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Clearing out a parent’s or other loved one’s home after their death (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1, here are some ideas about how to get through the difficult task of clearing out a loved one’s home.

Things to bring with you

  • boxes
  • garbage bags
  • gloves
  • markers
  • flashlight
  • a snack and a drink
  • music

1. Try not to do it on your own. This is an incredibly difficult job to do at the best of times. Some families will simply throw everything away; some will want to keep every last napkin. Nearly everyone will find themselves breaking down over something like a toothbrush- unimportant on its own, but an item that has such a close connection to their loved one that it suddenly seems valuable. Look for someone outside the immediate family to help you. The best people can be objective and reassure you when you make decisions. I do this as part of my job; one person said she was glad I was there to warn her “when I’m being crazy”.

2. First, deal with any pets. Hopefully, all pets have already been taken care of, but it’s possible to walk into a house to find a cat who has been forgotten about or a murky tank of fish.

3. Throw away any food and garbage. Clear out the fridge. It’s not a fun job, but you must do it as soon as possible to avoid creepy-crawly unpleasantness. If someone will be working at the house, leave the fridge plugged in so you can store drinks for yourself. If there’s a chance the power will be turned off, turn it off, and keep the door open. Next, go through the food cabinets. Throw away anything that’s open. Cans and anything sealed can wait- unless there’s an insect infestation.

4. Get a paper bag/recycling bin/garbage bag and put it near the mailbox. Get the mail and quickly sort through it without opening anything. Hang onto bills and anything official-looking and give them to the executor. Throw away any obvious junk mail. Put everything else in a pile to deal with later. Do this every day until the executor has had the mail forwarded to them.

5. Now we get to the actual sorting. This is where it gets hard. You are looking at a person’s entire life and have to essentially scatter it to the wind. The key to doing this is to remember the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Focus on doing one bite at a time: one room, one table, one shelf- whatever you can deal with. After you’ve dealt with that, take another bite.

6. By the time you’ve done the first sort, you should have stacks of boxes, furniture and a lot of cleared space. You’ve got a number of choices- here are the basics:

a. Do another sort and put things into categories: all linens, books, china, etc. If I’m doing this for you, I will do this step. You can probably skip it because you know what you have and are at the stage where you can make some good decisions. If you’re still having trouble deciding what to keep… I guess I’ll write another article; it’s a long answer.

b. It’s time to give things away. Deciding who gets what is a nightmare that depends too much on the specific family dynamics to give much advice on. When someone hires me to do this, I create a private web site and post pictures of everything that looks valuable or sentimental. This way, everyone can see what’s there and family members who live far away won’t feel left out.

c. Give/sell/donate/discard everything.

That’s it. You’ve eaten the elephant. You may feel that you made mistakes, but there’s no way to do this perfectly. All you can do is what you can do.

Part 3 will break down the sorting step some more and have more tips.

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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