Respect for letting go

“There’s so much junk,” moans a dear friend, packing up her home. “Why do people keep all this rubbish?” I’m helping her do a clutter bust. I’m the worst clutter-buster on the planet given that: (a) I’m a hoarder who can’t see why anyone would want to throw out their 35-year-old teddy bear and (b) I am allergic to dust.

But I’m a good person to do what I consider a very meaningful part of the process, bearing witness. By this I mean hearing the story of each item and its associated memories so it can finally be laid to rest with honour.

When it was time to put my mother-in-law into care, we had to face a very sad reality: her room in the nursing home was too small to house a lifetime of treasures. So other than a few personal effects, all her vases, photos, records, books, postcards and clothes had to be put in boxes and either kept in storage, sent to charity or marked as rubbish. It’s heartbreaking to watch this happen to a person while they’re still living, to forcefully and brutally remind them that life is nearing its end.

So I did the only thing I could to ease her pain, which was to bear witness. Instead of doing the clean-out quickly and efficiently, my ex-husband and I let the process unfold over days. As each item was presented to her, there was a story that needed to be told, such as a precious, crumpled serviette she had kept from her first meal in Australia. The memory was savoured, then the serviette put gently into a box with trembling hands.

Here was a life, item by item, being let go. She cried, sang old songs, and laughed — we listened, sang and cried too.

Now, with my friend, there are other stories that need to be heard before a divesting of treasures: tales of childhood friends and lost loves, photos of grandparents long gone, and old birthday cards to be read aloud. A professional would have helped her to get rid of far more, far quicker, but I wanted it to be a cleanse not just a clean, a ritual to help her transition to the next phase of her life.

Before each significant change, we should do a spring-clean, to emotionally clear space for the new.

But we need to let go gently and with respect for what has passed. And with gratitude for the time we have now, because there will come a time when the letting go will not be as dignified.

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