Print this Post

Clearing out a parent’s or other loved one’s home after their death (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of Clearing Out a Loved One’s Home. It includes a step-by-step system for sorting, things to do at the beginning and end of every sorting session, ideas about where to start, and some more tips.toomuchstuff

Going through items
1. Start in an easy place. I suggest the kitchen or the entryway that leads to the kitchen. Although it’s a place full of memories, it’s going to be fairly easy (relatively) to go through. Having a clear entry will also save you a lot of hassle.

2. Clear an area to stack boxes in- this is where you’ll store the items you want to keep for yourself or someone else. Clear an area next to the door- this is where you’ll stack items that are to be donated.

3. Get out two boxes and one garbage bag and mark the boxes:

  • Keep
  • Donate

The bag is for garbage/recycling

4. Now, this is going to sound weird, but try not to think too much. Pick up whatever item is closest to you and make a quick gut decision- keep, donate, or discard. You don’t have to justify it to anyone. Put it in the appropriate box/bag and pick up the next item.

I’m going to break a rule of organizing: If you’re not sure about whether you should keep something or not, keep it.

If I was working with you or if you were going through your own things, I would suggest donating things you weren’t sure about. In this case, hang onto the item you’re not sure about. Yes, in the end you’ll have to go through these items a second time and might end up donating them after all. But everything is more difficult when you’re in mourning, and you are going to feel guilty about whether you made the right decision, especially if you’re doing this alone. Don’t lose any sleep over worrying about whether you should have thrown away a cracked pepper shaker. Hang onto it for now. You can always donate it or recycle it later.

Where should you start in the room? It depends, but here’s one way:

  • You need to be able to come and go easily, so clear out the area around the door.
  • Standing in the door, turn to your left and pick up whatever is in front of you. Go around the room clockwise and deal with things as you get to them. It’s that easy.
  • Start with things on the floor. Leave cabinets and drawers for last- that stuff isn’t in your way right now.

More tips!

  • Resist the urge to work in another room or to go look for something. Focus on this one piece of the elephant. The rest will be there tomorrow.
  • Don’t work until you’re exhausted physically, mentally, or emotionally. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Doing an hour a day is better than doing an 8 hour sessions once a week.
  • On your first visit, make sure the house has the following: a) toilet paper, b) soap, c) paper towels.etc. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
  • Work on one room, then move to a connected room, then another connected room. Do one floor at a time: ground floor, second floor, attic, then basement.

What to do at the beginning of each session:

  1. Put your drink/snack in the fridge.
  2. Take a quick walk through the house to make sure there aren’t any broken windows/etc.
  3. Check the mail.
  4. Open up some windows and/or the shades if you can to let some light and air in.
  5. Turn on the music!
  6. Start on today’s bite.

What to do at the end of each session:

  1. Take the mail for the executor.
  2. Throw away the garbage- even if the bag isn’t full.
  3. If possible, bring the donated items to the charity right away.
  4. Go home and take a break.
  5. Remind yourself that you have eaten one more bite of elephant.

I hope that you’ve found this information helpful. Let me know in the comments section what works – or doesn’t work- for you.

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.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ihavetoomuchstuff.com/blog/clearing-out-a-parents-or-other-loved-ones-home-after-their-death-part-3/


  1. Stacie


    I really like that your article gives some concrete steps for such a difficult process. However, I would like even more specific suggestions such as start with X room because… Then move to Y room because… I know it is a matter of preference, but when you’re overwhelmed a plan like that would be very useful.

    Also, I am curious why you suggest the order of ground floor, second floor, attic, and then basement. I haven’t had the heart to change things on the main floor, so I spent some time on the second floor and in the basement, not really completing either one. I had to take a break for various reasons and now I just don’t know where to start again which is why I’ve been looking for a more concrete plan and haven’t had any luck finding one. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for your time,

    1. Beth@IHaveTooMuchStuff.com

      I suggest that you start in the kitchen for three reasons. First, you will want to deal with any food sooner rather than later. The first thing to deal with in the kitchen is the fridge and food pantry. I suggest that you throw out anything that’s open. You may want to donate unopened food to a local food pantry in your loved one’s name. Another reason to start with the kitchen is practicality. You will be bringing things in and out of the house for quite a while; having a cleared kitchen gives you places to stack empty and full boxes as well as makes it easier to come and go. Finally, although there are many memories in kitchens, this is a fairly easy place to make decisions. You will be dealing with pots and pans, dinner settings, food, and utensils. Most of these items will have less emotion tied up in them- as opposed to more personal belongings.

      For the average house, I’d suggest the following order:
      – kitchen- take out the trash and deal with any food first
      – back entryway (which usually leads into the kitchen)- cleaning this out gives you more room to work with and will make it easier to move things out
      – bathroom- although there will be personal items here, you’ll find it fairly easy to sort things like toothpaste and toilet paper.
      – dining room- Once it’s cleared, you’ll be able to use the dining room table to sort and to work on any paperwork. Also, you’ll be continuing with kitchen-related things
      – living room- This will be a big room to tackle with some large pieces of furniture. If you’re planning on selling items on Craigslist or eBay, this would be a good staging area. This is a also a good place to store things that you want to give to another family member.
      – front entry (which is usually off the living room). Again, this will give you some extra space when moving items in and out of the house.
      – second floor bathroom- another fairly easy room to sort, so it’s a good way to start the second floor.
      – second floor spare bedroom- There won’t be many personal items in here so it will be easier to sort.
      – master bedroom- This will be a difficult room, but start with the clothing. I suggest that you donate the clothing. Put aside the jewelry until later.
      – office- This room will be difficult because you may have lots and lots of paperwork to go through. It’s possible to work in here for hours and not see much change, so leave it as the last room on the floor.
      – attic- Many times you will be able to go through this quickly because the items here have been in storage for a long time.
      – basement- There will probably be a mix of new and old storage down here, but by now you’ll be an expert at sorting and be able to move through it quickly.
      – Do photographs, jewelry, and personal papers last- unless you need to find a will, insurance forms, etc. You’ll be able to take them home to work on if you prefer.

      My order of ground floor, second floor, attic, then basement is based on practicality. Once the ground floor is cleared, you will have space to sort items from other floors as well as a place to store the things you want to keep. The first floor also tends to be more public; our most private things are usually in our bedrooms. This will give you time to get used to sorting easier items before getting to the most difficult. Clearing out the attic after the second floor gives you space to bring attic items into a more comfortable part of the house to work on and lets you spread out. The basement and attic can be done in whichever order you prefer.

      If you find it easier to work on the second floor to start, then keep working there. At first it may be difficult to discard anything, so its best to start with easier areas. Doing one room at a time, then a whole floor at a time is a psychological “trick”- finishing something gives us a sense of accomplishment. You’ll feel good when you can see a big chunk done rather than a bunch of smaller ones.

      This is a huge job. Make sure you take plenty of breaks and try to find someone who can keep you company while you sort. It will make it easier.

      Good luck

      P.S. I forgot to add that you should take anything valuable with you on your first visit- jewelry box, coin collections, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *