How the 7 Stages of Grief Helped Me Finally Declutter

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(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

The closets of my two-bedroom apartment overflowed with things from literally every stage of my life. Though the craft supplies, decorations, and souvenirs could be evidence of a life well-lived, these stuffed storage bins overwhelmed me—a reminder that the clean, clutter-free, minimalist-inspired home I dreamed of was becoming less of a reality each day.

I work from home. Having this physical baggage steps away led me to the same rollercoaster of emotions every week: I was motivated to clear it out, excited for the possibility of unburdened living, but I’d end up sitting paralyzed by the seemingly endless boxes, daunted at the huge task, and ultimately angry at myself for keeping things for so long and not being able to let them go. The cycle depressed me.

But one day, I was watching Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra” on Netflix. In a joke, she offhandedly mentions Marie Kondo, the minimalist behind the movement to break the emotional attachment we have with our stuff. Fascinated, I bought her book—it was interesting, but also frustrating because purging was still not as easy as I wanted it to be. For some reason, I just couldn’t throw out some “Baby’s First China” dishes my mother had kept for me since birth because I felt like I was throwing away an important piece of my personal history.

Suddenly, I saw that—contrary to what I wanted to believe—the thought of getting rid of something I had an emotional attachment to was sparking feelings of grief. I realized these were the same overwhelming feelings I would feel if I lost a dear friend or family member, just on a smaller scale.

The subjects of emotional attachment, loss, and overcoming grief are vast, but all roads led me toward the “Five Stages of Grief,” or denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model was originally proposed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to describe what terminally-ill patients experience in their final stage of life. In recent years, however, the theory has been expanded to seven stages–adding shock and testing–and has been adapted to describe how people process loss more generally. Not everyone experiences each stage, and the process is not always linear.

I saw an obvious correlation with the stages of grief when I tried to get rid of my baby dishes: I was shocked that it was so hard to throw them out. I denied that I had such a strong emotional attachment to them. Then, of course, I got angry at myself. I should keep the dishes, but I can get rid of something else instead, I bargained. But I couldn’t—I felt obligated to keep the china as well as the other childhood items I had collected: I was ultimately depressed that I couldn’t let go. I kept getting stuck at this phase.

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Sound like you when going through your junk drawer? Feeling pangs of loss from throwing out things is a pretty universal experience, says Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book “Joy from Fear.”

“So many of the objects we collect through life are imbued with the energy of the giver, the event itself, and the recipient’s own emotional cognitive state,” Dr. Manly says. “As such, the physical item may seem to have an energy or presence of its own.”

That’s why, when it comes time to discard or donate, it becomes especially difficult to part with.

Jo Eckler, clinical psychologist and author of “I Can’t Fix You—Because You’re Not Broken,” agrees. Humans do not like change, and because getting rid of items can feel like our world is changing, it’s a emotional barrier we must learn how to get over.

However, like dealing with the loss of a loved one, acceptance is the first step. Dr. Eckler says for those things you can’t let go of—but know you should—it can be helpful to create a little ritual as a way to honor the items before letting them go.

“You might feel goofy saying a formal goodbye to a bookshelf or a box of kitchen gadgets, but it’s okay,” Dr. Eckler says. “Be patient with yourself.”

Though unpleasant, loss is a part of life—and accepting loss can actually help you get through those other bigger losses in life, too. Mary Joye, licensed professional counselor, points out that hoarding and grief are highly correlated. If people can’t let go of their items on a small scale, they hang on for too long and may begin to hoard.

“Being in cycles of grief is like purgatory,” says Joye. To get beyond, you must literally purge to feel more buoyant and present in your own life. (The root word of purgatory is literally purge, she says—really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?)

With this wisdom (and validation) in mind, I went back to purging. I started more slowly this time, thinking carefully about each item in the first box. My goodbye “ritual” as recommended by Eckler, was to imagine a better use for each item that was hard to discard.

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I started with the “Baby’s First China” dishes. Instead of dwelling on childhood nostalgia, I thought about the happiness I could give to a new mother by donating them. Next was my boxes of fabric: Instead of thinking about the projects I could do one day, I imagined giving them to a person who would actually use them.

I was testing the waters and went for it—and I lived! I actually felt good about bringing joy to someone else in addition to my pleasure at having more room in my closet. Giving stuff away became so much easier!

The shirts I hadn’t worn in a year went to the charity shop. Magazines I never make time to read went to doctor’s offices to entertain their captive audience. By the time I got to the holiday decorations, half of each box went to the donation pile without a second thought, preferring to leave room for the new perfect items I might someday find.

The process is nowhere near complete. I’m still in purging purgatory–I still have dozens of items that I cannot even contemplate yet. But this time, instead of slipping into depression, I’m being patient with myself. I understand now that things serve a purpose until they don’t, and if they are meant to stay around a while longer, that’s okay. I still have that clean, clutter-free, minimalist-inspired home in mind—but knowing that I’ll keep revisiting these items of my past until everything remaining brings joy in the present makes it seem more like a near reality.