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What to Do With Photos of a Late Loved One?

The decision this writer made and how she came to terms with it

By Jill Smolowe

After the death of a loved one, the bereaved face painful “What do I do with ...” decisions.

old family photographs
Credit: @kathkarno via Twenty20

What do I do with my spouse’s clothes? (Give them to friends? Relatives? Goodwill?) What do I do with my parents’ wedding china? (Store it for my kids? Sell it on eBay?)  What do I do with my sister’s jewelry? (Give it all to her kids? Save a few pieces for myself and her friends?)  What do I do with my spouse’s wedding ring? (Wear it on my hand? Loop it on a neck chain? Place it in a jewelry box?) What, for that matter, do I do with mine?

The author, her late husband and their daughter
The author, her late husband and their daughter

While that last question garners particular attention and sympathy, there’s another that can stir as much heartache and deliberation, yet seldom gets discussed: What do I do with the photographs of my late loved one?

Unlike most “What do I do with ...” questions, this one is rarely settled by a single decision. Instead, it tends to recur again and again.

Photos stashed in a drawer, too painful to look at in the immediate aftermath of a loss, often are revisited as the raw ache subsides. Spousal pictures that have decorated walls for years get renewed consideration when a new love interest enters the picture. Framed shots that line the shelves of a spacious suburban house require culling upon relocation to a smaller abode. Each time, those who have lost loved ones find themselves wrestling with decisions about which photos get displayed and which ones get consigned to manila envelopes, scrapbooks or, dare I say it, the trash can.

No Right or Wrong Decisions

Unlike old Polaroids, there’s nothing black and white about these decisions.

A photo captures a moment in time, often a happy one. Tucking it away may feel like consigning that moment to the dustbin of personal history. Leaving it out may prove a persistent, unwelcome reminder of a happiness that has evaporated. Editing a displayed collection may feel necessary to accommodate a new relationship — but may also feel traitorous. All of this can leave people silently fuming: Where are the rule books when you need them?

Be reassured: when it comes to pictures, there are no “right” or “wrong” decisions.

The best you can do is make decisions that sit most comfortably — which is to say, least uncomfortably — here and now. Over time, as grief shifts and changes, your feelings about particular photographs may also shift and your decisions may change. Again, no right. No wrong. There’s only what works for you at this moment.

One septuagenarian friend put away all her pictures of her parents after she suffered their deaths in rapid succession. The images, she found, were too painful a reminder of how much family she’d lost.

A friend in her fifties had the opposite reaction. Her head clouded by painful images of her mother’s debilitating final months, she found that setting out photos of healthier times helped reconnect her with happier memories.

Comforting Images


During the eight years since the death of my first husband, Joe, I’ve experienced all of these feelings — at different times. I’ve responded by doing the only thing that makes sense to me: I’ve gone with what feels least uncomfortable in the moment.

I’m one of those people who treats family photos like art. I curate them. Frame them. Display them. A whole wall on the second floor of my house is filled with five-by-seven pictures of family, lovingly mounted over the decades. Many of them are of Joe, of Joe and me, of Joe and our daughter, Becky.

When Joe died, I couldn’t look at any of them without tearing up. When I asked Becky, then 15, how she felt about the display, she said she liked it. For me, that eliminated any thought of taking them down. I wasn’t about to muck with pictures of Dad that gave her comfort. Instead, for months I averted my eyes each time I rounded the stairway and confronted that wall.

As time passed, I began to look at the pictures again and found that the images, which documented all phases of my 28-year relationship with Joe, provided comfort. The photos of a younger, more vibrant Joe jostled the mental images that had settled over my brain of my husband debilitated by leukemia. That helped me to retrieve memories from happier times.

Making Room on the Mantle

After I began dating Bob, the man who would become my second husband, I didn’t anguish about whether all those pictures of Joe bothered him. I felt that the pictures were for Becky and me. I was fortunate in being able to trust that Bob wouldn’t feel threatened by them. Two months before I lost Joe, Bob lost Leslie, his wife of 38 years. We both understood that whatever might emerge between us, our late spouses would be coming along for the ride.

When Bob moved in almost three years later, I didn’t take down pictures of Joe. Instead, I took Bob’s wallet-size photos of Leslie, their two children and Bob, blew them up to five-by-sevens, and added those to the second-floor display.

In the living room, I pared back the collection over the fireplace to make room for Bob's family. Now, half the mantle pictures are of his first family, half are of mine,and the photo that divides the two displays shows us on our wedding day with our three grown children. Each time his kids linger in front of the pictures of their mom, I feel I made the “right” decision.

Also “right” for me? I still don’t watch the videos shot during my first marriage. The one time I tried that, I discovered that I was unready to handle either the moving images of Joe or the sound of his voice. Given more time, I may awake one day craving an afternoon of home movies. Or maybe that day will never arrive. Either way, it’s not right. It’s not wrong. It just is.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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