Letting Go of Life’s Laundry

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Letting go of objects associated with people we’ve lost or relationships that haven’t worked out can feel like an act of betrayal, or a compounding of the loss that has already happened. By unraveling the emotions associated with those objects, and the memories (good and bad) wrapped up in them, we can find ways of moving on through the grieving process towards the next phase of our lives.

A few years ago, there was a series on British television called The Life Laundry in which the presenter helped people clear the physical — and emotional — clutter from their homes. We saw stories of people whose emotional journey through life had stalled, so attached were they to the objects and possessions associated with memories of people they’d lost or the lives they’d once led. In sifting through the possessions they’d been unable to let go of, these individuals found a new sense of purpose and were able to be more selective in the items they kept. It was often a tearful process, and for many of them, it seemed to allow them to complete the process of grieving for whomever and whatever had been lost — a process which had somehow become stuck or derailed. The possessions had become the symbol of the person or life lost, and letting them go felt, for many of the people featured, like an act of disloyalty or betrayal: “My mother loved this piece of crockery, how can I let it go now that she’s dead?”

I have to confess that I too find it difficult to let go of physical objects sometimes; I still have some of my own late mother’s crockery! Why do I find it difficult to let go of them? It’s to do with the memories associated with those items. Those really rather hideous day-glo orange dessert dishes, for example, were only ever brought out of the cupboard on special occasions for very special treats, and I can still clearly picture the cluttered shelves in my mother’s house where they used to lie unused from one month to the next. I used to love going through the cupboards and finding them — and my mother’s other treasures, like the delicate china bowl her father brought back from the Far East just after the war — and weaving daydreams about them and how they came to be in her possession.

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My mother found it difficult to let go of things too. When I was clearing out her desk after she died, I found receipts for car repairs from twenty years previously, all pinned together in chronological order. I found racks and racks of dresses and tops which had long been out of fashion, carefully stored in plastic sheets to preserve them, “just in case I want to wear them again.” I found unmatched shoes, some from the 1940s and 50s, which she’d worn as a young woman and had been unable to throw away, even when the matching shoe had been lost or damaged. I found stacks of family history documents — birth, death and marriage certificates; National ID Cards from the Second World War; my late father’s RAF pilot’s flight card;, a school report from when my mother left formal education; my grandfather’s Scottish Freemason’s membership certificate — carefully sealed in an old biscuit tin to be preserved for the future.

And there lies the rub: how do we decide what is worth keeping and what we could and perhaps should let go of? Beyond the objects themselves, what are we trying to hold on to? I find the process complicated by a strong sense of responsibility towards history — another legacy from my parents. Whether it’s personal, family, community or national history, don’t we have some sort of responsibility to preserve aspects of the past so that future generations can understand their own histories better? But then when I think about donating some of my grandfather’s freemasonry documents to a museum where they might be better preserved and placed in context, I recoil — no, I want to keep them to myself, even though my sense of connection to my grandfather comes solely through my mother’s memories of him, as he died before I was born. He is still part of what and who made me, and there’s a strong pull for me to hold on to those documents, even though to my stepson and any children he has in the future they will probably mean very little.

Letting go need not refer just to physical objects either. I recently took the decision to let go of a project that I’d founded with high hopes that it would succeed and take on a life of its own. Sadly, that didn’t happen, despite my best efforts, and after months of trying to ignore it — hoarding it in a mental cupboard with all its muddled and scrappy hopes, dreams and regrets — I finally took a realistic look at it and decided the time had come to call it a day. It had served its purpose. Once the decision was made, and the deed was done, I felt such a sense of relief. I’d been holding on to something that was no longer what was needed, out of a sense of responsibility to the other people involved and regret that I hadn’t been able to turn it around. Having let go of it, I suddenly found a new energy and enthusiasm for the other projects and enterprises that needed my attention. I felt liberated.

Holding on to things can be a sign that there are unresolved emotions attached to whatever it is you’re holding onto. If you can find ways of honouring what was good about what has been lost, remembering the person or the relationship or the project without having to hold on to every little object associated with them, then you have a way of moving on into the future without having to carry all the accumulated weight of years of ‘stuff’ — emotional or physical.

When my dog died earlier this year, it took months before I felt able to let go of even the remaining dog food we’d bought for him, let alone his toys and bedding. What helped was making a ‘memory box’ for him, filled with photos, his collar, one of his favourite toys and all the cards that we received when he died. I keep it in a safe place where I can look at it whenever I want to. With the project I’ve just closed down, I’ll keep — if I can — good relationships with the other people involved and a few of the bits and pieces associated with it. I have no need any more to hold on to it — what was important about it, I’ll carry with me in my memory.

And what about my mother’s hideous orange dessert bowls? Well, I think it’s about time that I dug them out of the cupboard again and said goodbye to them — treasuring the memory of the special occasions when the family used them and perhaps taking a photo of them to put in the biscuit tin with the rest of the family history treasures. It feels like the closure of another stage in the long process of grieving and moving on. Life goes on, and we can’t take everything and everyone with us, but we can choose to keep a few symbols to represent the essence of who and what was most important to us in our lives.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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