I am so weird. When I get home from grocery shopping, I like to put up all the groceries myself. My family is often sweet enough to start helping unload all the loot, but I think my OCD nature kicks into overdrive and I simply must know where every item lands. Everything has a space where it belongs and Mama loses her mind when she cannot find the chicken stock. It’s just my thing.
I had to clean out my husband Aaron’s closet a few years ago. This was nothing like my drive to restock the kitchen after a trip to the store. It was a dreaded chore that I avoided for months. It haunted me.
My husband Aaron died suddenly in the summer of 2012. A wonderful father and daddy, his earthly existence ended at age 35 in a tragic accident. I exhale deeply every time I type this. It’s hard to explain the pain of death, though we all have likely experienced it on some level at some point in our lives. It’s an unyielding reality of pain and paralysis.
He was gone. Forever. His smile missed, his laughter silenced, his presence erased.
And after I passed the initial few months of surreality, I decided it was time to go through his closet. I had looked in it countless times after his passing. I had carefully chosen his funeral attire, with family by my side. I had stared in it, to smell the smells. This shirt was a newer one I had bought him for our Vegas trip that spring. These pants he never wore because he was always a shorts kind of guy. This tie that he always thought was so fashionable though I insisted it was way past its prime.
I would force myself to open it and expose myself to the deepest sorrows. And I would hang my head and exhale each time I closed the closet doors.
He was gone, but his clothes remained. Almost like a parting gift, or a lame consolation prize. He would never wear any of them again, now that he was clothed in heavenly attire. He had no need for suits or sweaters.
A young widow friend of mine did not wait to clean out her late husband’s closet. She actually asked loved ones to do it for her the day her husband passed. She wanted his clothing gone before she got home. It was simply too much to handle. And so they boxed up his belongings as requested.
I did not rush this monumental event. I knew I had to be ready. Well, as ready as you can be in this situation. I knew I could not clean out Aaron’s closet and then later put everything back.
And so on a day when I had enough time to slowly go through one item at a time, I grabbed a roll of toilet tissue to absorb the upcoming tears. Where do I start? What do I do? Do I keep everything? Am I to donate it all?
I grabbed a lot of large trash bags and had this twinge of new pain. It felt like I was divorcing my husband. I envisioned those dramatic movies where the angry woman packs up all of her man’s stuff and throws it onto the lawn. I did not want this “separation.” I could not grasp that my 35-year old husband no longer lived in our home.
So I decided I would figure out what to do as I went. I had no Handbook for Widows, so I reasoned that there may be clothes with sentimental value that I’d want to keep. I assumed our four children would enjoy seeing Daddy’s shirts when they were older as a way to spark memories.
It stung to think that in their young ages (8, 7, and 4-year old twins), they were a long way from wearing the same size clothes as their favorite man. They wouldn’t ask to borrow a sweatshirt by the campfire or snag a tie for an upcoming date.
If only he could have lived just a few years longer. Or maybe that would have just made the heartache even worse.
Piece by piece, I filled the trash bags. I believe there were 13 bags total. I would donate the non-sentimental clothes that he rarely wore. If only the folks at Goodwill knew the story of what they’d be buying then placing in their own closets. I kept a lot of the clothes that he wore often, the ones that had strong emotional ties. How odd that fabric can be so important. It was gut-wrenchingly sad to so gently fold and bag, fold and bag, fold and bag. Until I stood and sobbed in front of a barren closet. He no longer lived with us and the visible void left me stunned.
God, help me.
How special that two friends approached me with ways to preserve the essence of Aaron for our four children. One friend made stuffed animals made of Aaron’s shirts for the boys to squeeze at night (and potentially cry on). Another friend spent months making each boy a quilt, full of Aaron’s shirts, for them to keep forever. Such love has been lavished on us.
We can do hard things.
Whatever our "cleaning the closet" may be, we can do hard things.