Empty garage for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Missing Shawn

Totes in the Garage

I love spring cleaning. I love getting rid of things I don’t need, wiping down the surfaces of stuff that’s been in storage for the winter, organizing and using my label maker. I’m that girl. I love it so much that I also do a fall clean-out. And sometimes I even add a winter cleaning.

But being a widow makes this process more complicated. I’ve always been a person who gets rid of everything I don’t need, and everyone knows this about me. In fact, my kids are so aware of this part of my personality that they’ll frequently give me something (a toy from a birthday party or a treasure they found walking home from school) and immediately say, “don’t throw it away!” They know I might. But when it comes to stuff that’s sentimental to me as a widow, especially Shawn’s stuff, I’ve kept a lot of it around.

Mostly, Shawn’s stuff lives in totes in the garage. They’re organized and labeled (“Shawn’s things”) and there used to be dozens of them. Slowly, I’ve been able to part with some of the boxes, but many have remained. As I cleaned out his closet and bookshelves and other places where he kept things, I put some of the stuff in these totes, and donated other stuff.

It was a process. Initially, I could only clean out the medical equipment and other things that made me really sad. I couldn’t handle even a small clean-out of Shawn’s closet until a month after he died, and it took over a year before I tackled most of his clothing. I wrote about my grief as I cleaned out his closet in the blog post, “The Closet“:

I went upstairs, and looked at Shawn’s clothes. And then I was crying – actually, I was falling-on-the-floor sobbing. I let myself just feel sad for a really, really long time. God, I miss him. It’s been so long – 15 months – and yet I still have times when I miss Shawn with an intensity that surprises me. I thought, somehow, that these emotional breakdowns would ease as time passed, but now I’m realizing that I might be 10 years down the road, I might even be remarried to some handsome stranger, and I’ll STILL have moments when I miss Shawn as though I just lost him. I’ve heard this from other widows who are farther out than me. But it’s been surprising to experience it myself.

Clearly, the process of letting Shawn go was just that. A process. And a messy one at that.

A year after that, I cleaned off a final bookshelf of Shawn’s. The process that time was easier, but the grief – that part remained. I wrote about that in the blog post, “The Bookshelf“:

My own books were stacked in the corner, mostly ones about widowhood and grief and resilience, and I thought about how much space they would take up. The kids’ board games needed a spot as well. I didn’t want to erase Shawn from the bookshelf, but we needed to live on this bookshelf as well. Our family needed it to grow. Still, standing there looking at the piles of his books was overwhelming, and I bent over the toy bin and sobbed for a long while. God, I miss him. Even now, even more than two years later, the grief can take over in such an intense way.

That was over a year and a half ago. I’ve cleaned out many spaces in my house since then, as the pandemic hit and then Chris arrived and moved in, and then as we became a family. Slowly, I made room for new parts of my life. No, I haven’t taken down the family photos with Shawn in them and his flag from his citizenship ceremony still remains on our bookshelf. We have sentimental things of Shawn’s throughout the house. But much of the rest of the stuff is packed away.

I was reflecting on this process the other day as I started my fall cleaning. Chris and I sat on the back porch and organized boxes of summer gear, swapping it with winter gear. My dad was inside, hanging out with the kids, but once we started moving things to the basement, he came to help. Chris went to do some more work on the porch and my dad helped me organize some of the totes in the basement. I took a look at what we had and realized we were running out of space.

“I think I need to go through some of these boxes of Shawn’s,” I said to my dad, and I pulled a few out to look through.

Inside were a number of his shirts, some ties and other articles of clothing. The next box had a lot of books and a few funny photos. “I just don’t know how to decide what to keep,” I said to my dad.

“You should get rid of all of it,” he said, without expression.

I looked at him like he was crazy. All of it? Really?

“All of it,” he said again. “Otherwise, your kids will have to throw it all out in 20 years, like your sister is doing now!”

He was right about that. My sister has spent the past few summers flying home to Oregon and going through boxes and boxes of my mom’s stuff: keepsakes and clothing and pottery and you-name-it. I’ve wanted none of it. Neither has she. The only thing we’ve kept are the letters and photos that she found.

I wasn’t going to get rid of all of Shawn’s stuff, but I knew it was just stuff. The important things of his were already displayed in the house – photos, of course, but also a framed letter from President Obama, a piece of art from his office, his guitars, and the blankets made out of his favorite t-shirts. Did we really need to keep all of his ties in a box in the basement?

My dad saw me hesitate, and so he stood there, quietly waiting. “I just want to go through it all first,” I said, and I sat down and did just that. Eventually, I emptied out a number of unsentimental things, though I kept a few of his prized possessions and his baby book. The rest went in a donation bag or in piles for friends and family. My dad dutifully packed everything up for me. At the end, we realized we had a lot fewer tote boxes in the basement.

I didn’t sob. I didn’t even feel that sad. It was strange, in a way, to feel just sweet thoughts (and not deep grief) when I picked up Shawn’s favorite Clausewitz clock and looked at his childhood pictures. I kept those objects, and got rid of the ties and hats and things like that, feeling little nostalgia over these objects that didn’t mean that much to Shawn, either. And then I drove to the donation site and dropped them off.

I didn’t sob. I realized that I was different from the person I had once been, the person who had written, “I might be 10 years down the road, I might even be remarried to some handsome stranger, and I’ll STILL have moments when I miss Shawn as though I just lost him.” I don’t feel like that anymore. I miss Shawn, of course, but in a different way now.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this “different way” of missing him, except to say that I never quite imagined I’d get to this place. And yet here I am.

It’s a strange place to be, in a way. But I know this: Shawn would be glad I’m making room for our family to grow.

I bet he’d even be glad I didn’t sob over his old t-shirts anymore.


  • Jocelyn Richgels

    Thank you for this article. Shortly after my son, Theo, died in 2019, I went through his clothes and books and toys and kept only the items that had a memory for me, either because it was something he loved or something that reminded me of an event. But I kept a lot of stuff and haven’t removed any more of it since then. Everything I look at makes me smile. I know I will want or need to do another round at some point, but I can’t yet. This is helpful to know that somewhere along the line I might be able to do it again.

    • M Brimley

      Honestly, I think there’s no rush. I think sometimes it’s helpful to donate some of the objects you have in storage, and sometimes it’s healthier to keep them. Everyone has their own timeline, of course. Thanks for sharing with us about your son.