After Her Husband Died, Downsizing Became a Way to Process Grief


“I knew instantly I didn’t want to be there,” said Ms. Carter. She contacted the leasing office of her building a few days after losing Mr. Carter to find a smaller apartment. “We don’t think about how our physical surroundings can really be so integral to how we’re feeling.”

Planning to radically downsize, she rented an 822-square-foot one-bedroom in the same building for $5,700 a month, with the notion of moving in at the beginning of December. That left her with about four weeks to design her new apartment and figure out what to do with a lifetime’s worth of belongings.

For help, Ms. Carter called on two professionals she had worked with in the past: Barbara Vail, the interior designer who had designed the couple’s three-bedroom apartment, and Rachel Rosenthal, an organizer who had helped the Carters with previous moves and planned their wedding.

For her new home, Ms. Carter didn’t want to cherry-pick a few pieces of furniture from her old home — she wanted an entirely new environment. She made plans to sell or give away most of her furniture and accessories to friends and neighbors, and provided Ms. Vail with some basic direction.

“I told her I wanted to live in a Nancy Meyers movie,” Ms. Carter said, naming the filmmaker behind movies like “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated,” which had sets that inspired many real-life imitators.

Ms. Ms. Vail accepted the challenge. She said that the main goal was to make the apartment comfortable, inviting, and healing. It was going to have a different aesthetic from her previous apartment, which had a more modern feel. She didn’t hesitate to meet the deadline. Ms. Vail chose to use only vintage and in-stock items, rather than waiting weeks or even months for new furniture. Ms. Vail explained that she did this to create an eclectic and custom look while still being renter-friendly. Then she added a bed from Maiden Home and rattan night stands from Ballard Designs, topped by sculptural lamps with block-printed, pleated fabric shades.

At the same time, Ms. Rosenthal was helping Ms. Carter clear out her old home while preserving important mementos of her time with Mr. Carter.

“I’m a big believer that physical clutter creates emotional clutter,” Ms. Rosenthal said, so she helped Ms. Carter donate everyday things that held little meaning — her husband’s clothing and office supplies, for example — keeping only the pieces that really mattered.

Although Ms. Carter’s new home offers a fresh start, it is filled with things that evoke memories of Mr. Carter: photos of the couple together, framed handwritten notes and other objects. In the living area, Ms. Carter framed one of Mr. Carter’s favorite neckties. She did the same with an old tennis racket he dutifully brought on every vacation but rarely used.

“I like to think that we were always having so much fun on vacation that he didn’t think he needed to add in a sport,” Ms. Carter said.

She framed a handwritten note saying “Kwispies for NYC plz” — Mr. Carter’s way of asking her to make brown-butter Rice Krispies treats for a trip — as well as an elaborate equation reflecting his work as a physicist.

She added a few new pieces, including Herend ceramic figurines of a lion and a squirrel. She explained that she called Ash “Lion” and he called her “Squirrelly”. “All these things makes me feel like he is with me in an amazing way, not in an amber-preserved way.” She is now writing a book on dealing with loss. It is “a guide that looks at practical ways to put one foot infront of the other, with your body and mind, as well as your space.”

The emphasis, she said, is “day-today, action-oriented” ways you can move ahead.

Her home is a good example. She said, “It’s been so calming and I feel really happy.” It does make a big difference to me.