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?
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