Before we get started, I just want to give a quick heads up about the content of this post. We’re going to be talking about death and grief in the home. To do that topic justice, it means we talk about some very specific details of people dying at home, both expectedly and unexpectedly. If you’re coping with difficult memories, images, or trauma around watching someone die, finding someone deceased, etc you may want to make sure you are in the right physical and mental space before reading on.
My sister’s boyfriend died of a drug overdose in my family’s sun room. If you’re a regular around here you probably know that. You probably also know that my dad died in an ICU in a hospital when I was 18, several years before. Because my dad’s death didn’t happen at home, I hadn’t thought a lot about how death consumes physical space. I thought about how grief and memories consume space; I knew there were places where I felt like I could still “see” my dad. I would walk into the sunroom and anticipate him sitting in “his” seat on the sofa. I would glance out onto the driveway, see his car, and think to myself “oh, dad’s home!” and then would immediately think, “oh no, dad’s not home, he’s dead”. But until John died, I hadn’t thought about how a death itself can live in a space. I didn’t realize how completely similar but totally different that is.
The night John died, I got the call and rushed home from work to find my sister sobbing on the porch. She had come home just a little before and found him. Though it was much too late, she called 911, pulled him to the floor and started CPR. By the time I arrived the paramedics were there and he had been pronounced dead, but he couldn’t be moved until the medical examiner arrived. I can picture John’s body now as clearly as that day, when I walked into the living room he was laying on the floor, motionless. His defining brown curls faced me, and I just stood there, lost. I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to do. We had to wait nearly two hours for the medical examiner’s office to arrive.
When my dad died we all gathered around his hospital bed. In college I volunteered for a hospice so my only context for home deaths were in hospice beds, with support and family. In this moment I was surrounded by paramedics I had never met, who seemed as uncomfortable as I was upset. I wanted to touch John, to hug him. I don’t know if they paramedics told me that wasn’t okay to do or if I just assumed it wasn’t, but I didn’t touch him. I just stood there and stared while the image of his body and his curls, laying on that floor, burned into my brain. It became clear later that, during that time, John’s death moved into that space for me. For months I would picture his body on the floor every time I came down the stairs and walked into that room. I would avoid sitting there because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the image of him on the floor. Until writing this post I never asked my sister about her experience in the space. When I called her to ask I barely had to finish the question. She immediately knew what I meant, the trauma the room held for years. Yet we never talked about then, never considered what (if anything) we could do about it.
In the years since we have worked with countless clients and families whose loved ones died at home. Some were anticipated hospice deaths. Others were unexpected, some traumatic. No matter the type of loss, time and again we hear people share their feelings that the deaths that occur in the home resides in the space. Even with the best and most dignified and supported of deaths, these memories and feelings in the space can sometimes feel overwhelming to manage.
We wish you could provide you the magic answer. We wish we had checklist of solutions that would clear your space of the difficult death memories to open the space for all the other, wonderful memories. Sadly, that isn’t how it works. What we can do is talk about some suggestions, tips, and ideas and think through the benefits and considerations.
#1 Change Everything
Sometimes this takes the shape of moving, sometimes this takes the shape of getting rid of all the old furniture, decorations, and photographs and creating a newly decorated space.
Sometimes the triggers are just too much and this feels like the best and only option. Depending on the situation, you may still need to deal with the traumatic memories with the support of a counselor. Radically changing the physical environment can make it easier to manage those difficult emotions in the moment by reducing triggers.
Many of these radical changes are not easy. Also, they can be hard to undo if you rush and then regret it. Once you have sold you home, given notice on a lease, or moved out you often can’t go back. It can also be hard to get back items you have given or thrown away, or otherwise change things back once after the fact. Finally, sometimes you think changing everything will help and it doesn’t, which can feel like a waste of time, money or energy.
#2 Change nothing
Fear of losing memories, whether they are positive or negative memories, can be strong. It can be appealing to leave things exactly the same to keep a connection with your loved one and those memories.
Beyond the fact that this option prevents you from having to do much work, it also can succeed in keeping the connection with the person who died. It can also provide a sense of familiarity that is appealing when so many other things feel foreign.
As you might imagine, changing nothing can bring up overwhelming grief triggers every time you walk into a specific space. This can be hard at first though, in some cases, that distress turns to comfort with time.
#3 Make some changes
No surprise, some people don’t want a full change, but they don’t feel good leaving things exactly the same either. In this case, small changes may be the solution. Things like a coat of paint or rearranging furniture are sometimes just enough.
This can be both logistically manageable while also providing just the right amount of shift to help your brain focus on more positive memories (or at the very least not immediately trigger the most painful death memories).
It can be hard to know how much is enough, what is too much, and what to change. Also, as with any of these, if other people live in your home (or feel an emotional attachment to it) may have their own opinion about what you should or shouldn’t do to change things. It is important to do what works for you while also communicating.
#4 Make thoughtful changes
If you decide to go with some changes, think them through and decide what will help. If the death itself seems to have taken over the space, you aren’t going to change that overnight. You can move things into the space that bring up more positive memories, or that shift your focus. Maybe it is photographs of wonderful times together that you have enlarged and framed. Maybe it is introducing a color or artwork that brings you a sense of calm or that reminds you of your loved one. Whatever you decide to do, take your time and consider the idea that you cannot change or eliminate the devastating loss that occurred in the space. What you can do is think of how to make room for other things.
As always, we would love to know your experiences, tips, and thoughts! Leave a comment to let us know if you have dealt with a home death and how you’ve coped.