things is a difficult task but not impossible to manage. We must be gentle with ourselves. As we consider the painful process a worthwhile endeavor, we will discover bit by bit, healing meets us along the way.
How did you tackle this task? What tips would you add to the ones above?
Copyright © 2017 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved. www.tonilepeska.com
Sheryl M. Baker
Great post Toni. When my husband’s parents died, he kept one article of clothing from each that reminded him of them. His dad’s red and black plaid flannel shirt (he wanted to remember his smell) and his mother’s pink ball cap. We still have those items in closets at our home. We don’t look at them much anymore, but when we run across them looking for something else, they are there as a sweet reminder. As I ponder cleaning out my parents’ clothes closets someday, I wonder what memories will linger and what I might choose to keep to embrace the essence of each one.
As far as the photographs, I suggested that to a friend of mine whose husband had died and she was going to be moving. She had not moved anything of his after his death. Before she started packing to move, I suggested that she take snap shots of everything that she wanted to remember. Someday, if she liked, she could make them into a book. Maybe just knowing she could go back and look at them was all she needed.But the process helped her move forward.
Thanks so much for sharing. Your experience and openness will help many facing these delicate situations. Bless you.
Sheryl, thank you for sharing. We find what works for us. I am glad your husband was able to gather up those items and that your friend found comfort in taking photos. It’s great when we can all share our experiences and know we’re not alone in the task.
My husband died unexpectedly after a 6 week battle in hospital with a rare form of bile duct cancer. 10 months ago. I have always had a problem with clearing things out. Especially clothes as our youngest daughter is an actor n I have always made/ re used these fir costumes. My mum was the same fir hoarding – it will come in useful n invariably it did
My problem with my husbands clothes is that although I know I can take photos , nothing beats the feel of feeling them It’s the sense of touch that can’t be replicated when our daughters visit they disappear upstairs n as I hear the sliding door on the mirror wardrobes , I know they have their head buried in his Northern Soul t shirts , waistcoats etc
I don’t know if I’ll ever part with them. His casual trousers that he’d change into after work are still over the bannister upstairs where he left them ( n he’d probably chide me fir not putting them away as he was always so tidy)
Marysia, first, let me offer my sympathies. Your grief is so fresh. And these clothes may help you find comfort. We sound like kindred souls where keepong possessions are concerned. I completely agree that the ideal option is keeping these clothes. They can spark memories and a sense of connection and comfort. But if we find we cannot, I offered other options. I have a box full of my parents’ things. I love the memories they hold. I’m so grateful that you shared your story and perspective. Anytime. Blessings to you and your daughter.