When a loved one dies, we are often confronted with the enormous and occasionally debilitating task of sifting through their possessions; of deciding what we can realistically keep and what we simply do not have room for (both metaphorically and literally). This sorting rarely happens quickly. Instead, it can stretch out over months.
It took Amy Paturel and her family an entire year to complete the process after her father died. They implemented it in stages, moving a lot of things into storage without even sorting through them.
“Then piece by piece, over a period of months, we would visit the storage unit and go through things,” Paturel said. One of the items she found herself wanting to keep was her dad’s “Cheers” sweatshirt.
“I still wear it occasionally,” she said. “I feel closer to him when I have it around me. I mean, it sits in my closet 90% of the time. But in those moments when a wave hits, I sometimes put it on and curl up on my bed.”
One of the things I keep is a beaded bustier and pant set made by my mentor Jorge, who died over 20 years ago. As a young man in the 1950s and 60s, he sewed elaborate drag outfits for himself before going out every weekend. He gifted me this particular ensemble sometime near the end of his life. It is not anything I could ever wear (I keep them carefully packed on a shelf in my living room closet) but they are artifacts from a distant, past time; impeccably constructed and, perhaps most importantly, the embodiment of the grace, beauty and joy that was Jorge.
Journalist Amy Jurries held on to her mother’s Betty Boop pajamas because “she absolutely loved Betty Boop. We even buried her with a Betty Boop statue.”
Robert Neimeyer, the founder and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, calls these things we keep “containers of stories,” a description that sounds both incredibly concise and accurate.
As Sherry Cormier, a psychologist and author of the book “Sweet Sorrow” explained, “I think the clothing of someone helps to reinforce the idea that, yes, this person was here, this person lived.” Cormier, herself, keeps a cabinet filled with the souvenir T-shirts her late husband purchased every time they went somewhere.
These items not only remind us that this person existed but they also provide a tangible object that shows a part of who they were when they lived.
Here’s how holding on to tangible items can help.
We all grieve differently. There is no right or wrong way to process loss, nor is there a linear sequence of stages that we must go through. The psychologists we talked to all spoke about “acute grief” and “integrated grief.”
Acute grief is that intense, at times overwhelming, despair we initially experience when a person we love dies. Integrated grief is the place we (hopefully) end up, where our loss becomes a part of the fabric of a new reality in which, despite the absence of our loved one, we can move forward. No one, though, says this is an easily accomplished state.
“Losing someone encapsulates the whole human experience,” explained Sherman A. Lee, associate professor in the department of psychology at Christopher Newport University.
“People have their own individual grief journey,” Cormier added. “There’s a popular misconception that you’re going to go through five predictable stages of grief, and they’re going to be linear. And it really doesn’t work that way.”
“The goal of acute mourning is to get to the acceptance and integration part where you are able to accept that there has been huge loss and you have a huge vacuum but you are able to get to this place where you integrate the loss into your life,” Cormier said. For some people, holding on to a person’s clothes (or personal objects) can help them through the mourning process.
“We’re beings that need things to touch and look at and smell and experience,” Lee explained. “People hang on to things to bring back those memories; to have those connections.” And that can be a good thing.
“My mum’s handbag feels like such a direct connection to her. Over the months after her death, I’ve come to realize that I still have a strong relationship with my mum, and it’s still evolving.”
– Valerie Jamieson
Clothing and objects we decide to keep can serve as (sometimes much-needed) reminders that when we lose someone close to us, we don’t lose the relationship.
“The relationship endures,” Cormier explained. “The love that we experienced with that person still goes on.” Having an object ― a container, if you will ― for those stories helps reinforce that knowledge.
After fusion scientist Valerie Jamieson’s mom died suddenly three years ago, she held on to her handbag — “a squishy, purple organizer-style handbag with lots of pockets” ― because it helped her navigate the shock and grief. For six months after her mother’s death, she spent every evening talking to, holding, and going through that handbag (and she still does it about once every month).
“We used to joke about how she could never find anything in her so-called organizer bag,” Jamieson said. “Each pocket held something very mundane and personal: a cigarette and lighter, mints, a lipstick, hearing aid batteries, a sanitary pad, handwritten lists that she made and her wallet containing photo ID and bank cards.” After six months of going through the bag every day, Jamieson unbelievably discovered a zipped pocket with a set of keys inside.
“My mum’s handbag feels like such a direct connection to her. Over the months after her death, I’ve come to realize that I still have a strong relationship with my mum, and it’s still evolving,” Jamieson said.
Psychologically, these things we hold on to are akin to the concept of transitional objects for infants. A transitional object is something that helps a baby with separation anxiety, such as a blanket or teddy bear.
“From a psychological standpoint, whether it’s an original piece of clothing or something we’ve taken and made into something else, it provides a sense of security and stability,” the same way a blanket soothes an infant, Cormier said.
Cormier believes that clothing “is something we can hold on to that helps us move from a state of acute grief into different phases of that grief; something that helps us integrate and accept the loss.”
Do these items have a chemical or biological connection?
The short answer to this question is yes, and then some.
“Grief hits on every part of your existence” Lee explained. “It is the most stressful thing humans go through.” In fact, losing a partner or spouse is considered the number one most stressful thing in a person’s life.
The attachment we feel to a deceased loved one’s article of clothing involves many of the same chemical connections in our brains as do drug addictions, Lee explained. The wanting and yearning for an individual can be similar to the craving for a particular drug; or rather, the way we feel as a result of that drug.
Lee told me that not only do people experience a chemical or biological connection to items they chose to keep, but they can also have psychological, social and spiritual ones. A loved one’s clothing also often retains the smell of the person, which can trigger specific memories about that person.
Deborah Way’s nana, Pauline, who always smelled of patchouli, carried a silk scarf with her everywhere in case of “rain, wind or a sudden draft.” When Way was in her 20s, her nana gifted her a paisley-patterned, jewel-toned silk scarf that Way didn’t like because she thought it was too “mature-lady.” When she became a “mature lady,” she started to love it.
“I feel closer to him when I have it around me. I mean, it sits in my closet 90% of the time. But in those moments when a wave hits, I sometimes put it on and curl up on my bed.”
– Amy Paturel, describing her dad’s “Cheers” sweatshirt
“I spritz it with patchouli whenever I wear it, and say hi to nana and tell her what’s new with Hazel (Way’s daughter) and how much I miss her,” Way said. When O, The Oprah Magazine (where Way had been an editor for years) closed at the end of 2020, she started an Instagram account called “The KeepThings” to which anyone can submit a story about any object (clothing or otherwise) that connects them to a loved one.
She describes it as a “Venn diagram of my personality and some of my abiding interests: love of memoir, concern with death, attachment to objects, extreme sentimentality, sucker for a beautiful story about human connection.” So far, she’s published around 120 stories. If you read through them, the connections people describe having with these items are apparent, varied, and arguably, important to each person’s grief process.
Do you let go and move on?
Science writer and editor Jennifer Huber’s father died this past summer at the age of 92. Her mom had died 29 years earlier, and the family has now emptied their family home of 60 years so it can be sold.
“All their personal belongings have been divided among family or regifted or donated with thought,” Huber told me. Her extended family has an ongoing text chain where they share photos of her parents’ things in their new homes, which seems quite a wonderful way to honor and remember them.
“Their belongings have gone to loved ones and others, spreading their love and impact out into the world,” Huber said.
Just like the entire mourning cycle, how we move on is an individual process; at times a circuitous route that only makes sense to ourselves. Which, according to the psychologists we talked to, is entirely normal. Many of us will realize at some point that we need some kind of help, which often shows up in the way of community.
“We really don’t move from acute grief to integrated grief by ourselves very well. A lot of mourners manage to heal from grief by themselves, but they do so within a community,” Cormier explained.
As Way explained about KeepThings, “The readers make it a real community; [one that is] very generous and supportive. People love to talk about their dead ones, and there aren’t enough opportunities to do so.”
“We can’t go around grief, we have to go through grief,” Cormier said.
I don’t think we ever stop going through certain kinds of grief, especially that which is the result of a loved one. We continue to go through it in many different ways as life moves on.
And sometimes, the way through involves putting on a sweatshirt that belonged to your deceased father and curling up the couch, or even just knowing that, on the very top shelf of your closet, packed carefully in tissue paper, is one of the most fabulous bustiers ever constructed by one of the most beautiful humans you’ve ever known.