Inherited clutter can come in many forms, but usually it is accumulated in one of two ways:
- After the loss of a loved one, or
- When someone is moved into a smaller living space, such as a nursing home.
I have dealt with both situations, and can attest to their emotional strain. When my maternal grandparents suddenly passed away, everyone was stunned and grieving. Sorting through their out-dated coupons, years of saved wrapping paper, and my grandmother’s childhood doll collection was the last thing anyone in the family wanted to do. The next year, we had to move my paternal grandmother into an assisted living center, and the repercussions were just as severe. Lifetimes of possessions seemed to compound the grief, stress, anxiety, sadness, and seemingly endless waves of other emotions for everyone in the family.
In the coming days, I’m going to present a series of posts on the topic of inherited clutter. By no standard will these posts be completely exhaustive of the subject. Additionally, they won’t answer questions about funeral or nursing home arrangements. These posts will simply discuss objects that legally come into your possession or responsibility after one of the two above situations has occurred.
We get many questions like the following from readers:
How do you unclutter a person’s things after they die? My grandfather died this weekend, and we dread the idea of going through all his things—not just emotionally and psychologically, but from a logistical standpoint. How much stuff do we keep? Nobody has room in their houses for all the sentimental treasures of their departed loved ones, but it feels callous to throw away their old anniversary cards and favorite mediocre artwork. How do we deal with it all?
To begin the series, I want to address the key point in the reader’s question: How much stuff do we keep?
The answer: You are not obligated to keep any of the stuff.
You may decide that you want to keep some of it, but in most every situation you are not forced to do so. These objects are no longer your grandfather’s things. The objects are yours and should be treated in the same manner as you would your possessions.
Do the pants fit you? Are they a style you like? Will you wear them? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you should donate the pants to charity or sell them.
There will be many situations, however, when the answer isn’t as obvious. I’ll share a story from my personal experience to illustrate my point. My maternal grandfather was a farmer. Unless he was going to church or bed, he wore overalls. Like Tom Wolfe has his white suits, my grandfather had his overalls. When it came time to cleaning out his closet after his death, our family was motionless. Seeing the overalls reminded us so much of him that we couldn’t bring ourselves to get rid of them. For days, we avoided the closet.
My aunt Lynda finally came up with the answer to the problem. She hired a photographer, had people put on pairs of my grandfather’s overalls, and everyone headed to a corn field. When the photo session was over, my aunt told people to keep the pair of overalls he or she was wearing. “Do with them as you wish,” she said. The overalls were no longer in the closet, and we now have treasured photographs of the family celebrating my grandfather’s life. If I had a dozen pair of quintessential overalls in my closet after my death, I would want my family to treat them in the exact same way.
As this series continues, keep in mind that there will be certain situations where my advice cannot be followed based on your particular circumstance. In most cases, though, if you treat your inherited objects in the same way you treat all of your other possessions, then the process of uncluttering will retain its perspective.