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

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: 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 Away

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

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:

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.