Keep, donate, or toss

If only the choice was that simple!

Katie Hawkins-Gaar

File this experience under #FloridaProblems: I had my home fumigated for termites last week. The process is pretty intense, and preparation involves removing all people/pets/plants and food/medication/perishables from the home during treatment. My partner, dog, and I made the most of it by spending a few days near the beach, which was nice (the pest control worker jokingly called it a “fumication”). Being back in our termite-free home is even nicer.

Prepping your house for fumigation is sort of like preparing to move to a new place, except you’re only packing up a fraction of your things, and will soon bring those things back into the same house. Still, there are definite moving vibes—with sorting through your possessions, packing and hauling boxes, and wondering how you own so much stuff

It makes sense, then, that I would feel some of the sadness and nostalgia that comes with moving. 

Those feelings hit me hard as I emptied out the spice cabinet. Jamie was the go-to cook in our household, and that cabinet was filled to the brim with interesting spices that he regularly used, like saffron, cardamom, and fennel. As I boxed up the spices, I tossed many that were several years old. Dumping those old spice containers in the trash seemed especially unceremonious, which made me sad. Then, I discovered an old index card wedged into the corner of the cabinet—a spice blend, in Jamie’s handwriting. Cue the tears.

Americans tend to accumulate a lot of stuff in life—a lot of it cheap, at that. For me, the burden of all those belongings isn’t tangible until I am forced to sort through it. Whether I’ve prepped for fumigation, moved to a new home, or hopped onto a home-organization bandwagon, the end result is usually the same: I wind up feeling overwhelmed.

Going through someone else’s belongings after they’ve died is a whole new level of overwhelming.

At this point, I’ve parted with many of Jamie’s things. Plenty found new homes with loved ones: his film books went to our nephew, Dane, and Simpsons DVDs and memorabilia were given to his best friend, Julian; nice clothes were offered to various friends, as did some kitchen supplies I’ll never use; less-nice clothes went to a charity shop.

Still, there are a number of things I’ve held onto—partly because I haven’t yet figured out what to do with them, but also because I’m grasping onto the belief that keeping Jamie’s possessions means keeping a closer connection to him. I feel silly admitting this; it’s been almost three years! Shouldn’t I be able to sort through the remainder of his belongings at this point?

At the start of 2019, seemingly everyone I knew, including me, went on an organizing spree inspired by Marie Kondo’s Netflix show. We asked whether the items in our homes sparked joy, and when the answer was no, we got rid of those things. It was simple and felt good ... right? 

I tried applying the KonMari method to Jamie’s things, but it didn’t stick. Her Netflix series unfortunately failed to address how to let go of stuff after death. One episode featured a widow forced to make some tough decisions around her late husband’s belongings, but it barely scratched the surface in terms of how fraught those choices can be. For me—and my mom, aunt, and so many of the other widows and widowers I’ve spoken to—figuring out how to let go of a partner’s possessions is a long, confusing, guilt-inducing journey, one that doesn’t fit neatly into a 40-minute episode.

That’s why I’m so grateful for other people who have written about their difficult decluttering experiences. In particular, I loved reading about Suchandrika Chakrabarti’s relationship with her parents’ things:

In the grip of early grief, I still felt as though my parents’ things kept me close to them. When sorting through our parents’ belongings, I had to make decisions about what the future me would want to keep. Grief is a bad state in which to make decisions, and I wanted to minimize regret. What to do with my mother’s beautiful saris, totally impractical in London’s climate—would there be a new generation one day who’d delight in playing dress-up with them? At 23, I simply didn’t know. So I kept everything I thought I might someday want.

I visited the storage unit pretty frequently in those years, my early-to-mid-20s. Somewhere in that maze of long featureless corridors, behind a corrugated metal door with a heavy combination lock, was a miniature version of my childhood home. I would spend time there on the pretext of looking for a book or an item of clothing or a photo album. The unit had become a portal to the past for me, my own personal library of our family.

The idea that belongings keep us connected to the people we miss most is tempting, but as Chakrabarti learned, it’s not true. “My parents exist now in memories and in stories rather than in objects,” she wrote. “To keep every little thing from our short time together does them a disservice. They’re so much more than that.”

Jamie is not his belongings. Still, his belongings sometimes spark happy memories for me. Other times, they make me sad. That’s why, nearly three years after his death, I’m still debating what to do with them. 

There are things that will forever remind me of Jamie, whether or not I own them: Plaid shirts, aviator sunglasses, and outrageously expensive jars of fancy jams and cherries, to name a few. There are things I’ve kept but will one day whittle down, such as his giant DVD collection. And there are things of Jamie’s that I may never part with, like his well-worn hoodie that feels like a hug whenever I put it on.

Right now, I feel good about my spice cabinet. It’s much less crowded and better organized than it was before. There’s now room for new spices, which my partner and I may add over time. There’s also room for that index card, which I tucked back into the cabinet. I’m not ready to let go of it just yet.



Good job, brain

I'm reading:Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” by Cal Newport. Has this book helped me to rethink how much time I spend on my phone? Yes! Did I still find myself mindlessly scrolling Instagram last night before reading another chapter? Oops. Baby steps, y’all. (Thanks to My Sweet Dumb Brain reader Rebekah O. for the book recommendation!) 

I’m inspired by: This take on getting older. I’m turning 35 next year, which I have a lot of mixed feelings about. This essay helped a bit.

I'm aiming to: Keep up with the #30daysofmorningpages challenge issued by the wonderful Catherine Andrews. Although I’m only three days in at this point, it feels good so far.

Additional resources

  • This New York Times opinion piece is especially poignant: Who Will Wear My Dead Husband’s Clothes?

  • Fittingly enough, “Minimalism” was the last documentary that Jamie and I watched together. It suffers from a lack of diversity and discussion around privilege, but is overall thought-provoking.

  • We are not our possessions. Still, it’s fun to see the different things that people carry. I’ve long been a fan of this photography project from Jason Travis.

  • From The Washington Post: “If you’re thinking about tidying your home through KonMari on your own, the bottom line is that it is possible. But you should prepare for a number of challenges right from the start.”

For your sweet dumb brain

Consider an object (or objects) that you’ve been holding onto for possibly misguided reasons—perhaps out of guilt, obligation, or just good old indecision. Is there a better use for it? Could you donate it, sell it, give it to a friend, recycle it, or discard it? 

Before you make any choices, think about how you could let the item go in a way that feels good to you. Maybe you’ll take a photo of the object first, or write about what it means/meant to you. Maybe you need to spend some quiet time in reflection. Or maybe you’ll decide that you’re not quite ready to let go of the thing. That’s ok, too! You can join me over here in my spice corner. 

This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who’s waging her own battle against clutter at home. Good thing she’s such a formidable warrior!