Dealing with Stuff (literally): sorting through a loved ones belongings

Posted by on Jan 28, 2013 in Blog, How-To's | 20 Comments

When my grandmother died she had lived in the same house for over fifty years.  It was the house where so many memories lived . . . feeding birds in the back yard, rolling Easter eggs down the front hill, sitting on the screened-in front porch playing cards and drinking lemonade.  In the weeks and months after she died it was so hard to be in the house without her.  It was her house and it still felt like she should be there, just around the corner in the kitchen or in the TV room.  Every corner was filled with her life – her photo albums and books, her handwriting and her dishes; a place for every thing and every thing in its place.

There was a part of all of us, I think, that wanted to leave the house the way it was,  a perfect time capsule.  How could we change this house where my father grew up?  How could we give a single thing away?  How could we sell this house that no one else had ever owned?  This house was the only place we ever knew my grandmother.  The answer to every question was that we couldn’t, but we had to.  Just like you can’t imagine the world will go on without the person who died, somehow it does.  You imagine that you won’t be able to put one foot in front of the other, and yet somehow you do.   You want to hold on to everything forever, but you can’t.  There it is.  It sucks.  So what do you do?  Each person and family is a little different, but here are some considerations and ideas on getting started.

A Note on Everyday Reminders:sorting through belongings
One luxury we had when my grandmother died was that she lived in her own home.  Though it was difficult to walk through the door and face all of her belongings, when it got too much we could go home.  When my father died there were far fewer items to deal with, but we could not get a break from them.  When you lose someone who lives in your home their belongings surround you.  From their toothbrush in the bathroom, to their laundry in the hamper, to their books on the nightstand, to their keys by the door, everywhere you turn there is a reminder of that person.  Though some of these items may be comforting, many are just small and painful reminders of the absence in the house.  Yet often the only thing more painful than seeing these items every day may be the idea of seeing them in the trash.

If you can’t bring yourself to throw away those half-empty shampoo bottles, to-do lists, and medications, find someone who can.  Friends and extended family are often desperate to help but just don’t know how.  Think of this as one way you can help them to help you.  Tell them what you want to get rid of and ask them to throw it out and take the trash with them when they go, so you aren’t left staring at the trash bag.

While your friend is there, consider the “everyday reminders” that are not trash or that are especially distressing for you.  These may be things that are particularly hard to see everyday, but that you do not want to give or throw away.  Grab a box or pick a room you don’t use often to put them in (or ask your friend to do it for you).  These items could be anything – the scarf your wife was in the middle of knitting, your husband’s coffee mug in the cabinet, that dirty laundry basket in the laundry room, your daughter’s lacrosse stick on porch – whatever.  Put them somewhere out-of-the-way until you are ready to face sorting through belongings.

Considerations for Getting Started: The 4 Ps
I would love to say take your time, do everything at your own pace, don’t rush.  If you can hold off on making large decisions, like moving or selling a home, consider giving yourself time before making these decisions.  Sadly, the reality is that there are some items that need to get taken care of sooner rather than later and sometimes big decisions need to be made.  Make a list of priorities that need to be done for practical reasons (bills, bank accounts, housing, things from the workplace, etc).  Set some goals for timeframes and consider specific people who will be your best supporters.  The most common items people feel an immediate need to address are financial items.  If your loved one had a lot of bills and insurance paperwork that you need to deal with, ask a friend who is a bookkeeper, accountant, or just very well-suited to those sorts of tasks for help.

Though the practical items may have deadlines and consequences if not quickly addressed, equally as important is to prioritize those which will help maintain your sanity.  That will vary from person to person.  Some people are going to feel like they are losing it if they can’t bag up everything immediately and start getting rid of it.  Other people are going to want to keep everything in its place for as long as possible.  Like so many things in grief, there is no right way or wrong way.  But one thing that is almost always helpful is to make a plan.  Bagging everything up and trashing it without thinking it through?  Not a good idea.  Avoiding going through items for years because you just don’t want to face it?  Also not a good idea!  Whenever you decide you are ready to start planning consider the following questions:

PARTICIPANTS: do you want to do it alone or with support from others? 
If you plan to do it with others, who?  Think of close family members, but also consider friends who may be helpful.  Do you have a friend who is a good organizer?  Or one who is good at helping you make decisions?  If you are putting it off, tell a friend a goal date to get started so they can help you face the task.

PEOPLE:  If there are people who can’t be present, what items do they want you to keep?
Make sure to ask in advance and be very specific.  Throwing or giving away items that were of value to other family members can become a source of conflict.  Often one item that has little meaning to one family member can have significant sentimental value to another family member.  Don’t assume you know what might be important to other members of the family.

PRIORITIZE and PLAN: What order do you want to go through things? 
This may be dependent on priority.  For example, if your spouse owned a small business or took care of all the household bills, going through the office first will likely be a priority.  Room-by-room often makes sense, but decide what will work best for you.

PACE YOURSELF: How much time will you spend per “session” going through items? 
This can be an overwhelming process. Keep in mind you will probably stumble upon objects you haven’t seen in a long time and continuous reminders of the person you’ve lost.  It may be tempting to want to do it all at once, but taking breaks is important if it gets too overwhelming.

Save for Me, Save for Others, Sell, Donate, Throw Awayboxes 3

Now that you are ready to start, keep five categories in mind: save for me, save for others, sell, donate, throw away.  You may want to get color coded Post-It notes to place on larger items reflecting these categories and start bag/boxes with the five categories for the smaller items.  Almost any item should fit in one of these categories.  Focus on being realistic.  Though it was dad’s favorite suit, if no one in your family is going to wear it, it probably does not belong in a keep box.  Though your grandmother may have cleaned and kept every margarine container she every used (like mine did) they probably are going to need to be recycled.

The Not Sure Box

boxes 4
You may want a sixth box for items you are not sure about.  It can be easy to hit a block if you get stuck on an item you really don’t know what to do with.  If this happens, put it in the “not sure” box and keep moving.  Set a limit to your “not sure” box so it doesn’t become out of control.  For example your limit is 10 items, once there are 10 in the box you will need to revisit something and make a decision on it before you can add something new.

Challenges: The Keep Pile
Ultimately several challenges arise when these boxes start to fill.  First, the keep piles become huge.  It is so hard to part with objects when they can feel like all we have left.  When the keep-pile has gotten out of control, consider the following:Keep Pile

1) Do you have space for it?

If you wife collected dragonflies or salt and pepper shakers it may be impossible to imagine parting with that collection.  Consider keeping just a few favorites, sharing others with friends and family, and selling or donating those that remain.

2) Have you kept multiples?

If your wife collected dragonflies or salt and pepper shakers it may be impossible to imagine parting with that collection.  Consider keeping just a few favorites, sharing others with friends and family, and selling or donating those that remain.

3) Can you take a photograph of the item?

Some items will be extremely painful to part with, no matter how much the rational part of your brain tells you that you need to.  Consider photographing items that are hard to part with, so you can create a memory book of photos.  For especially meaningful items, such as a house your family may need to sell, consider bringing in a professional photographer to ensure that you get high quality images.

4) Can you create something meaningful from a subset of items?

Keeping your sister’s clothes when no one will wear them or books when no one will read them may not make sense.  Consider ways you can keep and display a meaningful subset items while letting the rest go.  A more extensive blog post on this is coming, but one example of this may be taking swatches of your loved ones favorite clothing items and creating something to keep in your home, like a quilt.   If your loved one had hundreds of books, perhaps frame the title pages from her favorites in high quality frames and hang them in your home.  You get the idea.

Challenges: Selling and Donating
The sell and donate piles may become overwhelming.  It can be hard to know where to donate so many items that we want to ensure go to a good place and a good cause.  It is also be hard to know how to go about selling items.  Read our post on how to go about selling and donating items, including a list of great organizations to which you can donate items.  

Challenges: Emotions
When cleaning out my grandmother’s house we found dozens of letters my grandparents had written back and forth when my grandfather was in the war.  I found a newspaper my grandmother saved from the day I was born.  We found more photo albums than we could count.  All of this can be overwhelming.  Be ready to take breaks.  Be ready to put things into a keep box and sort them later – we knew we were keeping those letters, but during the sorting process was not the time to read them, no matter how much we wanted to!

Good Luck and Get Going!
Our best advice is to approach this experience with a positive attitude and, if doing it with others, surround yourself with people who love and support you.  Though this can be an overwhelming task, it can also be healing.  Though there may be tears, there will likely be just as much memory sharing and laughter.

We would love to hear your experience of what has worked (or hasn’t) in sorting your loved ones belongings.  Leave a comment or send us an email.

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20 Comments

  1. Tamara Beachum
    January 28, 2013

    Great post! I especially love your creative suggestions on taking photographs, creating memory books and utilizing clothing in quilts.

    I have had the luxury of time to deal with many of my late husband’s belongings. As the years have passed I have found that it is easier for me to handle in small chunks. For one group of belongings or another I have used just about all of the tips you list.

    One that I would add is calling in a professional when there are a great number or valuable items to be sold. My husband was a photographer by trade and had professional equipment that needed to be liquidated before it was no longer valuable. A colleague of his helped me catalog all of the items (many that I could not give a name to) and led the charge for creating an estate sale. I was able to use the proceeds in a way that helped my children and me in our grief and also supports their future education.

    Thanks for the thorough approach!

    Reply
    • whatsyourgrief
      February 10, 2013

      Thanks Tamara for visiting and the comment — was on vacation so a little behind on replies. It is a great suggestion about calling a professional. It is easy to not realize the value of certain items, or not know how to go about selling niche items, so it certainly makes sense to find someone to help with this.

      Reply
  2. mere
    April 3, 2013

    My Grandma passed last year, 84 years old. Miss her lots !

    Reply
  3. Darlene Piper
    July 16, 2013

    My mother passed away on 25 May, 2013. She was 84 years young. I am the youngest of 5 children and I believe to have been the closest with my mom taking care of her daily. My sister moved in with her and my brother about a year ago and periodically my sister would want to get rid of things that upset my mom as she confided in me to say ” Why does she want to get rid of that dresser just because its old. Does she want to get rid of me because I’m old” was her comment. I would of course say no and that my sister was only trying to organize. Now that my mother has passed away, my sister is wanting to get rid of everything and I am getting upset as I am not ready to part with Mom’s belongings. My sister had boxed most of everything and we got into a tiff about it. Now my sister put everything back to its original state as my mother left it. I am feeling the emotions my mom felt earlier and I do not want to cause any friction between myself and sister. When is the right time to let go of all the belongings?

    Reply
    • Litsa
      July 17, 2013

      Darlene, I am so sorry to hear about the death of your mom and also sorry it has brought about some tension in the family.

      Unfortunately there is no “right” time to give away belongings. It will vary for every person and every loss.

      What I would suggest is taking some time to sit down and talk as a family about your feelings about giving items away. One thing that can be a challenge is when one family member views these items as a comfort and difficult to part with while another views them as a painful reminder. There are many other examples of competing emotions from different family members. Discussing this may not solve the problem of agreeing on a timeframe, but will help everyone better understand each other’s perspective and needs.

      Though going through and giving away belongings may feel like and all-or-nothing task, you may want to consider starting with a few items everyone is comfortable giving away. For items people wish to keep but for which there is no space, consider if there are extended family members who may wish to keep the items or be willing to temporarily keep them. Consider if you could give away an item that is less sentimental that you own to replace it with an item that belonged to your loved one.

      This post may be of some help, if you have not read it already: http://whatsyourgrief.com/working-with-family/

      Take care and keep us posted!

      Reply
  4. Mary
    August 29, 2013

    Thank you so much for this article! My grandmother passed away February 2013 and it’s been rough on my mom who lived the closest to my grandmother. My mom’s two sisters are too far away to help and my mom gets very overwhelmed when we start to try and help to clean things up. I think the memories can be overwhelming along with the amount of stuff that was accumulated over the years.

    Is there a certain time frame that you have to sell a house once a loved one passes?? My grandmother passed in February and we’ve been told to have the house up on the market by November. Is that too soon, or the standard amount of time to have things cleaned out? I’m not sure of the protocol. Thanks again!!

    Reply
    • Eleanor
      September 3, 2013

      Hey Mary,

      Sorry it took us a little while to answer this question. You know, to my knowledge there shouldn’t be a timeframe related to when you need to sell the house. Who’s name is the house in? Is there a financial reason why it needs to be sold? We can’t really speak to when to put the house up for sale when it comes to the housing market or other logistical matters, but we can tell you when it comes to grief there is no standard timeframe in which people are generally ready to do things like sort through, give away, and sell belongings.

      I would say if there is no pressing reason why you need to sell the house, give your mother a little time. Everyone is different and where some people are ready to get rid of things right away, others continue to find this task daunting for months and even years. Offer as much support as possible and talk with her about what would make this process easier for her.

      If you haven’t already seen this post about ‘How to Give Away the ‘Give Away Pile’ I recommend it: http://whatsyourgrief.com/selling-and-donating-old-items/

      As well as this one on working with family when sorting through belongings: http://whatsyourgrief.com/working-with-family/

      And of course please let us know how else we can help!

      Reply
    • Erik
      December 19, 2013

      Hi Mary,

      Did you decide if you were going to sell?

      Reply
  5. Hughes Estate Sales
    December 23, 2013

    Great blog post, very thoughtful and organized. Helping people manage their grief is one of the more satisfying aspects of estate sales.
    Hughes Estate Sales recently posted…Master Class in Repurposing: Anthony Guthmiller DesignMy Profile

    Reply
    • Litsa
      December 23, 2013

      Glad you found this helpful! Please feel free to share if you think it would be helpful for any of your clients. I am sure you run in to many people struggling through this challenge.

      Reply
  6. Kiri (The Angel Zoe Kindness Project)
    December 30, 2013

    This is timely for me to read. I spent all of yesterday avoiding the one task I had given myself – to remove the ad hoc hallway display of my daughter’s little achievements tacked to the wall, put them away and choose some photos to go on the wall instead. I have changed very little since she died, but now have some friends house sitting for a few months, so have to organise some things (which has mostly meant putting them in boxes and out of view).
    I did come across this lovely idea in a pin a few weeks ago – perhaps a project for the boxes I have of her artwork tucked away.
    http://www.pinterest.com/pin/80924124528310777/
    Kiri (The Angel Zoe Kindness Project) recently posted…MarkedMy Profile

    Reply
    • Eleanor
      December 30, 2013

      Kiri,

      Good luck with this project, I can understand wanting to avoid changing this wall for many reasons. I love this Pinterest idea though! I admit I have thrown away more than a handful of my children’s masterpieces and I always feel so guilty, but what do you do with them all? You’re right, putting them in boxes where no one can see them is almost just as sad. This project seems like a great solution. Thanks for sharing.

      Eleanor

      Reply
  7. Kathy
    January 15, 2014

    Thank you for this blog. I was my mother’s caregiver so she moved in with me when my father passed away and then became ill herself. She passed in June 2013 in my house. Since then I have been somewhat paralyzed within the house, as everything she did and was for the past 2.5 years is all around me. To read your comments about the difficulty of seeing the half tube of toothpaste, unfinished knitting, etc validated that is a normal grief response and not just an overly emotional menopausal woman at work :-) I have begun to go through her things, hard as it is … when I run into something I can’t deal with, I take a break, watch something stupid on TV till the sadness passes, and try to get back at it. If I can’t that day, well, too darned bad … there will be another day. We must be kind to ourselves!

    Reply
    • Cheryl
      February 2, 2014

      Kathy,
      I understand how you feel. I was my mother’s caregiver, except that I moved into her home. I also feel paralyzed in the house. But, at the same time, I take great comfort in being surrounded by her things. My challenge is in knowing what to do with her clothes and shoes, and am thinking about a consignment shop. It’s easy to toss old lipsticks, but what to do with the things that are good? And there are days when I decide not to think about it.

      Reply
  8. Jenni - Heavenly Helper
    January 18, 2014

    I sympathize with what you are going through. Especially since I have done it myself for my own family members and have experienced first hand how difficult and time consuming the process can be. I have a company that works with families to help them organize, pack, and liquidate an estate that they have inherited after the loss of a loved one. You can get further information at http://www.heavenlyhelper.net

    *** Forbidden. Contains links. Sender name with backlink. Request number 852c8d5d1fed6c49d4cc11a2e5d68323. Antispam service cleantalk.org. ***

    Reply
  9. Petula
    March 5, 2014

    Wish I’d had the luxury of taking a long time to sort through
    my loved one’s belongings. But here is an angle no one is
    talking about: if you have been left no $ from them, and you
    still must clear out their apartment and you live in a small
    place yourself — you have to sort, clear, & give away ‘stuff’
    MUCH FASTER than the wealthy family who has time to
    sell the house at leisure, etc. Just cry your head off and
    get on with it: my only advice. AND: when you die yourself,
    be considerate and don’t leave your descendants huge piles
    of things/stuff/belongings. More is NOT better in 2014 where
    so many people stress over lack of living (and storage) space.

    Reply
    • Eleanor
      March 6, 2014

      Petula, you are very right. Many people don’t have the luxury of time or of even considering keeping half the stuff they might want. I’m sorry this was your experience and we should definitely write a post from this angle for the many people who have to approach this situation from that perspective. Also, as someone who despises clutter, I totally agree about not holding onto a ton of stuff.

      Reply
  10. Carol
    March 23, 2014

    My husband passed Sept., 2013. I have two sons and they both work. I am going to have back surgery this week and after recovery, I need to figure out where to start. I guess with clothes and shoes.

    He was a very large man 5x and 6x (also have lots of smaller sizes) and would love to find someone that goes to church and could use the suits and stuff. I don’t know how to go about this. I kept buying him clothes right up until he passed. Who knows – maybe I thought he couldn’t go anywhere as long as he had new clothes to wear.

    There might be a missionary group that could tell me. If anyone has an idea – I am open to hear it.

    I guess I am overwhelmed. He has an office to go thru – a garage – a barn. Oh my. We were married over 48 years but only lived here 13 years. (that is long enough to accumulate a lot of stuff)

    Totally Covered Over. Whew.

    Reply
    • Litsa
      March 23, 2014

      Oh Carol, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate. After the surgery please take your time!

      We have another post here with ideas about how to find organizations that do good work and will make sure the items find a good home. The link to that post is here: http://whatsyourgrief.com/selling-and-donating-old-items/

      I actually just learned of a new organization for suits specifically that is called Career Gear. Their website if http://www.careergear.org/ and they provide suits to men who cannot afford them for job interviews and to begin jobs that require suits. Here is their mission: Career Gear is a non-profit organization that builds strong families and communities by empowering low-income men to overcome barriers and achieve self-sufficiency. We promote the economic independence of low-income men by providing financial literacy training, a network of support, professional attire, career development tools, job-readiness and essential life-skills training that help men enter the workforce, stay employed and become role models and mentors to their families and communities.

      I will be adding them to the list in our other post, but haven’t gotten a chance yet. I know organizations like this often struggle to find less common sizes, so I am sure wherever you donate to will be appreciative.

      Good luck and take care of yourself through the process! Please let us know if you find any good organizations that we did not include in our other post.

      Reply

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