Memories of our loved ones don’t live in material things.
As a kid, my brother would always give me a hard time because I choked on food easily. I wouldn’t be in danger or anything, and he thought it was hilarious. He would glare at me from across the table, smile, and ask, “You choking?”
Years later, after his death, I looked around my messy, crammed apartment and imagined him asking me that question again. Yes, I was choking. But this time, not on food… on stuff. I was choking—feeling smothered and overwhelmed by all my possessions.
After he was killed, my family and Jeremy’s friends came to the house and we each took the things that were most meaningful to each of us. I ended up inheriting a lot of my brother’s belongings. All of these things filled my house, but his death still left me with a deep, profound sense of emptiness. I wanted to find a way to both manage and express my grief. I did what I thought would make me whole again: I bought things and busied myself with a personal project to tell the world about Jeremy.
I wanted to make a film about Jeremy’s life, so I bought all new film equipment. I upgraded my lifestyle by replacing old furniture and filled my closet with new clothes. Retail therapy was my coping mechanism. In addition to the material things I bought, I acquired a new group of friends and set myself up with a very active social life. By all outward appearances, I was getting over my loss and living a great life.
Years later, after graduating and getting engaged, I took a hard look at my financial situation and made the tough decision to sell my outdated film equipment to pay off debt I had accumulated. I didn’t even have a film to speak of.
Then, my mom died. I was a different person and grieved her loss differently.
I then saw how much time I had wasted after Jeremy’s death, focusing on superficial things to make me feel better but did not actually make me feel better. When I tried to dress up my grief, I just kept adding to it. I did not face the real issues underlying my desire to acquire so many things.
So, how do you become a better person after tragedy? When you have so much in your life, life begins to weigh you down. It’s hard to move, much less move on.
I was happy with very little in my life. Then one day, I came across a documentary about minimalism. I learned about a community of people who seemed a lot happier with less.
The movement to live with less really struck a chord with me. I started getting rid of the stuff I didn’t use or find joy in. Saving an item “just in case” didn’t have a place in my life.
I learned from that documentary that memories don’t exist within things. They exist in your mind. If I get rid of my brother’s clothes, I won’t forget him. As long as I still exist, and as long as I keep remembering him, he is remembered.
Since I embraced a simpler, less materialist life, the noise in my head went away. I became a better husband, a better son, and a more focused person. A less cluttered life means a less cluttered mind, and a happier one. And that’s what our loved ones would want for us. It may sound like a very difficult, if not impossible task—to get rid of personal belongings of a loved one. But I promise there’s value in not attaching yourself to things or the physical manifestations of your memories of that loved one. We’ve accumulated memories and experiences with our loved ones that live with us in our hearts and memories; donating his jacket or shoes is not going to take that away.