How Interior Design Can Help Ease Loss and Pain

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I’ve been sensitive to my surroundings since I was a little girl. I can vividly remember at the age of 12 or 13, one of my aunts using an interior designer in her house in Chico. I’d never heard of such a thing. “You mean people get paid to decorate?!” I thought, incredulously.

I’m a grown woman now, with a decorated home of my own. As an interior designer it’s of course a beautiful lab. I’m aware of my surroundings more than ever and experience so much joy from my nest. My home has also acted as a healing space over the years.

Twelve years ago my husband Jim passed away unexpectedly. It left our large family, our young adult son Christian, and me devastated. I remember the pain so clearly. It was blinding and powerful. Jim and I were married 25 years and I had no idea how I would go on without him.

But I did go on. I went to counseling twice a week. I exercised and fed myself fresh, healthy meals. I went to dinner with dear friends once or twice a week. After some months, I started having guests to dinner and started taking interior design clients again.

That first spring and summer I spent almost every day in the gardens. One spot in particular was a little seating area I’d set up just below the old rose bed. The sun sets behind the roses and the wicker bistro chairs, table and iron daybed with big feather pillows acted as my room. This spot, at three or four in the afternoon, is magical. The shadows are long and the light is dappled. With my iced tea and the chirping birds and the sound of the fountain, I’d sit and go through my memories.

Your home can be such a positive force in your life, providing structure, stability and a place to heal but if it drains you it’s important to make changes. This could be as little as investing in a good cleaning lady or professional organizer or as large as a remodel. Even if it’s just for a day or two of cleaning, it will give you an enormous energy boost and rekindle your pride which in turn will be great impetus to keep it that way.

Experts all say after losing a spouse or mate don’t make any big changes the first few years. The same goes for making interior design changes to your home. But if your home needs TLC, making and if the changes will add beauty, comfort and stability, do consider it. Our surroundings have a stronger effect on your psyche than you might realize initially.

  • Consider fresh paint and new fabrics in comforting colors, on windows and seating.
  • Don’t replace or discard anything for at least three years.
  • Don’t do any major remodeling for at least three years.
  • Do feel free to rearrange accessories as needed, but don’t do major furniture rearranging.
  • Focus on sentimental items. When Jim died, I reframed several portraits of him and did a proper “rogue’s gallery” in my beautiful wrap around stairwell and landing.
  • Expose windows daily and aspire to keep your spaces fresh and clean.
  • If your home seems to be missing something, my rule is add scale, texture and/or greenery.

I design spaces for women with arthritis and chronic pain and it is much the same as interior design for women who have lost their significant other. Follow a few of my tips below to create a nurturing space for yourself while you heal.

  • Choose cool, soothing colors like muted blues, blushes, warmed up versions of gray and white with gorgeous gold metal finishes.
  • Add comforting details like hardbound books, flowers and plants and textures like baskets, hand knotted area rugs and soft throws.
  • Consider how your furniture layouts work for you. End tables are great between comfy armchairs but put them around your sofa and (end tables and consoles) become cumbersome and ‘busy’. Instead, opt for walls sconces for light sources and a nice cocktail table for drinks.
  • Large pieces (hutches, armoires and entertainment cabinets), built-in bookshelves and fireplaces add an anchoring effect to our interior design which in turn adds stability to our frayed psyches!
  • Add a place in the home like a hallway or other thoroughfare to display framed pictures and mementos of your lost loved one but mix them in with other family things. Mixing everyone’s memories together in a unobtrusive way (like a hallway) ensures none will be weeded out entirely. I still display Jim’s sterling baby cup in my dining room hutch and one of his small, framed baby pictures on a bookcase in the den. As well, I have a great framed photo of us with our son at a beautiful Santa Barbara wedding that sits on my desk.

I was 48 when Jim died. I remember well-meaning friends recommending support groups and giving me books on grief. I appreciated their intentions but I knew myself well enough to know those things wouldn’t work for me. What worked best was actually finding meaningful ways to honor his memory; rest and reflection in my own beautiful home and garden; taking excellent daily care of myself with great nutrition and plenty of exercise; spending time in nature and a great night’s sleep.

The cloud gradually lifts, not all at once but over a period of years. For me it was about five years before I really saw the needle move and another five years before I could say “I have reached my capacity to heal on this loss.”

I choose to remember everything. Remembering can be painful at times but if the choice is living pain free and forgetting, I choose to remember. Easy choice.


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