Break-up & Loss

How to deal with mementos of a lost love

Sometimes we hang on to things long after their owners have left us. How do you deal with mementos of a relationship that has ended?
lady crying badly

(Names changed on request)

We have all heard that love gives meaning to life. But did you ever realise that love gives meaning to things? Material, physical, tangible things – quite the antithesis to something as ephemeral and ineffable as love. Yet all our lives, we collect and gift things for the emotional value they possess. Famed poet and activist Maya Angelou told us something about the power of human feeling – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Perhaps this can be said of things too. We may forget their purpose, their need, but it’s hard to let go of things engraved with emotions, exchanged in love, encapsulated in memory.

Breaking up with a cheater

Sachin had a few such things. When his fiancé of 1 year and girlfriend for 3 left him after he caught her cheating, it seemed all he had left were things. Reminding him, teasing him, torturing him of a past he wanted to erase and a future he wished to stop dreaming of. “Somehow they brought me comfort – initially I looked at her stuff in my house and thought this nightmare would end. I’d wake up with everything okay and her with me.” Clothes, books, random assortments of jewellery/makeup/and other belongings carelessly left behind by her. Then came the gifts, birthdays, anniversaries, special occasion stuff, or even random gifts that made their every day so special. And of course, the memories – hundreds of them – in texts, photos, videos, all in the palm of his hand.

Related reading: The 7 stages of a breakup

Escaping an abusive relationship

Ruchi also found herself buried under such an avalanche when she finally said goodbye to a 4-year abusive relationship. Years of sorry-it-won’t-happen-again to I’m-sorry-it-happened-again expressed through gifts, poems, messages, flowers, the dried petals of which she saved. Things that were a sum of those years – the hope, the pain, the love. Everyone told her to throw them away. But she just could not bring herself to it. “Yes, even looking at them brought a mad rush of tears to my eyes. I did not even know if the tears were because it was over or because I was still in love.”

Related reading: 15 signs you are still not over your ex

Losing a loved one to death

And what about things associated with a loved one taken too soon? Arif’s wife died of cancer 5 years into their wedding. Four years of wedded bliss, and 1 of running from one hospital to the next, a lifetime of loss. Holding on to every little thing that belonged to his wife became his way of coping with his grief. “I even went to the extent of fighting with her sister when she came to help me clean the house. I would not let her discard anything. It seemed such an insult, that just because she was dead her things stopped holding any value.”

Related reading: Erasing memories and saying goodbye after a breakup

Coping with loss and bereavement

Psychotherapist Gaurav Deka explains this attachment with six important needs of human existence – certainty, variety, growth, significance, contribution, and connection. In an ambiguous and unpredictable life, the need for certainty helps us make some order in chaos. Holding on to things from an end to a relationship that was not in our control, helps protect that need. It is a coping mechanism, one where we project the emotions involved on to material things. He suggests asking yourself two questions: How does holding on to things make you feel? How is it helping you? “Once you begin to answer these, you will get closer to the closure you seek.”

So what did Sachin, Ruchi and Arif do to help drop this physical and emotional baggage?

Move on

“I sat down and divided her stuff,” Sachin shared. “Whatever belonged to her I sent back through a friend. Next came the gifts – I asked myself if I was keeping them because she gave them to me, or because I genuinely liked them? Initially I kept a few and passed on the rest. Then I realised that somehow it will always be a reminder and she had already moved on – so I needed to as well. As for the photos, texts etc., well, I put them on a hard drive. That remains the only physical piece of memory from that relationship with me. I hope one day I can let go of that too.”

Get over

For Ruchi, it was not this methodical. More so, because she wanted to be able to face that man one day and throw the things in his face. “Isn’t that every broken heart’s dream?” she said with a wry smile.

“I realised I had let myself become a cliché. And all for a man that did not deserve me. It took a long time to get there – almost 2 years after the relationship ended. Initially I could not even muster the courage to look at them, hold them. First I overcame that. I told myself – cry your heart out, Ruchi, but get it over with. And I did. Till one day I found myself emptying that shelf in my cupboard in a big jhola. I had already texted him and fixed a meeting. He probably thought I was going to come crying into his arms! Instead I put the bag in front of him – these belong to you, perhaps your new girlfriend can read them. He was aghast and had no idea what storm my calm face was hiding. Saying that, I walked away.”

Related reading: 10 ways to deal with heartbreak

Let go

Arif fought depression for over a year after his wife’s passing. In a meaningless life, only her erstwhile belongings provided comfort. “I would just hold them and cry – her clothes, towels, anything which had any essence of her. Then as time passed it dawned on me – did I love her for who she was or what she had?”

breakup and loss

“There was so much more to her than her things and the real insult was reducing her life’s worth to her possessions. The first step was the hardest. I remember it was well into winter, and this old woman on a crossing near my house was sitting on the pavement. The next day, I gave her one of Roshan’s old sweaters. I came home and cried like a baby – and had to hold myself from taking it back. Since then I have given most of her things away. I still hold on to some – but those are way too special for anyone else.”

Related reading: He is at peace, and her love goes on

If emotions are the investment of love, things perhaps become its currency. It’s easy to lose sight of the former when the latter is around.

 

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