Grief Talk: What to Keep, What to Give Away

A friend’s husband died last weekend, and like always when I hear news like this, I think about the afterwards: All the decisions she’ll make, all the people she’ll hug, all the words she’ll hear, all the feelings she’ll feel and all the feelings she’ll tuck away for another time.

Inevitably, she’ll go through his things. The dead leave behind a lot of things. The following is an excerpt from my memoir, which I hope will get published one day. I share this piece here to shine a little light on what happens after the funeral and after the people go home and after the cards and flowers stop coming. That’s when death gets real.

March 1983

I start a giveaway pile and a keep pile. In the keep pile, I add Bruce’s bowling shirt, letter jacket, the ratty brown bathrobe, his SDSU t-shirt, and his International Harvester cap. In the giveaway pile are the cowboy boots I gave him last Christmas, his winter jacket, and the rest of his clothes. I keep everything he collected from high school and college, including the mug he received from his year as vice-president of South Dakota State University’s Statesmen Men’s Chorus, the journal he kept when he went to Europe, and countless photos of parties and places he’d been with people he knew before me, including a photo of three guys and him mooning the camera. I recognize the last butt on the left as his.

I pack up four years of financial records Bruce had “filed” in shoe boxes under the bed. I will go through the ones I need for taxes and the ones I can destroy after I’ve moved. I’d been strangely excited about filing taxes with Bruce, just like I was when we opened our joint checking account. It was such an adult thing to do.

I go through his wallet, which feels like an invasion of his privacy, even though I’d looked through it many times when he asked me to take money out for him. I gave it to him two Christmases ago. It’s made of black cowhide and has the start of a bend in the center from the back pocket of his jeans. I find his Red Cross blood donor card, the Kama Sutra card, both of our pre-paid activity cards that got us into high school basketball games and concerts, three photos of me, a scrap of paper with my parents’ phone number written on it, a receipt from M&M Distributing from December 10 (Is that where he bought the griddle he gave me for Christmas?), and his voter registration card.

Bruce was with me the first time I voted. I turned eighteen in a non-election year, but the next year, 1982, I could vote for governor and a senator. Bruce and I didn’t talk extensively about politics, but I knew he was registered as a Democrat and I told him that I would, too. Not because he was, but because I’ve leaned liberal since I can remember, despite how I was raised. In a mock election in fourth grade, I voted for George McGovern and not Richard Nixon like my dad did, and in high school, I supported Jimmy Carter and wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan like my dad was.

Of all the things I have to go through, Bruce’s toiletries are the hardest. Sharing a bathroom with someone who wasn’t my sibling was more intimate than I thought it would be. Maybe I didn’t know Bruce in the same way his friends and family did, but I know how he took a shower. We’d taken many of them together. I watched him brush his teeth, shave, pee, and comb his hair, and I listened when he fussed about his receding hairline and wondered whether to grow a beard again.

Now, standing here in our bathroom holding an empty gin box, prepared to sort and discard the things no one but me saw him use, I think how I’ll never buy shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap for us again. I’ll never loop a freshly washed towel through the towel ring next to the sink. I’ll never stand in front of the open closet wondering out loud what I should wear while Bruce puts in his contacts, and never again will he sidle up behind me and cup his hands around my breasts and kiss my neck and ask me if I want help deciding.

I set the box on the counter and open his drawer, the one on the left under the counter. I sift through the contents and take out his Right Guard deodorant, two razor blades, one disposable razor, a black plastic comb, and a near-full spool of dental floss which are all crowded next to his empty travel toiletry bag. I place the dental floss and disposable razor in the gin box for me to eventually use and his travel bag in the giveaway pile. The rest I put in the trash.

I take out the blue bottle of half-full Cool Water. Bruce was frugal in many ways. He never had a credit card, preferring, like his father, to pay in cash for everything. He said it helped him make better financial decisions. When it came to cologne, though, he dug a little deeper in his pockets, maybe as a way to make up for the hours a week that he smelled like a farmer. I open the bottle and spray one pump into the air and it’s like he’s standing right next to me. What if I forget this smell?

They say I should move on and not hang on. Remember him, yes, but get on with life. It will be one thing to look at a photograph of him once in a while, but keeping his scent? Don’t be weird, Lynn.

I place the bottle in the trash.

8 thoughts on “Grief Talk: What to Keep, What to Give Away

  1. I remember still sniffing a few of the dresses my mother had that I kept after she passed (at that time we both wore the same size) trying to keep her memory close. Also, sometimes, while my mother was alive (she lived 10 years after my father passed) and if I was alone in the basement, as I went down the steps I would call out as I had always done when my dad was alive-” Dad? You there?” Fully expecting to hear him answer- “Down here.” It’s funny the little things you recall once a loved one has passed. Little things we took for granted… like keys to open our hearts and minds to our loved ones.

  2. I kept several items of clothing of my mom’s after she died. I’ve worn out all but a large t-shirt (which was a gift from me, actually) that I wear for a pajama top on nights when I feel ‘specially chilly. I try to limit myself so as not to wear it out too soon, but maybe, by the time it is as stained and ratty as the other things of hers I already gave up, maybe I’ll be ready to let it go, too. It’s only been 13 years after all, though, now that I think about it, it would make some really nice rags…

    1. I believe that now, but at the time I knew NOTHING about grief and how to be OK with being sad. I often wonder if I would recognize the scent anymore.

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