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Clearing out a parent’s or other loved one’s home after their death (Part 1)

50skitchenI recently read a question from a woman whose mother had died and needed to go through a houseful of belongings. I started to respond, but the post got too big, so I’m posting it here. Part 1 talks about the process as a whole. Part 2 breaks down the job into concrete steps. Part 3 looks at the sorting step in more detail.

Going through a loved one’s belongings after their death is tremendously difficult. We have to go into their house- which looks like it did when they left it- and effectively dismantle their life. It can feel like we’re invading their privacy and showing a lack of respect as we go through a parent’s underwear drawer or find a daughter’s hidden diary. Every item seems precious: these are the teacups she served tea in, those are the sheets she slept in every night, there’s the chair she sat in every day. All of these things seem saturated with the person’s presence; how can you just throw them away? You can’t keep everything- and you wouldn’t want to: most of the teacups are chipped, the sheets are just regular worn sheets, and where would you put another chair?

This usually gets worse when family members and others get involved. Even when the person left a will and the valuable items have been left to someone specific, there are always the little things. It’s the little things that will be at the center of this war. Old grudges and hurt feelings fly to the surface and demand to be heard. “I spent more time with mom than you did.” “You didn’t come here for Christmas last year- you don’t really care about her.” “I had to do all the work helping her because I’m the only one who lives nearby.” “Why are you the executor?” “Why is that person getting the table and not me?” It can be a nightmare.

But it needs to be done by someone.

I’ve been through it and seen it over and over. Families have been torn apart by broken cuckoo-clocks, bent bookends, and rusty tools. I offer a service that can help people in this situation. It consists of four steps:

  1. I organize the person’s possessions into categories.
  2. Based on discussions with the family, certain categories of items are donated or discarded.
  3. I photograph the remaining items and put them on a web site that only the family can access.
  4. Once the family has decided who gets which items, I ship them out.

It’s not a perfect system, but it can be a big help- especially when family members live far away from each other and are too busy to be able to take time out to go through the house properly. It also gives people some distance so they can think more clearly about which items they want to keep. There’s information about this service on my web site– and more will be coming soon.

If you’re going to go through your parents’ belongings yourself, let’s start with some general guidelines:

Things about this process you’ll believe:

  1. You will cry a lot or suppress it now and cry a lot later. There’s no escaping the crying.
  2. It will take a lot longer than you think.
  3. It’s hard physical, mental, and emotional labor.
  4. Some helpers make things worse. Get rid of them.
  5. You will feel guilty, angry, depressed, surprised, resentful, worried, and occasionally happy- sometimes all at once.
  6. Things are going to look worse before they get better.

Things you won’t believe, but are true anyway

  1. It will get easier.
  2. Even having someone just keeping you company without doing anything will help.
  3. You don’t have to do it all today.
  4. Over time, you’ll find it much easier to let things go.
  5. You will finish this job.


Next: Part 2: Breaking down the job into steps

About the author


I am a professional organizer in Buffalo, NY. I focus on helping people who are overwhelmed with all the Stuff they have in their lives. My specialties are: Decluttering, Downsizing, Clearing out a Home after a Death, Moving, and Hoarding. Visit my site at http://www.IHaveTooMuchStuff.com or contact me at beth@IHaveTooMuchStuff.com or (716)791-7293.

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