One of the most difficult decluttering tasks is sorting through the belongings of a loved one after they have died. I see this often in my job as a professional organizer: clients who are tasked with cleaning out a parent’s home or sorting through their spouse’s things after they have passed away. This is the most difficult type of organizing work because of the emotions involved and the complications of doing it while grieving. The process is deeply personal and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. That being said, here are a few guidelines to consider if you are faced with decluttering after a loved one has died.
1. Give yourself time - When you are processing a big loss in your life even small tasks can seem overwhelming. It is extremely difficult to make decisions while grieving, so don’t rush through decluttering at that time. Looking through your loved one’s belongings will bring up lots of emotions so pace yourself and work on it in small chunks of time. If you are faced with a tight external deadline like getting a house ready to sell, consider putting their things in storage until you are strong enough to do the work.
2. Start with the easiest things - When you start the process of decluttering a loved one’s possessions I recommend tackling the easiest items first, such as the functional objects in the kitchen and garage. It likely won’t be too difficult to toss their plastic food containers, for example. The things that were most meaningful to the person will probably bring up the strongest emotions, so leave those until last. Photos, letters, and other memorabilia will be difficult as well so you might just box them up for now and revisit them after some time has passed.
3. Ask family and friends if they want anything - It can be much easier to part with things if you know they are going to someone who will appreciate them. Reach out to extended family and your loved one’s friends to see if they would like anything from their home. You can also feel good about simply donating items that are in good condition. My mother was able to let go of much of my dad’s clothing soon after he passed away because it was wintertime and she knew someone in need could get use out of his coats and boots.
4. Everything is not meaningful - After someone dies all of their things seem to take on a precious quality. But the reality is that very few items we own are truly meaningful to any of us. Think about the stuff in your junk drawer or linen closet and ask yourself if any of it is important to you. Most of what we own is simply functional, and that was the case for your loved one, too. Try to focus in on the few things that were well-loved or are tied to a special memory you have of them. Those are the things you will cherish in years to come.
5. Revisit things at a later date - Grief is not a linear process; it involves complicated emotions that we cycle through over time. The way you feel the week after a loss may be totally different a month later or a year later. Revisit your decisions after some time has passed and you may find that you feel differently about them. Those clothes or crafts that seemed indispensable might feel less important to you in a year, and you'll be able to part with some of them.
6. Ask for help - Decluttering after a big loss is hard work and you don’t have to go it alone. Enlist family members or friends who are sensitive but practical to help you with the task. Having another person by your side can keep you motivated and allow you to see things a little more objectively. If you don’t have anyone available to assist, a professional organizer in your area is trained to help you make the difficult decisions about what to keep and what can go.
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