I'm reading
Grief, meaning and objects
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Grief, meaning and objects
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Grief, meaning and objects
Pass it on
Pass it on
16 September 2018

Grief, meaning and objects

“Mum’s objects are like ‘living beasts.’ I’m in awe of them, indebted, thankful. She lives on in them. She lives on in me.”

Written by Megan Spencer

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

“Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts.” ―Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

When my mother died in 2012, the fabric of my existence turned upside down, inside out.

In one phone call she was gone. There was a flurry of activity. No time alone to say goodbye. Her presence on Earth instantly evacuated.

Suddenly, all I had left of Mum’s physical form were objects—her objects. Those she’d touched and worn, those she’d cherished and used. And, as it turned out, those she’d ‘hung on’ to since the 1980s: hundreds of old bills and official notices, read, scribbled upon, in envelopes slit-open. Discreetly stored around the house in garbage bags.

All these things were united by the fact that her hands had touched them. They were a godsend. I was able to not only walk a mile in her shoes but feel her life as she had.

There are people who believe objects are magical: that they possess the identity of their owners, partly the reason why they find it so difficult to throw them away. (Perhaps unkindly, we call them “hoarders”). These objects are not just part of their world but part of them. They feel compelled to protect these things from harm and those who won’t understand their very nature.

There are meta-physicists who argue objects possess an “essence”—essential properties that make them intrinsically and necessarily meaningful.

My friend Darren believes objects hold our “energy”—that we impart emotions into things, affecting those we pass them on to. “Just because we can’t measure it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he says.

In a culture which so often values the inanimate over the living and breathing, is there a place for a deep and abiding love of things? Could it be possible for objects to help us heal?

My answer is not “I think so.” I know so.

It took nine months to sort through my mother’s possessions, a journey that recon-figured the way I related to her now that she was gone. Sifting through 75 years of stuff, I inhabited the very loneliness and isolation that had so often kept us from each other. I got to see her life in macro. Fear and distrust in close-up. It was terrible and beautiful.

Her worst fear of being alone (she was a divorced single parent in the ’70s) manifested in the hoarding of private papers. She was too scared to let them go out into the world lest her business be known, her marital status shamed, her identity stolen.

Sifting through these things, I imagined what it must have been like to be so afraid—to feel like such a failure. “No-one wanted me,” she used to say about her harsh, neglected, 1930s upbringing.

Her objects became a road map into her experience. I hitchhiked through decades of clothes, kitchenware, linen, precious knick-knacks, notes-to-self. The highs, the lows, the yearning. Mementos of hope, evidence of sadness. The occasional piece of ornate china inherited from the stoic Coventry-born grandparents who’d raised her.

Then: sentimental tokens from my past, things I’d thrown off as a defiant 19-year-old, exhausted by her misery, desperate to flee the scene. She’d kept them all—books, letters, school reports, toys. Our shared life came into sharp focus. Our bond, over which we’d struggled and fought, was no longer abstract.

Through this vortex of things I felt the greater gifts she’d given me: comfort, care, resilience, independence. She’d always wanted my life to be better than hers. Here it was, manifest, in her stuff, my stuff. I could touch it. It was like reading braille.

Broken open, I felt Mum’s deep vulnerability and grief. I understood the struggle, the adversity, the pushing away. For the first time I knew what it was to be her.

The love I had for my dear mother, so dangerous and distant, finally bubbled up. A roiling river of empathy, forgiveness, gratitude and compassion surged through me. It was so difficult, endless. Needed.

I’d been waiting for this my whole life.

“Grief work” is what psychologists might call this experience: reconnecting with a person who has died through activities or objects that recall their presence.

More progressive theorists—those of the “continuing bond theory” around grief and loss—might describe it as creating a new relationship with the deceased via the use of their things.

Some might simply say I have “attachment issues,” objects are just objects: it’s the memories we assign to them that make them meaningful, right?

To me, Mum’s objects are like “living beasts,” I’m in awe of them, indebted, thankful. She lives on in them. She lives on in me. I know this now.

I need to keep them close.

• ‘Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things’, Randy Frost, the National Hoarding and Squalor Conference. 29 June 2016. 
• ‘Stones rolling and the joy of ordinary objects’, The Philosopher’s Zone program, Radio National, philosopher Dana Goswick, May 14, 2017.
‘The year of magical thinking – Joan Didion and the dialectic of grief’:  Frank Brennan, Michael Dash, Research Gate, June 2008.
• ‘Continuing Bonds: Shifting the Grief Paradigm’, What’s Your Grief blog, Litsa Williams, Eleanor Haley

Megan Spencer

Megan Spencer is a broadcaster, writer, podcast maker and a mindfulness meditation teacher who occasionally writes about grief. She is the founder of Auspicious Plastic, an intimate, conversational podcast about precious objects and the stories behind them.

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