“How do I make this home mine without losing her?” The heart-rending question came in an email from Bob Glockler, 83, of Leesburg, Fla.. He recently lost his wife of 56 years.
Now, I have written books about clearing out the family home, about downsizing when you find a mate and blend two homes into one, and about what to do with all you own so you don’t leave a mess when you die, but never this: What should bereaved spouses do with their late mate’s things? Ugh.
“We (now I) have a spacious 1,600-square-foot, two-bedroom home,” he wrote. “What do I do with all her things and pictures? Obviously, I will not, do not want to, forget her, but my lifestyle now changes. How do I shift her ‘stuff’ out of the big closet, and move in my ‘stuff’? Do I give up the king-size bed to make more room in the bedroom? (I do not know for what.) At this point, I am not thinking long term — she died only a month ago. But what if I do finally find a new companion?”
Phew. That’s a lot to unpack. I needed to sit down, stick my nose in a can of strong ground coffee, and take deep head-clearing breaths.
“I thought my dilemma might make a good column,” he added. “But maybe I am in a demographic too old for your readers.”
I’ve got news for y’all, while advanced age is a risk factor for death, none of us is immune, as we have all recently observed. What a remaining partner should do when death do us part hits home can happen any time.
I got Mr. Glockler on the phone. “I’m not sure I have the answers,” I told him. “But I will listen and try.” He came across as in his email: kind, sensitive, honest and realistic.
He and Mary met in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1964. He was a U.S. Navy officer. He went to open an account at the bank where she worked. He wore his officer whites, and that was it for her. They married the following year.
They settled in New Jersey, where he worked in pharmaceutical management. They never had children. They retired in Leesburg, where Mary had gone to high school. Two and a half years ago, they downsized from a 2800-square-foot, lakefront house to an apartment across the lake in a senior community that offered housekeeping and nightly dinners. “The decision was simple. It was time,” he said.
Mary died peacefully at home, on August 13, holding his hand. She was 84.
We tackled the questions regarding his home one at a time, starting at the front door:
The entryway. “When I walk up, I would like to feel this is my home, and not see a reminder of her. Yet I feel conflicted. I want to make this mine. Is that okay? Or is that the same as saying, I don’t want her?” What’s there now? I asked. A small table with a doily and a ceramic statue of a troubadour, he said. “Now I would not put a troubadour on a lace doily at the door, but I don’t know what I would replace them with either. It’s not really me. It’s her.”
Suggestion. It’s not disrespectful to change décor that doesn’t reflect you. Just go slow. Remove everything, and see how you feel. Live with nothing there for a while. Then consider what you want to fill the absence. Perhaps a potted palm.
The China cabinet. Everything in the China hutch is from her family, and is nothing I would pick. What do I do with it?
Suggestion. Thin it out. Display items that do reflect you, but leave some empty space. You mention that someday you might have a new companion. If you do, when she comes into your home, she will be asking herself, consciously or unconsciously: Is there room for me in this person’s life?
Her closet. Our bedroom has a large walk-in closet, which she used. I’m thinking all her clothes need to go to a thrift shop. When her closet is empty, I will move my clothes in, so they’re more accessible. That makes sense, but I’m not sure it’s right.
Suggestion. Clothes are among the most difficult items to let go of as they trigger many memories and emotions. For now, consider using her walk-in closet as a way station for all the items you’re transitioning out of the rest of the home: the troubadour, items from the China cabinet, her bathroom chair. Park those belongings in the closet and see how you and your house feel with the change. When you’re ready, have a friend help you box them up to donate.
The dresser. In our bedroom, she had a five-foot long dresser with an array of pictures on it, including a few of me. It was a very personal collection to Mary. Do I leave them?
Suggestion. You answered your question. “It was a very personal collection to Mary.” Put the photos away. Keep out the ones important to you. Then consider selling the dresser and replacing it with an item you will use.
The bed. We have a king-size, sleep-number bed, the kind you can adjust, so it’s different on two sides. I do not want to sleep on her side, where she died, so I am only using half a bed. Do I give up the bed?
Suggestion. Easy. You do not need that reminder. Get a new bed.
As we wrapped up our call, Mr. Glockler said, “You raised a good question. What is my style? My style has been shaped by our life together. Before that I was a kid, then an officer. I didn’t have a style. Who am I separate from her?”
I don’t know either, but I believe Mr. Glockler is about to find out.
Photo caption: Suddenly Single — Widower Bob Glockler, who is a healthy, active 83, is struggling to define what his home should look like now that his wife is gone. Photo by Von Diefenderfer.