Clutter and Grief

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Clutter and Grief

There are many reasons why one might struggle with clutter in their homes, but one of them is grieving, which can be the result of a number of losses. Grief, in fact, may manifest in one’s environment as accumulation from indecision and exteriorizing one’s inability to release someone (or something).

When clutter amasses in one’s dwelling after a loss, it’s important to respect that person’s state as, chances are, you might not know exactly what they are going through. Grief-induced clutter is very different in nature and magnitude than say, occasional situational clutter (like when your cousin’s family stays for two weeks and everything ends up in a disarray).

Longstanding clutter could be a sign that someone is stuck in the grieving process, in which case counseling or professional organizing services might be appropriate. Disorganization and clutter can have many sources including:

  • Depression and lack of energy.
  • Difficulty prioritizing and assigning value to sentimental items.
  • Lack of focus and inability to concentrate.
  • Feelings of overwhelm, by the “administrative” duties of burying someone (bills, estate issues, medical bills, social security, etc.).
  • Lack of bereavement support (in the case of a death).
  • An inability to accept the loss, whether it’s a death, an illness, a job termination or a breakup.

While there are things you can do to help loved ones who are struggling with clutter and grief, such as offering to help them sort, clean and organize, sometimes professionals are better equipped to help them move through their feelings and their attachment to things they associate with the object of their loss. Of course, the professionals should be specifically trained in the area of grief and, in the case of professional organizers, clutter and grief.

Losses can take many faces, including bereaved loved ones, relationship breakups, job terminations, or even empty-nest syndrome. Everyone experiences sudden life changes differently, and it’s important not to judge the magnitude of your loved one’s grief. It’s more productive to simply find ways to be supportive.

If someone you care about is struggling with loss-related clutter issues, it’s important to respect their feelings. You may think it’s strange that they want to keep a deceased person’s shoes after they die, for instance, but insisting they are being ridiculous or trying to pressure them into tossing them may do more harm than good. While you may find their attachments to be disproportionate or think it irrational of them to say, “he might need them (the shoes) when he comes back,” that level of denial is extremely common among people who lose someone. That denial stage is, in fact, a normal grief stage, and for some, throwing something away is like throwing someone away. This is not something to take lightly.

Some people may want to immediately discard or give away the person’s belongings and this isn’t necessarily a healthy response to loss either. They could be actually denying the person existed by erasing all the signs. Again, professionals may be better equipped to deal with grief-related issues, and it’s important to treat your loved ones with kindness and respect.

For those struggling with grief clutter, throwing things away and criticizing them isn’t likely to be helpful. Gentle communication, non-judgment, and allowing them to feel empowered and make their own decisions and connections will help them get through their crisis and grief and move onto the next stage.

While professional help for grief-related clutter issues may be in order, there are some practical things one can suggest or offer to help with, that might make a short or long term difference to a survivor of a loss:

  • Ask if it is appropriate to set a time in the future to go through belongings with family members.
  • Offer to help them box up some items for temporary storage – even to get them out of view until a final decision can be made.
  • Offer to help them sort items into boxes and label them.
  • Offer to help them sort and donate unwanted items to a charity, provided they are emotionally ready for that step.
  • Create a “sad box,” a “treasure box” or some other clearly marked place to store special mementos or even those things that might trigger strong emotions at a later date.
  • Ask the person if they can think of something you can help them with, whether it’s cleaning, organizing or communicating with others (chances are, they may not be capable of asking, or sorting it out on their own).
  • Ask them if they would like you to help them find a professional organizer or grief counselor.
  • Simply be a friend.

Jonda Beattie, a professional organizer (timespaceorg.com), shared these thoughts about grieving people:

  • When first experiencing grief, you are in a fog – time is distorted – events are unreal. There is a lack of focus, so don’t do anything major in your first year.
  • Get help in sorting through important papers as you are not capable of making big decisions.
  • The easiest items to let go of are personal items of the deceased that mean something to someone else. Example: my husband’s wedding ring had his family crest on it so it was easy to give it and some of his most personal items to his son. My mother had many things that some of her friends would really enjoy and cherish. These were easy to give away.

Jonda has several blog posts on her site about preparing for death, including one on death and digital assets, an informative read.

Grief-induced clutter is something deserving of tender care, gentle support and, in some cases professional help. You can find grief therapists in your local yellow pages or in online directories, and for professional organizers, try the Find a Pro section on the NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) website, or contact Jonda on her website.

Do you have any thoughts or ideas about clutter and grief you’d like to share? Feel free to comment.

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