After the loss of a loved one, the thought of sorting through that person’s belongings can be heart-wrenching. But in many situations, there’s no time to delay, especially if you’re in a time crunch to get a late family member’s house ready to sell.
Before you embark on the emotional task of sorting through a loved one’s possessions, check out these tips from experts on where to begin the process, how to find support and resolve disputes, and—most importantly—how to take it easy on yourself as you grieve.
Give yourself time, but don’t delay the process
At a time like this, sorting through your loved one’s closets and cabinets is probably the last thing on your mind. Don’t push yourself too hard to get started before you’re ready, but don’t put the task off indefinitely, either.
“It’s very individual, but if you can emotionally, it’s better to start cleaning out the house sooner [rather] than later,” says Vickie Dellaquila, a certified professional organizer and author of “Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash.”
“I’ve seen people that hold onto a house for years and years and work just a little bit at a time. For a lot of people, that’s harder because it keeps weighing on them.”
Dellaquila suggests starting with the easy stuff (e.g., things in the pantry or the garage). “Anything that’s low-hanging fruit that’s not emotionally charged,” she says.
As you begin sorting through sentimental items, give yourself time to grieve and experience your feelings; you don’t want to push yourself to make big decisions about what to keep and what to let go of before you’re ready.
“I remember when I went through my father’s items, there were days I just couldn’t bear to go through more of his things,” says Jen Robin, founder and CEO of Life in Jeneral, a professional organizing company. “There were some … items I was not ready to go through.”
If you find yourself hitting a wall, put items in a box and go back to them when you’re ready.
Ask for help
Clearing out a loved one’s home is a massive undertaking, but many people attempt to do it alone. Don’t underestimate the emotional (and physical) effort involved, and don’t be shy about asking for help when you need it.
“When we experience strong emotions, it’s harder to make decisions and think clearly,” says Lisa Zaslow, founder and CEO of Gotham Organizers, in New York. “Friends and professionals who are more objective about the situation can help get you through the process.”
Bring in a friend who can toss items like toothbrushes and expired food. For larger items, you may want to call in the pros. A professional organizer can manage the process from start to finish, while movers and trash haulers can remove the big-ticket items you don’t want, Zaslow says.
You can also work with estate sale professionals to help sell valuables, and shredding companies can come in to dispose of old papers and sensitive documents.
Keep it or toss it? How to decide when emotions are raw
When a loved one dies, the last thing we want to do is get rid of everything that reminds us of them.
“You don’t want to toss everything right away, because you’re not processing your emotions, so later you’ll think, ‘Oh boy, maybe I shouldn’t have let go of that,’” Dellaquila says. But, she adds, “you do not have to be a curator of your mother or your father.”
If you’re torn about whether to part ways with something, Dellaquila suggests holding onto just a piece of it—for example, keep a single place setting rather than the full china set. That way, you can hold onto an item that reminds you of your loved one without taking on something you don’t have space for.
Finally, resist the urge to keep anything out of obligation. If you won’t use it, let it go.
“One of my clients felt that she should keep some designer purses of her mom’s, even though she knew she would never use them,” Zaslow says. “Instead, I helped her sell them, and she donated the proceeds to a charity in her mom’s name.”
Get ahead of disputes
When siblings start sorting through a parent’s belongings, the situation can get tense. What if you both want that love seat or those crystal Champagne flutes?
One way to work through disputes: Take a gym class approach to divvying up items.
“The fair thing to do is put the items out and each person takes a turn in choosing one,” Dellaquila says. “I did that with my grandfather, who was an artist. We had a lot of sketches, and we went around and chose one, then somebody took the next turn.”
If you’re feuding over a single item that can’t be split up, you could attempt a shared-custody approach. But ultimately, you have to decide whether the item is really worth a bitter fight.
“Would your loved one really want you fighting over this china?” Dellaquila says. “It really is just a thing.”
For the living, death cleaning—a Swedish tradition that is catching on in the rest of the world—is one way you can spare your loved ones a future headache. The whole idea is to start cleaning out your clutter now. While you’re at it, you can even begin deciding who will eventually receive your possessions, beyond what’s designated in your will.
“A lot of people do that by putting little stickies on the bottom of items,” Dellaquila says. “Orange is for Mary, blue is for Mike.”
Give yourself space to grieve
As you make a plan for cleaning out the space, remember that you’ll also need time to step back to reflect and recharge. Biting off more than you can chew is a recipe for emotional burnout. Instead, give yourself limits from the start—maybe you clean only one room a day, or you work for just a few hours at a time.
“Creating a goal allows you to see small results and wins,” Robin says. “This is such a mentally draining process, so setting boundaries for yourself is very important.
“There is no easy process of getting rid of a loved one’s personal belongings,” she adds. “Make sure to take your time and allow yourself to feel all the emotions along the way.”