Coping with Memory Clutter
Married for almost 17 years, Steve and Jenny had their first son, Jake, in 1993. Two years later, the couple's second son, Lincoln, was born. Their idyllic world was turned upside down in 1998 when Jake was diagnosed with leukemia. After going into remission quickly, the family thought their struggles were over. "We thought, well, we're going to sail through this," Steve says. "We're going to beat this."
Jake relapsed almost two years to the day of his first diagnosis, but the family refused to give up hope. "It was probably right until the time at the very end when the doctors said, 'We have to take him off life support,'" Steve says. "We went in and told him it's between you and God. If you've had enough, we give you permission." Jake died on August 23, 2001.
Almost six years after Jake's death, the family still struggles with what to do with Jake's room. The family would like to turn it into an office, and the family has even cleared out most of the clutter. When it comes to parting with Jake's things, the family gets overwhelmed. "Lincoln and I were having the hardest time moving on. We've been the most attached to the physical things because, as a mom, I pick it up and [I say], 'Oh, I remember when he wore that shirt.' I can't let that shirt go because that's a memory," Jenny says.
Nate and Peter soon arrive to help Jenny, Steve and Lincoln say good-bye to their memory clutter.
Peter says memory clutter is a more common problem than most people realize. "People are terrified that if they let go of the objects, they will lose the memory," Peter says. Jenny and Steve say they have that exact fear. "If we get rid of this piece of paper that he touched, well, there goes Jake along with it," Steve says.
In fact, Peter says clearing the emotional clutter will help preserve Jake's memory. "In pulling stuff out that reminds you most of Jake, that represents him, what happens is that you honor the memory even more," Peter says. "And instead of the fear of losing him, you actually move to a place where the things that are most important about him are honored."
Nate says he held onto a voice mail Fernando had left on his cell phone for a year after his death. Not knowing his phone would automatically erase messages that were a year old, Nate was shocked to find it was gone when he went to listen to it on New Year's 2006. "It forced me to realize that, that wasn't Fernando, as sad as it was," Nate says.
Helping Jenny, Steve and Lincoln will be a moving experience for everyone, Nate says. "This is a monumental day for you and for you and for you, and likely for us, because we're here to help represent the future and honor the past. And that's really what we're here to do."
To start, Peter asks each person to name one item that they most associate with Jake. For Jenny, it's the Big Bird doll that kept him company when he was sick. Lincoln remembers beating Jake at Harry Potter board games, and Steve says he still remembers the way Jake would organize and reorganize the contents of a small peach box. "Each of you has identified something at the top of the pile in terms of something that really has strong, positive things about Jake, and that's got to be the focus today."
Step 1: Place all items in another area. Peter sets up a tarp in the yard and places the items on top of it.
Step 2: Decide how you want to feel in the space. Lincoln says he wants to feel relaxed in Jake's old room. "I want to feel like we're still including Jake in the family," Jenny says.
Step 3: Sort everything into three categories. Peter establishes one area for charity donations, another for the things the family wants to keep and a third for the "best of the best" to be included in a memory chest.
Then, Peter comes across a sound machine that used to help Jake fall asleep. Every night, Jenny and Steve say good-night to Lincoln, and then they go to Jake's room to say good-night to him and turn on the machine. In keeping it, Peter wants to make sure this ritual is not unhealthy for the family. "The big focus in this is that stuff has power over you," Peter says. "My concern [is] that often in touching things or looking at things they [are] connecting to the grief of the experience."
Lincoln was so young when Jake died that he says it's hard to remember the sound of his voice and what he looked like. "It's like a hole's in my heart," he says. Peter asks how he can help Lincoln heal. "Definitely by keeping some of the good memory stuff instead of all this bad memory stuff," he says.
Five hours later, the family finishes with four boxes of joyful memories of Jake.
Nate turned Jake's old bedroom into a cheerful, organized office for the entire family. From the calming shade of blue on the walls to the warm tones of the new Crate & Barrel desk, the new space is inviting.
Lincoln digs the new Apple laptop and the small 12-inch printer. If anyone decides to send "snail mail" instead of e-mail, they're all set with their own personalized stationary.
But some of the most important elements of the makeover aren't new purchases. "A really important thing for us, too, was that you're in this room as well and your mom and dad are in this room," Peter tells Lincoln. "So there are photos of you, Jake, [a] family photo here, so it's a family room."
The cork board wall, installed by Lowe's, contains some memories of the past, but Nate says he's also designed it with the future in mind. "I thought, 'Let's just keep this going and this wall can just ... be covered with stuff eventually,'" he says.
Jenny loves the new room. "It's really healthy," she says. "It's a much better place."
"You know what?" Nate says. "Of everything that you could have possibly said, that is my favorite thing."
On the other side of the room is a matching armoire to organize office supplies. "There are two cabinets, one's past, one's present and future," Nate says.
Lincoln loves the tribute to his brother, but says he's glad the room is no longer a shrine. "It's more of a healthy room, like Mom said," Lincoln says. "It's not stuck in 2001. Now it's 2007 and forward."
For families coping with the death of a loved one, Dr. Robin says it's important for parents to be aware of their own grieving process because children will mirror their parents' behavior. This makeover is a positive step in the healing process. "What's important is the two of you [have] to really model for him what healthy grief looks like. And at this point, you've been a resilient family, you've survived the unthinkable. And having said that, you need a new image of how one can hold onto someone who is near and dear to them."