Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife passed away two years ago. We were both in our middle 60s. I want to resume dating, but female friends tell me I need to remove all traces of my wife from the apartment before I do so. I have not been able to part with anything since she died. Her closet and drawers are still full of her clothing. Family photographs are on every wall. I am convinced I want to get on with my life, but feel paralyzed whenever the idea of parting with her belongings comes up. Is this common? What’s holding me back?
In Buddhism, the “Middle Way” refers to a path to enlightenment that steers between two extremes, such as self-denial and self-indulgence. Avoiding a choice between such radical opposites, in this view, is the noble path that leads to right understanding and right action.
But one need not be a Buddhist to recognize the wisdom of this perspective. To remove all traces of your wife from your home and your heart, your closets and your conversations, would be to erase a vital part of your life story, the personal history that makes you, you. Surely a relationship based on love and openness would not demand such relinquishment of your identity, as if the years spent with your wife could simply be edited out of your life, like the pages of so many chapters cut out of a novel. On the other hand, the futile effort to freeze time suggested by your inability to release anything associated with your wife suggests that you are not yet ready to make room, literally or metaphorically, for another relationship.
What, then, is the Middle Way in this situation? Perhaps it would involve a careful, unhurried sorting of your wife’s possessions: Which are genuinely cherished mementos for you to hold close? Which might become precious “linking objects” to your wife passed on to others who love her–perhaps your children or grandchildren, her siblings, or her friends? And which might become legacy gifts for those in need given in your wife’s name, perhaps to a charity whose work carried meaning for her? Taking time to sift through such possessions, whether on your own or with a close family member, can itself be therapeutic, often giving rise to meaningful conversations with yourself in a personal journal or with the trusted person who joins you in the task. The important thing is to give such work the time it deserves, with no hurry to “get rid of” anything: some belongings will obviously be keepers, while others can clearly be gifts, and those in between can simply be placed in storage for later sorting. The first step is the hardest, and you may find that the process comes to feel right as you make decisions of which your wife would approve. With each such decision, you will be honoring your love for her, as you also make room for a new relationship.