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bench in memorium

Here in the West, we avoid talking about death. Unfortunately, sooner or later, we all live with loss.

When someone you love and live with passes away, it’s like you wake and live with their world scattered around us, and that can be so hard when processing grief. I know from experience.

Living in a state of loss is hard enough without letting it take over the home, but finding that “new normal” after someone’s death is one of the greatest struggles we face. Whether it’s your life at the moment or it’s affecting someone you care about, there are steps that can help you transition to a new life after grief.

Organization is (the start of) closure

No one wants to sort through the belongings of a recently-passed loved one, but it’s among the most important ways to deal with death. Instead, people say they’re not ready yet. Let me break it to you: You’re never ready.

If you don’t deal with it in the short-term, it’s scarier in the long-term. You forget what was in the boxes, you fear what memories you might re-open. If you’re in the short-term, you already know what you’re facing. That pain you think you’re avoiding almost becomes magnified by the passage of time.

It’s hard, sure, but it can also be powerful for healing if the sorting is done with others.

Ask for help from friends and family. Before starting, let everyone know this day of sorting isn’t just about closure, it’s about remembering together, celebrating a life. As things get organized and sorted, tell stories. Share hugs. Don’t be afraid to say, “Hey, remember when–” and keep the memories alive.

What to keep

Keeping too much means constantly being surrounded not only by their memory, but also the feeling of loss. And not every memento comes with good memories. Maybe it’s a souvenir from a vacation you only remember for the fighting. Those things can go.

Too much is too much. Instead, pick meaningful things that give you warm memories, and enlist help for projects that you can’t complete on your own. Their beloved corduroy jacket can be turned into a pillow case. A fishing hat can be hung on a hook. Eyeglasses, among the most popular things to keep from those we love, always look at home on a bookshelf. Shadow boxes can house ticket stubs from vacations or plays, other little items.

I personally truly love that idea of making throw pillows from a loved one’s favorite shirts and dresses and coats. What better way to comfort oneself on the long nights that follow loss by clutching close your your heart that old plaid shirt transformed into a big, comfy pillow? We really emotionally connect to clothes sometimes, and this is a way of not having to stick them in a box in the closet where they’re a emotional piece of clutter rather than a dark night’s comfort.

Small, significant objects

Little objects, photos, a favorite chair, their guitar or trombone, and so much more can make artful touches around the home without making the memories overwhelming. Mount their instruments on the wall to celebrate them. Use their artist’s easel as an art installation in a corner, maybe an unfinished canvas and a paintbrush at rest atop it.

I keep my mother’s eyeglasses on my bookshelf, her sailing hat hanging in my bedroom, and I live daily with her favorite antiques around me, but I’ve moved on and replaced most of her art with my own, because I know too many of the stories of her troubled artist friends who painted the works.

Find keepsakes that make you wistful and warm with memories, not things that make you sad, and either create a memory space to keep them all together, or else scatter them for little touches throughout your space.

electric guitar leaning against a white wall

Color is healing

Warm earth tones and soft, comforting fabrics can make a big impact when you’re grieving. A change of color around you can warm the space up, while disconnecting it from their life in a way. There’s something bizarre about waking up in the exact same home daily, only to be reminded that it’s missing someone who’s been a big part of that space.

Somehow, changing the color helps you accept that things are different now. There’s a new space around you, a distinctly different feel, so there’s you end the bizarre juxtaposition of same-home/emptier-life that comes in grief.

There’s no way to get around it; with grieving, there are quiet, sad nights to come. But if you’re able to paint with rusts, and reds, yellows, and other warm tones, it’s possible to have a cathartic, healing space to help that transitioning to the “new normal” and give you an artificially warmer place during darker winter months, when grieving can be at its toughest.

Boundaries: choose where you remember

Taking quality time for yourself, like a long hot bath, or a teary nap on a bad day, is what helps us through grieving. It’s important to have those safe zones. Places where you can hide from the loss or even lose yourself in it, without having to be surrounded by it.

Ensure your bedroom is full of comforting textiles, black-out curtains, soft lighting, and maybe nothing that reminds you of what you’ve lost, like photos and knickknacks of theirs. Of course, you’re allowed to keep those keepsakes around, but it’s okay to remove pictures and other memories from the bedroom and bathroom — places that are supposed to be your sanctum as you process grief. You’re not betraying their memory; you’re simply choosing when and where you’ll do your remembering.

With your bathroom, make it a place you want to take long, warm baths, where you can close your eyes and feel safe and restful. Give it a deep color, lots of candles, and keep it free of emotional reminders as well.

After a while, you might be ready to make it a less neutral space, but if not, that’s okay too. Everyone’s method is different, and that’s all right.

Safe haven

There’s no way to isolate or insulate yourself from grief. You can try, but grieving is a longer road than mainstream media portrays it as. We don’t talk about or share that loss because it’s not part of the Western mentality, whereas other cultures are profoundly and publicly rocked by grief. (Imagine Italian funerals, or the Korean tradition of celebrating parental death days with a celebratory remembering of their lives every year. Both cultures are very different from here, where everyone feels awkward about discussing death.)

It’s possible to both remember what you’ve lost and start toward a new life at the same time. It all comes together at home, where you choose what past you want to keep in your present, and where you can change things up a little so it’s a comforting place to heal.

Grieving is never any easy process, but at least we can take some steps to help us redefine our life as we work our way to our new normal.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.