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Death of a Child: Dealing With Clothes, Cleaning Rooms, and Displaying Pictures

One might say it is only logical that the parents of the deceased have all the say of when, where, and how to deal with their deceased child's personal items. There lies the rub; it is parents, plural, not one person but two people making the decision.
09/08/2015 02:58pm ET | Updated September 8, 2016
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The sound of my cell phone this morning startled me as I was still a bit shaken by the death of my niece following a three-month battle with cancer. I had forgotten that I had agreed to be interviewed by Nancy Comiskey, a journalism lecturer at Indiana University, who is examining how to find "meaning, hope and even joy ten years after losing a child." The project is inspired by her article "Dear Kate" published in Indianapolis Monthly. The story now has more than 52,000 Facebook shares and was selected as a best essay of 2014 by the editor of Longreads. This year, Reader's Digest has republished it in more than 20 languages in Europe.

As often happens during the interview, I found that there were many things that I had forgotten and other insights that I had gained over the thirty years since my son and his cousin died in a tragic fiery auto crash. We talked about dealing with belongings, cleaning out the bedroom (or as I like to say "repurposing"), keeping reminders, and dealing with pictures. As a result of this interview, and the fact that I am in a grieving space for my niece, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

What About Belongings?

One might say it is only logical that the parents of the deceased have all the say of when, where, and how to deal with their deceased child's personal items. There lies the rub; it is parents, plural, not one person but two people making the decision. Death does not happen in a vacuum. You handle grief the way you live. One person may be a natural hoarder while their spouse may be a neatnik. How do you decide when and where? Compromise, compromise, compromise. Try to slow down decisions. There is no hurry. Your child unfortunately will still be dead tomorrow.

Also what about the siblings, those often forgotten mourners? When our friend Mitch Carmody's twin sister died he saved her purse with all its contents, and gave it to her daughter when she turned sixteen. Mitch told us on our Open to Hope radio show that his niece was thrilled when she opened the purse and found a lipstick and perfume. For some of you this anecdote brings tears to your eyes, while others appreciate the gesture but wonder why someone would keep an old purse? This makes my point we don't all share the same worldview. To complicate matters, the bereaved also have the challenge of dealing with blended families and stepparents. I know one mother who put her baby's unwashed blanket and clothing in a garbage bag with a tight tie so they wouldn't lose her daughter's sweet smell. Kind friends and extended family of course are anxiously awaiting the time when they can empty the bag for a quick wash.

When Do You Clean Or Repurpose The Bedroom?

When out seventeen-year-old son's friends came to the house after his death, I invited them to go in his room and allowed them to take a few items. My three daughters later complained that they wished his room had been as he left it so they could have said goodbye on their own time. I was fortunate that my husband loves organization and was happy to give some reminders to friends. It is not always the case. I have told my daughters that you can't go back in time, but I do see their point and I am sorry that I acted in the haste of the moment. Waiting may not change the outcome, but it can ease the pain of change.

A friend, whose son died three years before Scott, complained to me that her husband refused to change her deceased son's room. His car keys remained on the desk. In looking back and interviewing thousands of bereaved parents I believe that his reluctance may have had something to do with the fact that he was suing the company who manufactured the boat in which his son was killed. Those involved in lawsuits, including Candace Lightner, founder of MADD, say that litigation and promoting legislation can sometimes distract one from doing personal grief work. Wanting to hold onto things may also represent a natural desire for control when so much has changed.

I like to talk not about cleaning rooms but "repurposing." We did repurpose after a year and refurnished Scott's room as a bedroom for our youngest daughter. While it was bittersweet, we had fun picking new wallpaper and furniture. I really would have no timetable on changing a room. If your only child died and you live alone, you can do as you please. However if the room brings you only sorrow and no comfort, you may want to think about repurposing the room as an office or exercise room with a treadmill.

Making the room a shrine can be a problem as family members can feel again like "the good one died." I know one woman who didn't even consider changing her child's room until her 5-year-old granddaughter asked if she could play in the room. Grandma then realized it was time.

What About Keeping Reminders?

Chronological reminders of the loved ones, such as death dates and holidays, have taken on a bit of negative connotation. But there can be purposeful and healing reminders. I seldom meet or talk to any parents who don't have some special reminders. I talked earlier about the purse. One of the most unique reminders was a woman whose daughter died while serving in the military. Her mother kept her combat boots and every birthday laughingly walks around the house in them. The bereaved kids I meet at The Compassionate Friends often talk about wearing their siblings' clothes--T-shirts are a favorite. Jewelry is also much loves. My three daughters had gold charms made with Scott's birth and death date on them. Twenty-five years after Scott died we were getting ready to make a move and I decided that since I hadn't worn his high school letterman jacket, or his Lacoste shirt, or his New York Jets sweater for a few years, it might be time to do something with them.

We had just interviewed Carrie Pike, founder of Carrie Bears, on our show and she told us about making bears from deceased love ones clothes. I decided I would surprise the girls with bears made out of Scott's clothes for Christmas. When they opened the beautifully wrapped boxes they were at first confused and then surprised. They had no idea we had the clothes. It worked out well, but if you do this make sure you have permission to use the clothes or other personal items. Better to ask permission first, even if the gesture is made out of love, than to alter something irreplaceable. One mother talked of being upset when a well-meaning but overzealous aunt made a blanket from her baby's clothes.

What About Displaying Pictures?

I believe pictures are in a category of their own. My daughter Heidi and I often present at The Compassionate Friends conferences with thousands of grieving parents and siblings in attendance. We often hear from siblings that they count pictures in their parents' home, which is why we recommend that families have as many pictures of your living children as they do of the deceased. Our friend Elizabeth DeVita-Rayburn, whose brother was the "boy in the bubble," makes the comment that it his hard to live up to the legacy of a deceased sibling as they never do anything wrong. How many times have you heard "only the good ones die young?" So count the pictures, and if you are going to build or have built a shrine, put it in a quiet corner of the house or yard. Your dead child won't notice but your living children will. Again, we grieve like we live. Some of us find comfort in taking and displaying pictures while others of us find pictures to be painful reminders. Neither of these responses is wrong--just a reminder that our grief is unique to us, like our fingerprints. With the advent of Facebook and the iPhone there are pictures galore, so it becomes especially important to be considerate and thoughtful with our photography.

Grief Tips

  1. You grieve as you have lived.
  2. Be patient with others' personality styles.
  3. Pick your battles carefully. If you have a definite desire, stand firm.
  4. Listen to other family members' thoughts, especially the siblings.
  5. Give yourself a "hall pass," and walk away from toxic people and situations.
  6. Remember you have made, and will make, mistakes but you are doing the best you can.
  7. Reach out for support.

Remember that grief shared is grief halved. Please visit us at www.opentohope.com, and lean on our hope until you find your own.