At some point in our lives, we will all grieve a loss. Whether experiencing a job layoff, divorce, change in health, or a loved one’s hand you hold for the last time, none of us are exempt from grief’s company. A complex response to loss is a shared human experience, with much of the journey occurring within the spaces of your home. However, understanding how grief manifests in your surroundings can help you discover strategies for reclaiming personal spaces after loss.

Personal experience

My first grief experience started in 1998 when I was a senior in high school. My mom was diagnosed with a rare disease that impacted her hormones and her ability to heal. Our family grieved for years as we watched the woman who held our house together slowly deteriorate. After multiple small strokes and a diagnosis of vascular dementia, she was no longer able to swallow or keep down food. I was twenty-five years old when she died. I’ll always remember holding her hand for the last time and softly whispering, “It’s okay to let go, Mom.” 

At the time of her death, I never imagined that I would become an occupational therapist or a professional organizer with a focus on grief and its impact on the home environment. All I knew was that I was consumed with sadness, anger, guilt, and a nagging voice that said I needed to muster up the energy to put my laundry away. 

Grief and your home environment

The impact of grief on physical living spaces is not something that is frequently talked about in grieving communities. At least, it wasn’t in the early 2000s when I attended multiple support groups to discuss the stages of grief and was reassured that none of them would last forever. After months of insomnia and constant crying, I wasn’t so sure.  

Grief permeates all areas of life, so it’s not surprising that physical surroundings often become neglected as a result. For example, stacks of mail or dirty dishes might take a backseat while you are consumed with myriad emotions. This onslaught of emotions makes it hard to focus. Grief hijacks your concentration and your ability to make decisions. In my case, the choice to keep my mom’s coveted Hummels or not became paralyzing. 

Another of grief’s many side effects is a change in daily routine. Schedules help anchor your days and give structure when you’re unsure of what to do. When grief comes into your life, routine is often pushed aside, creating an environment of uncertainty and chaos. 

Finding order

In times of uncertainty and emotional overwhelm, your physical spaces have the power to support you and provide a safe haven. Here are a few considerations when addressing your physical spaces during grief. 

Have a designated “comfort zone” in your home 

Grieving is uncomfortable. Giving yourself a quiet, simple space can be a salve in this discomfort. Depending on your living situation, this could be a cozy corner with your favorite blanket and soft lighting. It’s important that this space feels inviting to you. Remove excess clutter and visual distractions so that you don’t see household tasks staring you in the face. I would also recommend limiting technology here. See this as a detox space where simplicity can help you sit with all your emotions.

Establish small, consistent routines

This might include setting a time of day to do the dishes or fold the laundry. Try doing only one thing at a time, then give yourself a break before tackling another task. Remember, even accomplishing one small goal can help move you forward.  

Acknowledge emotional attachments

You may have inherited items from your loved one that you’re not ready to lose. There is no timeline for going through these items. If you’re not ready to say goodbye right away, create “decision boxes” to go through later. This can give you freedom to navigate at your own pace, without having these items front and center begging you to make a decision.

Preserve your loved one’s memory

Create a memorial for your loved one or preserve a special item that makes you smile every time you pass it in your house. This is an intentional way to incorporate them and their belongings into your space.  

Be compassionate with yourself

Let yourself be okay with not getting everything done immediately. This was critical in my grief journey. Being a fairly organized person by nature, it felt like a moral failing if I didn’t get the dishes done or take out the garbage in a timely manner. Once I gave myself permission to let go of some of these tasks, even momentarily, I was able to focus on my emotions without shame or judgment

Ask for support

You don’t have to be a hero in your grief. Reach out to friends and family. They truly want to help. After my mom died, some of my most touching memories were when friends came over to vacuum or do my dishes. People want to help in tangible ways, so hand them a broom and let them support you. You’re not just giving them a gift, but also giving yourself one less task to consume your thoughts. 

Conclusion

It is important to remember that the grieving process is unique to each person, and the ability to care for our physical environments may vary. Grief is not a comfortable process, and it’s often something we want to push away. Creating a supportive and comforting environment can offer solace and provide a sense of control and stability during challenging times. By acknowledging the importance of our physical spaces, we empower ourselves to navigate these complexities and create a peaceful place for emotional restoration.


Angie is the owner of Function & Flow Home Organizing in Portland, Oregon. She is a licensed occupational therapist and professional organizer. The Big Rocks Team is proud to partner with Angie to support her clients through big life transitions.