I’m one of those people who enjoy tidying, organising, and cleaning. It brings some grounding to my anxiety attacks when I am able to form some order out of chaos, and things are packed away properly. When my mind gets cluttered, I turn to de-cluttering my physical space as a gateway to making sense of things. So in the context of a world which don’t make much sense to me now from losing Mizah and living in this Covid-19 era, it’s no surprise that I’m konmari-ing my way out of it.
I live in a small apartment, a place where Mizah and I have transformed from house to home, one touch at a time. It’s a space that has cradled our memories and dreams. It is also where we retreat from our rather public-facing work and recharge with ourselves and each other. Despite the compactness of our home, we’ve still managed to share food and conversations with close family and friends around our dining table and prepared for all of it in our tiny kitchen. In sickness, it was where we could be safe and comfortable to be nursed and cared for, in Mizah’s case till the end.
Every part of this home holds memories of all kinds and in such a compact space, there is no place to hide away from it. Like other privileged people, I am also now sheltering-in-place from the Covid-19 virus, which then forces me to engage with each space, surface, furniture, and the things contained in it all the time. This transforms the entire house to become a relentless and unforgiving portal to past moments, one that is constantly making me process my grief through its physicality.
Deciding to pack and tidy the house was my attempt to bring some order to this life that will never be the same but has to go on. It was also my way of leaning into the discomfort and fully engaging with the grief while preparing the ground for a different future. I knew it will be difficult so I decided to deal with it methodically: one small part of the house each week.
I can tell you now that tidying the house after losing your favourite person who you shared it with is hard. It sucks. It is very raw and it makes the loss very tangible and very real. Each object is a memory bank that gets triggered when being held and one must then make the decision to keep it, give it to family and friends, give it to strangers, or throw it away. It feels impossible but it’s probably just insanely emotional and difficult. The involvement of others is meaningful for them and makes it slightly easier as well. And if you have to go through this, I suggest you do the konmari thing of expressing your gratitude and saying thank you to the things that have given your favourite person joy and comfort because it works in bringing closure. That ‘spark joy’ thing however is a lot more complicated and can bring a lot of heartbreak. But then again, your own mileage may vary.
There are some things that are easy because of the natural selection process known as ‘expiry date’. Donating away medical supplies that may help others was also an easy one. These ultimately had the impact of clearing the clutter, leaving a positive glow from knowing that the donations has helped others, while also reclaiming a small part of the positive narrative around the house.
However, some tidying just require more strength from within, like the wardrobe. For me, there were clothes that were worn so frequently that it defined Mizah. There were those that has fallen out favour or kept for special occasions and presentations. There were clothes that meant we were comfortable at home. There were some that I will always associate with seeing her in pain, bringing her for chemotherapy treatments and clinic visits, or one of her long hospitalisation spells. And then, there were clothes newly bought and never worn.
With some help and a fair amount of pain inside, the clothes were sorted to be kept by different people, donated, or discarded. And for those who have to go through this process, I should warn you that the stabbing pain comes later, when it is just you and the empty hangers and drawers staring back at you. That is when you realise that your person is indeed gone. That a huge physical trace has been cleared out, and all that’s left is what you have in your memory.
There are also spaces in the house that will mean a lot to your loved one and for Mizah, the kitchen was one of those spaces. It was where she manifested her love, care, and joy to others and herself through food. It was a domain that she controlled but sadly, the fridge, pantry cabinet, and all her kitchen tools and cutleries had been ignored in recent months when her condition took a turn for the worse. The decision-making when organising the kitchen is easy and cleaning up the clutter was somewhat calming for me. After all, I’m one of those people who find cleaning the dishes a meditative practice. But the fact that I was doing it all in Mizah’s happy place – one that she would not be enjoying anymore – was an emotional journey. I recalled the hours we spent in the kitchen prepping meals for ourselves and others, the twinkle in her eye when she was in her zone, and the joy on her face when the dishes comes out beautifully, as it always does. What was maybe harder was coming to terms that now, there only needs to be enough cutleries for a household of one.
Though the tidying is underway, there are also parts of the house and things that Mizah owned that I do not have the strength to engage with. There is her study area where she spent a lot of time working on P!D matters, her stationeries and the notebooks that she loved so much and used to make her art, the photos on her various devices, and more. There will be a time for all of that, but it is not now.
For now, I know that by working through her things, I am able to work through my head and heart. Holding these physical objects is helping me touch deeply the raw emotions within myself. It makes plain the void that has been left behind, but it also reveals a clearing from which a new possibility could manifest. Tidying has been a tangible form of catharsis for me, and it seems that tidying is actually part of grieving.
Dispatches is my monthly letter to you about our shared humanity and life in cities. I send it out on the last Tuesday of every month.