How a shelf containing hygiene items has become a shrine of sorts


There’s a shelf in my custom-made medicine cabinet that still is crammed with my husband Jim’s personal hygiene items. I pretty much ignore it, so it’s remained the same for five and a half years since shortly after Jim died from pancreatic cancer in December 2010.

Despite usually ignoring it, I’ve almost thrown the stuff away several times without success. So there it sits, occupying space with no chance of its owner ever using it again.

The medicine cabinet is part of the built-in wooden structure that also has a pullout clothes hamper and a linen closet where I keep towels and other items.

The lower shelves of the medicine cabinet house my personal hygiene items and some dog medicines and things I use in care of their coats. They are eye level and lower, so I have no need to look beyond them to the highest shelf.

Jim’s things occupied a lower shelf when he was alive. After he died, I decided to clean the items out of the cabinet, but instead ended up moving the shaving cream, razor, aftershave, men’s hairspray, cologne and other items to that top shelf.

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At first I took comfort in knowing they were there, as if they would be ready for him when he came home. I knew in my heart he would never come home, but in early stages of grief, you just pray you’re living a nightmare that you’ll wake up from and discover that everything is still as it should be.

So permanent changes are out of the question.

After a while, I just got used to the things being on the top shelf and there was no real reason to sort through them or throw them out. They weren’t in my way, and on some level, they gave me a little comfort.

But now their existence is nagging at me. I fear that on some level, the shelf and its content have become a memorial or shrine of sorts.

I think you have to be careful about memorials and shrines. They have a way of spreading and eventually taking over your personal space, and encroaching on your identity. I don’t want to be defined that way.

There is nothing wrong with having reminders of a loved one, especially if they give you comfort or bring up a happy or important time in yours and your loved one’s life. But I think the role of what we hang onto needs to be clear.

And what is clear to me about Jim’s items on the top shelf is that I am avoiding dealing with them. They’re not things I would use. Nor would anyone else. They really are not things that defined Jim. They are hygiene products. And most likely expired and past their usefulness by now.

They’re personal, but not as personal as clothes or pocket junk. Not as personal as music or favorite books or movies. Not as personal as daily routines and people who are important to us. Not as personal as the wedding band I still wear. Not as personal as what we meant – and mean — to each other.

But somehow thinking about cleaning out that shelf and taking over the space for my own stuff is another jab at the nightmare that is my reality and has been since Jim’s death. It confirms I no longer share physical space with my beloved spouse.

Yet I know I have to do something with that shelf’s contents soon. I am moving beyond such things, and continuing to move forward requires me to take care of this and a few other things.

So I have a plan. I’m going to clean out the whole unit and rearrange it. The linen closet and the medicine cabinet will be cleaned out and reorganized, and I think I can throw out the content of that top shelf as part of a larger purge of unwanted and unused items.

I will feel better when I have taken care of this task, and I think it will give me courage to face other projects. It may hurt a little, but sometimes there has to be pain before there can be healing.

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Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.