What Is Normal In Grief?
By Clarissa Moll
Whether you keep his things or give them away, there’s no one right way to grieve.
When my husband, Rob, died in a tragic hiking accident in July 2019, I came home to Boston from his burial service on the West Coast and boxed up his things. His baseball hats and clothes. The papers on his home office desk. In my shock and early grief, it was just too painful to look at them every day. Rows of boxes all labeled “Rob” in black Sharpie lined the back of my bedroom closet, a quiet testimony to my heartbreaking loss. A whole life reduced to a row of cardboard boxes. Some family and friends offered to help me go through his belongings, but I just wasn’t ready.
It’s normal in grief to get rid of your loved one’s belongings. It’s also normal to hold onto them, sometimes for a very long time. There is no right or wrong, no prescribed way to say goodbye. As I near the year anniversary of Rob’s death, I’ve slowly begun the process of opening those boxes again, sifting through the memories inside, and figuring out what to do. It’s a one-step-forward two-steps-back kind of process, sensing when to lean into my grief and knowing when I need relief.
When I began going through Rob’s belongings, I realized that I wasn’t ready to cancel his phone line and let this piece of him go. His phone was shattered in the accident that took his life. It miraculously still functioned, but I needed to get information off it and was afraid of cutting my fingers on the broken glass screen. His phone wasn’t paid off when he died, so I submitted a claim to his insurance to get it replaced.
When the replacement phone arrived, it hurt more than I anticipated to remove the SIM card from his broken one, put it into the new phone, and bundle his broken phone up to send back. I audibly said “goodbye” to the box as I dropped it off at the UPS store, and I cried on the way home. It was a sad farewell.
Even though it’s shattered — maybe because it’s shattered — that phone meant so much to me. We’re sometimes embarrassed to admit how intimately we are tied to our technology, but it’s true. That phone slid into his pocket each morning, warmed to his body temperature in his hand. It was the receptacle of his thoughts and memories and dreams. Even his choice of apps revealed the man he was. And it was on him when he died. My four young children were apprehensive about me sending it back; they got it instinctually. Giving up Rob’s shattered phone was giving up another piece of him.
Rob’s SIM card is safely installed into the replacement phone now — “Dad’s phone” — though he’ll never hold it in his hand. I love that if you call his number, you’ll still hear his voicemail. We keep the phone in the cabinet for emergencies. My children especially love that the games Rob downloaded for them are all still on there. The replacement phone is “just like Dad’s used to be!”
As I set up the new phone, I kept his password the same. However, the fingerprint ID is mine now instead of his. It feels practical, if a little inauthentic. But this mishmash of past and present and future is our “new normal” now. Everything can be normal in grief. Even setting up a new phone for a man who will never use it.
Our culture struggles to understand that each grieving person has his or her unique process, that there is no one right way to mourn the one you’ve loved and lost. The nonlinear nature of grief is confusing. We box things up and we take them out again. We give things away or we keep them forever. Some days are filled with hope, others with pure sorrow.
I know there are folks waiting on the sidelines of my life, assuming that I’ll be healed after all the boxes are unpacked, after I finally cancel my husband’s cell phone service. I suspect they’ll be disappointed to find I’m still grieving. The truth is, with or without his things around me, I’m going to miss Rob for the rest of my life. I’m not sure how long this process of unpacking and sorting will take. I’m glad there is no deadline or time table. I’m glad that everything can be normal in grief.
About the Author
Clarissa Moll is the young widow of author Rob Moll and the mother of their four children.
After a career in fundraising and marketing for small nonprofits, she now supports those in grief through her writing.
Find her on Instagram and Twitter.