When a Space Organizer Meets a Counsellor (Part 2)

When a Space Organizer Meets a Counsellor (Part 2)

The principles of decluttering are seamlessly applied in daily space organization. However, when confronted with the possessions left behind by loved ones, the essence of these principles appears to shift subtly. Can the act of clearing everything pave the way for a genuine fresh start? Does it enable the bereaved to navigate their sorrow with ease? Or does it risk evolving into feelings of regret and longing? Hence, a profound exchange unfolds between a space organizer and a counsellor, as they generously share insights into the ‘method of mementos categorising,’ ‘Memory Box,’ ‘digital storage,’ and ‘creative ways to repurpose mementos’…

Tan Qin Ru is a registered and professional counsellor. What sets Qin Ru apart is that she works as a counsellor on the front line of funeral services, spending a considerable amount of time accompanying family members who have lost their loved ones through the grieving process.

“Although items are non-living things, some items hold emotional connections for people, such as items of high commemorative value, especially those left by important individuals in our lives. When it comes to decluttering, the considerations may be different, and for some people, it may not be an easy process.”

Throughout the process of accompanying families in mourning, witnessing the belongings left behind by the deceased had a profound impact on the bereaved, leaving Qin Ru deeply moved. During the demonstration of decluttering with the space organizer Jaq, Qin Ru shared the story of her beloved pet dog, Fei Mao, whom she lost and treated like family. When reminiscing about Fei Mao, we can see a genuine smile on Qin Ru’s face, but also glimpse a hint of tears in her eyes.

“Fei Mao was a mixed-breed dog, and this doll was made to resemble him in terms of his fur colour and appearance. Here, I’ve also collected some of his fur. He passed away due to kidney failure in 2018.”

Qin Ru carefully collected all items related to Fei Mao in a box, creating what could be called a “Memory Box” exclusively dedicated to him, shared among her and her family. Inside are two albums and a commemorative ceramic tile bearing Fei Mao’s paw print.

“This is Fei Mao’s paw print taken before his cremation as a keepsake. To be honest, seeing these items now still brings sadness.”


Give yourself more time to organize the mementos

“Fei Mao was seriously ill at that time. I accompanied him to the hospital for blood tests and reports every week. He needed intravenous drips every day. Then suddenly he was gone, and I was asked to immediately tidy up his belongings. It was very difficult, and it was heartbreaking that no one could understand that I needed more time to sort through his mementos.” Space organizer Jaq, who was listening nearby, gently patted Qin Ru’s shoulder as a gesture of understanding and comfort.

As a counsellor, understanding and empathy is crucial for professional competence. Due to personal experience, Qin Ru can empathize more deeply. “In general, when faced with the belongings left behind by a loved one, the bereaved do not exhibit a singular reaction. Some may directly face these belongings, some may need others to assist in handling them, and some may be completely unable to face them immediately, leaving the items in their original place, perhaps in a room, temporarily untouched. Therefore, we encourage family members to avoid pushing, offer more understanding, time, and space to the individuals involved, allowing them to have their own pace in preparing to face this situation. Only when they are ready, can we discuss the next steps.”

The ‘Memory Box’ provides a warm buffer period

Space organizer Jaq also added that if there are negative emotions at the moment, no one would enjoy the act of tidying and organizing, so usually when receiving a job, there is a certain level of readiness from client. “At this point, we also do not directly encourage the client to declutter. When you are unsure of how to handle it but feel that certain items hold commemorative value, we suggest creating a ‘Memorial Area’, or it could be a box we call a ‘Memory Box’, where items of commemorative value can be stored first, and then regularly review these items.”

Jaq fully agrees with Qin Ru’s idea of setting up a box to store all the mementos of Fei Mao, which can be taken out for reminiscing when needed, as these items hold significant therapeutic value in providing comfort. Jaq then asked, “I am quite curious from the perspective of a counsellor, how do you handle it when a bereaved family member is ready to sort through their deceased loved one’s belongings?”

Qin Ru replied, “Generally, there are not many bereaved families who actively bring up the need to sort through the deceased’s belongings, perhaps because most people are unaware of a method for organizing such items. If they express the need, we will share with them Mementos Categorisation Method from Mr. Fong Yee Leong, a professional of hospice care.”

Firstly, you can start by categorising the mementos based on their practical value, dividing them into “Useful” and “Not Useful.” Then, consider the commemorative value and categorise them as “Hold emotional significance” and “Not hold emotional significance.” This will result in four different categories. Once the categorisation is completed, you can then think about taking the appropriate actions accordingly.

“The easiest category is the ‘Not Useful’ and ‘Not hold emotional significance’ items (Block 1), as these items can be discarded directly,” explained Qin Ru. “Next are the ‘Useful’ but ‘Not hold emotional significance’ items (Block 2), in which case these items can be given to the right person, donated to those in need, allowing them to continue to serve a purpose and value to their new owner.”

What’s worth discussing are the “Useful” and “Hold emotional significance” items. “At this point, it is important to consider the individual’s current emotional state. If they can handle the emotions involved, they can choose to keep the items with them and even find creative ways to make use of them. For example, clothes can be turned into pillowcases; with some creativity, they can be transformed into cushions or other items, allowing these belongings to provide comfort and solace, and enabling the individual to maintain a connection to the emotions associated with the departed.”

“This is also known as ‘recreating heirlooms,’ and it is being promoted and practiced in other countries, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, and more,” added Qin Ru. “Lastly, for items that are ‘not useful’ but ‘hold emotional significance’, they can be placed in a Memory Box. When needed, they can be taken out to reminisce.”

Digital storage also has warmth

From the perspective of space organization, a Memory Box also requires regular review. It provides individuals with a space for self-dialogue, reminiscence, and reflection on the ways these items are commemorated, whether they acquire new meanings over time. “If an individual feels ready to declutter items, we also recommend the ‘digital storage’ method, which involves taking photos of the items before decluttering and storing them in electronic devices or the cloud. This way, even if the items are no longer there, we can continue to remember our loved ones by looking at the photos,” added Jaq.

Although some items carry emotions, material things will eventually decay. If one day these items are damaged, our love and connection with the deceased may not necessarily be cut off. At this point, the perspectives of the two individuals seem to coincidentally touch upon transcending the material level. Space organizer Jaq says, “A Memory Box doesn’t have to be physical; it can also exist in our hearts, forever cherished.” Counsellor Tan Qin Ru further adds, “Sometimes, love and memories can transcend material possessions, such as the spirit of the deceased, their favourite phrases, etc. We can also imitate and practice these in our lives, carrying on their spirit. Even without physical items, the love and memories imprinted in our hearts can create enduring connections.”

This is a valuable exchange that has allowed two seemingly unrelated professions to find many common points of human warmth. Space organizer Jaq says, “The process of communicating with the counsellor has made me value more how we establish connections with our deceased loved ones. While sorting through their belongings, it is actually a way for us to reflect on and appreciate the deceased. If decluttering or digitising storage is needed, it is not about severing our thoughts and connections with the deceased; instead, it is a way of ‘formally’ storing them in our hearts.”

Counsellor Tan Qin Ru says, “Organizing spaces and belongings sometimes also involves sorting through our own emotions and state of mind. I once read a book by Taiwanese organizer Phyllis, where I learnt that he had to deal with a house full of items left behind by his late mother, prompting him to consider the importance of decluttering during one’s lifetime. If one day the roles were reversed, and in the future if I were to pass away, who would be tasked with organizing my belongings? How would they go about it? Would it cause them trouble? These are perspectives worth contemplating.”

When a Space Organizer Meets a Counsellor (Part 2) – Short Video version

Editor's Note:

Organizing creates more opportunities for us to engage in dialogue with ourselves, particularly when considering our "needs" and "wants", which are magnified within us for discussion and examination. While this may appear demanding, why do some individuals still find a necessity for "organizing"? Perhaps the answer lies in something as straightforward as this: desiring a more structured and orderly life, aspiring to progress towards a brighter future. In a way, this earnest, optimistic, and proactive approach to life seems to be mirrored in how we organize our own existence. Just as physical spaces and material possessions can be arranged, have we also arranged our lives effectively? Planning and organizing in advance, learning to understand and treat ourselves well, can be seen as a valuable gift we give to our own life.