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Slices of Life: The devil’s in the details

You never know how things are going to hit you. 

Today I read something that hit me. 

It was posted on a social media site for widow(er)s, and started with one, rather simple, but heart-breaking sentence:

“I put his underwear in the garbage this morning.”

Reading that sentence resonated with me; I can relate because I’ve been there, quite literally.

If you haven’t, and I hope you haven’t, just imagine.

Just imagine. Putting his (or her) underwear into the garbage, because they are no longer needed and there is no where else for them to go. Because, quite simply, the person who wore those underwear has died.

No one wants to wear a dead person’s underwear.

Just imagine.

That is death. That is widowhood.

The devil, my friends, is literally in the details. Underwear end up being mere details.

Heartbreaking details because throwing away something as simple as old underwear feels like you are throwing away a life. 

Memories. What was. What would have been. What should have been. What you had planned. It’s all wrapped up in used, and no longer needed, boxer briefs.

I don’t remember what I did with my husband’s underwear. I feel a little guilty about that. I suppose I threw them away. What else would I have done with them? Dust the furniture?

No, I’m sure I threw them away.

But, to be honest (and this pains me) I don’t remember. I don’t remember quite a few things about what I did with what.

It was all painful, and the fog of forgetfulness is probably a protective shield.

Still I think the whole underwear thing is so illustrative of grief in general.

We think of grief as this big bad “thing.” Something huge — because it is. It is beyond huge.

But grief is also underwear and socks. It is his toothbrush and comb. It is his driver’s license. His nail clippers. His chapstick. His car keys. The photos he kept in his wallet. 

It is ordering new checks because it’s no longer correct for his name to be on the old ones. It is changing the utility bills and life insurance beneficiaries. It is all the things you never wanted to think about, much less do.

From the outside, throwing the underwear into the garbage sounds easy. It sounds logical. It makes sense.

But it is hard as hell. It is gut-wrenching. They were his and you don’t want his essence to end. You don’t want to throw any of that into the garbage, because it feels so wrong on so many levels. It feels like a waste — that even a small part of his life was a waste feels defeating and deafening — a crushing blow.

Even now, three years later, the reality of it all brings with it the silence of nothingness — something that simply was not supposed to be. Except it is. 

And nothing will ever change that.

So, my friends, you find yourself throwing underwear into the garbage. You struggle with the driver’s license and photos from the wallet and can’t bring yourself to throw them away (yet), so they sit in a drawer and when you run into them every so often, you pause, and remember, and think you should probably toss them. 

(What good are they now?) 

But they aren’t taking up too much space and it’s easier just to put them back in the drawer and not make any rash decisions — not yet.

That is the prolonged, consistent, permanent reality of grief. It comes up in the corners of drawers not often opened. It creeps into sentences you don’t expect to read. It exists in the notes of songs on the radio and memories that crop up in the most inopportune of times.

So, if you ever find yourself in the place of putting someone’s underwear in the garbage, I’m so sorry. There aren’t words to express how I feel about that, but please know I am with you. Please know that I get it, but so very truly wish I didn’t.

— Jill Pertler’s column Slices of Life appears regularly in the Times. She can be reached at