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In February 2021, I was feeling stuck. It wasn’t exactly surprising given that the country was a year into the pandemic at the time, but it was more than the stay-at-home orders and online schooling that isolated and froze me in place. It was also the fact that I had no real place to call home, not since I’d moved out of my parent’s house to live with my grandmother and aunt for space and health reasons. While I was grateful to have a roof over my head — a luxury in those days and now — I was staying in a guest room where I slept and studied on a fold-out couch. Clutter piled up and my clothes and belongings were stuffed in drawers that I couldn’t get to most days. I was living in limbo, torn between knowing I wouldn’t be staying there forever but not knowing when I’d leave. It was a mess, both physical and metaphorical, that I thought couldn’t get any worse. Then, my grandmother passed away.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just the environment outside of myself that was overwhelming me; it was also my grief. Memories of her life and death replayed themselves over and over in my head whether I was awake or asleep. Everywhere I went in the house, I thought of her and the growing relationship we’d built in the past months of staying together that I’d now lost.
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It became apparent to my aunt and myself that my grandmother’s bedroom was now vacant, but I wanted to avoid the conversation about who would stay in it. Instead, I continued to live in the guest room, half-convincing myself that my aunt deserved the larger layout, the second bathroom, the walk-in closet.
But I knew it was much more than that. The truth was, I couldn’t go into my grandmother’s room, filled with everything she’d owned in the last years of her life without sinking deeper into my grief. On top of that, there was now this guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach just thinking about taking over a space that used to be hers. How could I live in this room where nothing felt like mine but the thought of changing or removing anything would feel like losing her all over again?
What I didn’t know then was that my inner turbulence and self-doubt were completely normal. “Having a living space where there are so many memories can be overwhelming in a grieving process. So when you’re in that process of doing something different or something new, it’s scary. It can cause anxiety,” says Imuri Pacheco, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Highland Park Holistic Therapy. “Even something as simple as ‘I’m going to paint the room’ can be hard. What if things are not the same anymore?”
That fear of moving into her room was holding me back from truly moving on. Because I hadn’t accepted her passing, I also wasn’t accepting that my grandmother’s room was now mine to redecorate to suit my own style and tastes, and that it was, in a way, her last parting gift to me so that I might live a better life. It wasn’t until my aunt finally spoke up and offered the room to me that I imagined the potential and possibility.
Still, the most important thing I could’ve done was ensure that I didn’t embark on this journey by myself. Prepping the room and going through her things became a group effort among myself, my aunts, and my mom. It was almost therapeutic to sort through her belongings, laugh at the memories they brought up for us, and grieve for the grandmother and mother we had lost. Through that process, I also found a few trinkets, clothes, and pieces of furniture of hers that I wanted to keep. It made the moving-in process easier, knowing that pieces of her would always remain. That was the balance I tried to strike: recreating the room without letting her go completely.
More than a year after my grandmother died, I officially began redecorating with the help of my boyfriend, starting with painting the walls and building a few pieces of small furniture. On the first day, he was about to press the dripping paint roller against the wall to cover a color my grandmother had chosen decades before, and felt free and frightened all at once. In that moment, I realized that it was the beginning of finally saying good-bye and opening a new chapter of my life.
It was a natural feeling, according to Pacheco. “In making a space your own, there’s almost this renewal of yourself as you’re questioning what life means to you and what this person meant to you,” she says. “It makes you think of yourself and your own mortality, your own meaning. A living place is a perfect example of that renewal, doing things that are good for you and taking care of yourself, taking care of your heart, and putting yourself first.”
For so long, I thought I was selfish for wanting more and better for myself, that grieving was only ever supposed to be about the person I was mourning. But it can actually be “a time when people might be putting themselves first for the first time,” as Pacheco notes. “It’s important for you to listen to yourself and listen to what your heart needs, what your body needs, and sometimes a clear space is what you need,” she says.
Like other aspects of grief, redecorating is rarely linear or straightforward, and it’s different for everyone. There are still days when my happiness about my room becomes diluted because of what I lost to get here. But I’m grateful this process has allowed me to keep my grandmother’s memory alive, all while transforming my life and this room into something more meaningful than I could’ve ever imagined.
February is Bedroom Month on Apartment Therapy! We’re sharing stories all month about bedrooms — from how to sleep in them, decorate them, make the most of small ones, and so much more. Head over here to see them all!