I recently listed for sale some items that belonged to my late son and so was interested this morning when I saw a just-published academic paper titled, “Understanding the process of the disposition of a loved one’s possessions using a theoretical framework of grief.”
The French researcher wrote, “This paper aims to understand how people manage the mass of objects accumulated by a deceased relative.” This is an issue many bereaved people have to deal with, of course, and it can provoke some painful and puzzling feelings. So I was curious about what she found.
Four Processes of Dealing with Belongings
The researcher interviewed only 16 bereaved people, so this might best be considered a pilot or exploratory study. Basically what she found was that the process splits into four phases, processes or chunks:
1) Numbness, paralysis and inability to do anything at all with the deceased’s possessions.
2) Yearning, trying to maintain a link to the deceased through these possessions.
3) “Personal disorganization,” which features negative emotions toward the deceased that may lead the survivor to throw things out.
4) Reorganization or reconstruction, building a new relationship to the possessions and keeping the deceased’s memory alive through them.
While this is an interesting look at some of the feelings you may experience while your relationship with your lost loved one’s belongings changes, it doesn’t answer some important questions. One of these is: Is it a good idea to hang onto your loved one’s stuff? Will it likely help or hinder your recovery? I found a study that seemed to address that.
Will Keeping A Loved One’s Items Help or Hurt?
This report, titled “The relation of continuing attachment to adjustment in conjugal bereavement,” described research by an American team. It came out in 1999 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology.
Seventy people who had lost spouses filled out standard grief assessments. (These are described in this post: Yes, You Can Measure Grief and Here’s How.) The assessments were done three times, at six, 14 and 25 months after the loss.
As another measure of their grief symptoms, they also were asked to engage in a role-play monologue talking to the deceased spouse. Then the researchers compared the subject’s rate of recovery from grief, as measured by the assessments and monologues, with the degree to which they held onto objects belonging to their late spouses.
They found that hanging onto lost loved ones’ belongings did not help and, in fact, hurt. Those who sought comfort from possessions of their late spouses did not see their grief symptoms ease up as rapidly as widows and widowers who relied less on comfort from their lost spouse’s items.
They also found that other kinds of connection, such as recalling past pleasant experiences, did help. “In contrast, attachment through fond memories was related to less distress in the role-play. The results, therefore, suggest that whether continuing attachment is adaptive or not depends on its form,” the researchers wrote.
Those who sought comfort from possessions of their late spouses did not see their grief symptoms ease up as rapidly as widows and widowers who relied less on comfort from their lost spouse’s items.
Basically, this study suggests that hanging on possessions of your lost loved one may delay your recovery. Indulging in fond memories, on the other hand, might speed your recovery.
Like all studies, this one raises some new questions. One is, how long after loss is it a good idea to dispose of former possessions of our lost loved ones? Nor does it say what amount of hanging on to possessions is likely to delay recovery. Surely it’s not best to immediately dispose of everything. That seems unlikely.
I don’t think these studies are the last word on the topic by any means. But I personally could relate to some of the findings. I’ve been upset by opening a drawer and seeing something that belonged to Brady. I’ve gone through periods when I couldn’t confront his stuff at. Then I’ll rally and be able to dispose of some of it. I also plan to hang onto some of it for the duration.
Brady’s Stuff And Me
I have a shadowbox I made of his letter jacket and personal objects like his headphones and game controller and soccer shoes. I’m procrastinating about finishing the shadowbox by fastening the objects to the back and finding a place to hang it. I guess the French researcher mentioned above would say I’m reconstructing there.
I regularly use some of his possessions to stay connected to him. I carry my laptop in his backpack and go for runs wearing his soccer jerseys. I play his guitar many times every day. The desktop PC I use for my work was his and still shows him as a user every time I turn it on.
I have gotten rid of a lot of stuff by selling or giving it away. I have a few regrets about some of the stuff I’ve unloaded, particularly back when I was really shell-shocked right after his death. I don’t regret agreeing to have his organs donated, although the process was about as much fun as a corkscrew to the eye.
Sometimes I feel like I’m losing contact with him as the number of objects of his in my possession dwindles. But I don’t think there’s much chance I’ll ever lose contact with Brady if I live to be 100 and all of his former possessions are long gone.
An Expanded Disclaimer
As is the case with every Grieve Well post, this information is presented as something you might not have thought of and might want to consider. I am not trying to tell anyone how to grieve or how not to grieve.
Much of the value of scientific research, it seems to me, is that researchers come in with different perspectives from most of us. They generally read a bunch of other research papers on a topic before deciding what to investigate or what questions to ask, so they are comparatively well-informed. And they are trained to be more open-minded than laypeople, especially when it comes to counter-intuitive explanations.
I have found that reading scientific research has opened my mind up to many different possible methods for coping with grief. Some of these, such as the search for meaning, I would likely never have thought of at all. Others I have gained new insight into.
Reading scientific research has opened my mind up to many different possible methods for coping with grief.
This is especially true when it comes to understanding what others are experiencing. It’s one thing to read a few comments about a grief topic in an online grief survivor group. It’s quite another to see the distilled insights of hundreds or thousands of people (or in these examples, 16 and 70) in a representative sample responding to a systematic investigation. I’m not saying this completely replaces swapping impressions with ordinary folks. It is a nice add-on.
I would suggest not taking any of these findings as unquestionable truth. They are suggestions about possible ways of looking at grieving. You may or may not find the evidence convincing. The strategies may or may not help you to feel any better. My hope is that many grieving people, at least, will be able to find something at Grieve Well that will ease their way even if it’s just slightly and briefly.
I’m sorry for the losses that brought you here, and hope you get some peace today.