Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza, LPC
It’s Not Just Stuff: Grieving Over Belongings Is Totally Valid
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Having lived in Houston most of my life, I am all too familiar with natural disasters and the loss that accompanies them. From catastrophic hurricanes, to floods, and now recently a freak freeze/snow incident, I have seen people in varying stages of grief over not just the loss of loved ones, both human and four-legged, but personal items as well.
I remember one flood in particular that occurred about ten years ago. I was not doing well financially and was driving a car that was about fifteen years old and on its last leg. I couldn’t afford to buy a new one and the thought of losing my car in an accident or a flood terrified me to no end. Many people drowned during this one particular flood and I saw people on social media ridiculing these people for trying to drive to work in the middle of a flood. I also saw people on social media expressing sadness over the loss of their cars only to be met with admonishments about how lucky they should feel that they were still alive, and that their cars were “just stuff.” As someone who lived in daily fear that my car would stop working, leaving me with no way to get to work, and possibly no work in the long run, I understood the fear and sadness these people felt.
While my attachment to my car was related to survival rather than grief, it made me acutely aware of the emotional attachment we have to personal objects and how we are often shamed for this attachment. I became even more aware of this during hurricane Harvey. For readers who don’t live in Houston, this hurricane was catastrophic. People lost their lives, their homes, their pets, and they lost belongings that held sentimental value to them. During Harvey, I was a case manager assisting clients with the financial and housing devastation left from Harvey. Two years after Harvey I was a licensed psychotherapist working with clients dealing with a wide array of issues- trauma and grief being two of the main issues. I had quite a few clients struggling with trauma and grief in the aftermath of Harvey. They had survived but they had watched everything they owned disappear under water while they were helpless to do anything. Every single client I worked with who survived Harvey struggled to explain how painful it was to watch beloved books, family heirlooms, cribs, and in one case a dearly beloved musical instrument, slowly become things of the past as Harvey waters devoured them. Many of these clients could barely articulate the pain they experienced losing these things and they would quickly follow up with comments about how lucky they were to be alive and “I know it’s just stuff.” They dismissed their own feelings so abruptly it felt like they were in some sort of race to say it before I did. After gently questioning a few of my clients about this, I quickly learned that they were afraid that I, as a therapist, would dismiss their grief by trying to make them look on the bright side or reminding them that they were lucky to be alive. They needn’t have worried. I felt pain for them when they described these losses. One day, during an EMDR session, I asked a client if it was possible to feel lucky to be alive and also allow themself to grieve the loss of their belongings. Something about having a therapist give them space and permission to feel this loss opened a significant grief channel. This allowed them to process this grief and eventually heal from the pain of the loss.
People mean well when they say these things but not allowing people the space to grieve the things that they have lost often stunts their grieving process and can have a retraumatizing effect. We don’t get to tell another person how to grieve or what they are allowed to grieve. If you know someone who is going through this, ask them what you can do to be supportive, listen nonjudgmentally when they describe what they lost and how they feel, and allow them space to feel their feelings even if you don’t understand them. The beautiful thing about compassion is that you don’t have to understand a person’s situation to show them compassion.
And if you are grieving, whether loss of loved ones, or loss of personal items, your grief is still valid. Grief is beautiful and ugly and imperfect and necessary and doesn’t always fit into a neat and easy to understand pattern. You can consider yourself lucky to be alive and still grieve the loss of personal items. Your grief is valid.
-Elizabeth Seabolt-Esparza, LPC