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The Stuff We Leave Behind

Greg didn't have a lot of stuff. He wasn't into clothes or shoes, didn't have a hobby that required equipment or trinkets. He preferred to live simply and most of his treasured possessions were books, boardgames, or notes from people he cared about. Still... one someone dies, they leave a lot behind.

I've had the luxury of not having to move in the years since he died which has allowed me to put off what some widows immediately face: what to do with the stuff left behind.

At first, I didn't want any of Greg's stuff moved. None.

Every morning when he came downstairs, Greg would put his black Yeti in the same spot on an end table where it remained until he filled it with ice water before taking it upstairs at night. The day he died, his Yeti didn't make it back upstairs. It stayed in its usual place even after his body was taken from our home. Afterward, I couldn't bear to have it moved. It was months before I moved it to a different (still visible) place, then into a cabinet and finally, into a memory box where it remains safely tucked away.

Our relationship with our person's stuff changes after they die. The Yeti hadn't been very significant when Greg was alive. Sure, it was a Father's Day gift in 2018 (it's hard to shop for someone who prefers to live simply!) and he appreciated its ability to keep drinks cold, but it was just a cup. Then he died and it became Greg's cup. Daddy's cup. It was tangible proof that he'd existed and still mattered even though he wasn't with us anymore.

Early in my grief journey, I was warned about the extremes people take with their person's stuff: getting rid of everything only to regret it later, or getting rid of nothing and keeping it exactly as it was for years and even decades later. Aside from the extremes, there seemed to be no "right" or "wrong" way to handle Greg's stuff. Since I didn't have a pressing need to sort it quickly, I was encouraged to take my time and face it when I was ready.

For at least a year, the idea of getting rid of anything of Greg's made me feel sick to my stomach. But every once in a while I would see something and feel okay about moving it or packing it away. After a year and a half I emptied out 3 of his dresser drawers and moved some of my stuff into them. I switched our closets around, got rid of some clothes he hated, and kept his favorite shirts on hangers. I slowly made some other changes too. Nearing two years, I put a slip cover on his favorite chair, covering up the print that I once loved but now reminded me of his death. Then I banished his favorite couch pillow (now tattered from years of use) from the living room. Last month, as I approached the three year anniversary of his death, I painted our kitchen - covering over the yellow that he liked but I'd grown tired of long before he died.

As I crossed the threshold of 3 years, I felt ready to pull out the bins of Greg's clothes and take another look at them. I kept most of them. Seeing his shirts brought back a flood of memories and I found myself only able to give away the ones that didn't carry the weight of memory. I gave a few items to family, emptied out his last drawer, and tucked some of his favorites into the bin I'm keeping for our son.

There's much more left to sort, but I still have the luxury of time. One day, we will move from this home and I will have to make some hard decisions: pairing down the bins of Greg stuff to just a few and giving away the majority of things that make Greg's presence feel tangible still. I know that day's coming and I dread it.

I dread it because every time I get rid of his stuff, I feel like I'm getting rid of Greg. In my head I know that I cannot possibly lose him any more than I did the day he died. But my heart still wants to cling to the proof that he was here. His clothes, his preferences, his board games - the things that fill our home with reminders of his presence - make it feel like he's still here in some small way. I've been careful to not let our home become a shrine to the past, but his presence is still sprinkled throughout it. Every bag of his stuff that leaves our... my... home is one less piece of his presence left behind.

In Luke 12:15, Jesus said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”. Oh how true this is. Greg was buried in his favorite clothes but it made no difference to him - just to us. Nothing he possessed mattered in his final hours. There was not a single thing - not even the medical devices and bins of medication- that could save Greg's life when it was time for him to go Home to Jesus. Yet, the things he left behind matter to us- far more than they did when he was alive. It's a hard tension to live in and an aspect of grief not often discussed.

So for now, I'm taking it slowly and gently. I'm letting myself enjoy the presence of what he left behind, even though I know that I can't possibly hold on to him.


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