In this post: When decluttering hurts. What do you do when decluttering makes you cry? When letting go is hard? When you feel depressed?
I originally wrote this post in 2019, then set it aside because it was too painful.
I meant to share it sooner, but our world was rocked with even more pain when we discovered my mother-in-law had terminal cancer shortly after writing this and then dealt with her estate for the remainder of the year. By the time the accounts had settled and we thought we’d finally be able to take a breath, the world came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Covid in 2020. After a pandemic move and through the busy blur of the years afterward, I forgot I had even written this until recently going through old files.
I haven’t edited much other than for grammar and formatting since then, but I am ready to share it now. I have also added pictures I took later, during my own private memorial ceremony, that I did quietly to honor the thoughts I had from this day. It is real, raw, and intensely personal. But if it helps even one other person, it will be worth it.
Keep in mind I am not a healthcare professional and this is my own experience and not to be taken as medical advice. And please, if you are struggling with depression, reach out to a close friend or family member or call a helpline. You don’t need to go through this alone.
I decluttered my drawer in our master bathroom today. I haven’t done that in over a year. I know this, because I found a dozen or so cheap LH ovulation tests I had never opened and that had expired in 2017 or 2018. I also found similar, but expensive Clearblue sticks and readers, and a handful of positive, and then negative, Sharpie-dated pregnancy tests from November 2017, from when I’d had what my doctor called a “chemical pregnancy” in mid-November and then lost that pregnancy over Thanksgiving, so quickly that if I hadn’t been taking fertility drugs and therefore had tested and seen the two lines for myself for almost a week, I’d never even had known that I was pregnant. I would have thought it was just a late period.
At first, I took it in stride, but as each new test—used or new—was uncovered, a dull sensation crept into my chest. I felt heavy. Raw. Like I was on the verge of tears, but yet nothing would come. It was an icky, uncomfortable, and familiar feeling.
Familiar, because it was the one I got every time I uncovered another unexpected reminder of my struggle. A struggle I’d been avoiding remembering. On purpose.
Sometimes decluttering hurts.
It’s why I’ve been avoiding making any decisions about the room that was supposed to be a nursery for our second child. We’d bought this house in anticipation of finally trying again with fertility treatments. We were excited. We had cracked the code four years before, when I’d finally gotten pregnant with our son after two years of trying. (One of those years being spent poked and prodded and trying one treatment or another.) Surely we could do it again!
But we couldn’t.
So the room stays empty, except for a spare mattress in case of guests, and a pile of whatever I’m using the floorspace for at the moment–sometimes luggage and whatever we’re packing for a trip. Sometimes a mountain of Amazon boxes, waiting for disassembly and recycling.
But if I go in its closet, I’m confronted with the choices of whether or not to keep storing our son’s high chair and toddler bed. The baby toys I’d handpicked to be kept and cherished for one more. The season-less clothes I’d kept out of consignment sales, “just in case.” The baby board books. The memories. So I close the closet door and back away, not ready to touch those things. To feel those feelings. I choose to hope against hope that maybe I will have kept them for a reason, even though my biological clock is ticking toward midnight.
Up in the attic, I stumble across our son’s infant car seat. We’d kept it “to save money the next time” and even lent it to my best friend when she and her husband had their second. She gave it back so we could use it after their baby outgrew it. And now that baby is a toddler. I checked the expiration date last night: it’s past its acceptable use date. So much for that. Guess it will be handed in at the next Target recycling day. Maybe I’ll buy a backless booster for our son with the trade-in coupon. At least it will be good for something.
Next to the carseat are the toddler toys lovingly given by grandparents and kept in hopes of handing down to a sibling. And the extra tub of clothing and toys and baby supplies that may never be used by us again.
In my closet, there are the handful of maternity clothes I picked up at a consignment sale to have on hand in my new, larger body size post-firstborn. The dress keeps falling off its hanger onto the floor and getting shoved into a corner. I’ve worn it, even without being pregnant, because it’s comfortable and you can’t really tell it’s a maternity dress. But I know. And so when the dress fell down months ago, I never picked it up. It’s still back there, mingling with the half empty Christmas wrapping paper tubes and the confiscated toys from my son’s room.
On my phone, when I check voicemail, there are the last messages from my fertility clinic that I can’t delete. They’re ghosts from my recent past, haunting me. I don’t listen to them. But if I ever want to, they’re there to ask, again, if we’re SURE sure that we’re stopping treatments permanently. That we still have options. That they can talk to us about them. But they do recommend that one last invasive test I walked away from last September after spending eight years of my life and our marriage focused on my fertility, or lack thereof, or pregnancy, or breastfeeding, or miscarriage.
In my kitchen cabinet, where we keep our over-the-counter medications and prescriptions and vitamins and supplements … to the side, behind the kids’ pain medicine … are my prenatal vitamins I haven’t taken in almost half a year. And the supplements my doctor had told me to take. And the pregnancy-approved allergy medicine for my seasonal hayfever. Also untouched.
And then, finally, in our refrigerator, shoved discretely all the way to the back of one shelf, are the expired injectable medications I never took. The ones I also walked away from that fateful day after my last baseline ultrasound and bloodwork when I decided I couldn’t keep going with the cycle. The ones that could have, maybe, helped us make a number two. One has been there almost a year. The other, a year and half. I’ve spent a year and a half trying not to look at at the boxes when I reach for the milk. Because looking at them too long acknowledges the rip in my heart. The pain in my soul. The empty ache in my arms. The tears always read to flow down my cheeks at the most inopportune times.
And they do. Like today, after throwing out the contents of that drawer.
I’ve told those closest to me that I will probably need a ceremony of some sort to let go. It needs to feel official. My best friend has even promised to be there when I throw out the medications, if I need her to be. To be silent, and supportive, and somber, if the occasion requires that for me. But I can’t do it yet.
Marie Kondo would probably say save these things in my life for last for sorting and decluttering, so I can move forward easier with the process. And I will. Other decluttering experts might say don’t use up that physical storage space with the intangible presence of all the grief. That it’s time to let go. Or maybe they’d say make a special shadowbox or shrine of some kind and discard the rest. Or give it to someone who needs it. Or suck it up and throw it out. It’s only bringing us grief. But I can’t right now. I can’t.
And I really feel like that’s okay. It takes me a long time to process my own feelings, especially sadness and anger and loss. That’s just who I am. Slowly, as I’m able, I’ll pare down to the things that I will use as keepsakes. Or perhaps the things we can use for visiting friends’ and family’s babies only. Or even, maybe, if God leads, for a foster or adoptive child. The important thing is I have determined, deep down, that I will not let these reminders of my sorrow take up physical and emotional space in my home and in my heart any longer than necessary to process my emotions.
But for now, I’ll let myself FEEL. And I’ll cry. And mourn the loss of what could have been. In the case of my miscarried pregnancies, what should have been. It’s hard. It’s messy. But it’s okay.
If you’re going through something similar, know you are not alone. Loss is excruciating, in all its forms. And dealing with its physical reminders is difficult. If you need time, take it. If you need support, ask for it. And if you need someone to talk to about your own walk through the shadows in this process, and don’t know who else to talk to, reach out to me. I will listen. And I will pray alongside you, when we don’t know what else to say.
The boxes can wait.
Almost a year after writing this, I finally began to feel the release from the past I needed. I began selling larger items at first … the high chair, the baby clothes, the baby gear. I used it to raise money for other things I needed.
I released the past and embraced the present and the future. Then I turned my attention to the final parts of my infertility journey I needed to mourn and declutter: the now expired medications and tiny little mementos of the baby I’d hoped to carry and the larger family we’d hope to raise.
I held a tiny private ceremony for just me and my emotions while my husband worked and our son was at school. I took my time as I took out each item. I slowly caressed the tiny socks, the itty bitty newborn diaper, the take-home outfit, the teether, and my favorite maternity shirt.
I let the tears fall. Even now, typing this years later, they’re welling up just thinking about what happened next.
Quietly and deliberately, I arranged each item with care and took the photos in this post to remember them by. My final farewell to a dream we’d held in our hearts for so many years.
It was my bittersweet acknowledgment that there would not be the wild curly-hair and pigtailed girl with my eyes and her Daddy’s amazing lashes skipping into my room behind her big brother to wake us up in the morning, or maybe instead our oldest boy’s mini-me fighting with him over Legos and video games before dinner.
I sat with the pain for some time that day, like I would at a funeral.
I allowed it to roll through me and all around me like a giant wave, pulling at me to drag me down into its undertow, wondering if I’d ever recover.
I knew I needed that to get through the finality of what had to be done next: with every fiber of my being screaming, “but wait! What if!” I picked them up, and put them in the trash or the donation box.
I let them go.
Sometimes, even now, a move and several years later, I come across another reminder of that part of my life and I hurt anew. But that’s grief for you, isn’t it? Coming and going, rising and falling, hurting and healing.
It doesn’t really end. It just changes.