Ask Unclutterer: Processing the possessions of someone who has passed

Reader John submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

So my father recently passed away … Mom has been busy taking care of dad for the last 2 years (and in some ways 43 years) and now has a house in disarray that needs work and help. Dad had plenty of things that will need to go and I am being enlisted to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

I am concerned that mom is going to be overwhelmed and I want to make sure I do not push my opinions, etc., onto her.

Any help or advice you can give will be cherished.

John, please know that you have our condolences. We are very sorry for your loss.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all response for how to handle the possessions of someone who has passed away. This is why I recommend contacting a professional organizer who specializes in exactly these types of cases. An organizer can help identify what to keep, what to donate to charity, and how to handle the process so that it’s not emotionally overwhelming. They also have knowledge about your community and organizations that could use clothing, etc. Additionally, it’s nice to have a neutral third party present to be supportive and caring for your family’s needs at this time (especially since you don’t want to “push my opinions, etc., onto her”).

Interview a few organizers and choose the one who will work best for you and your mom. They likely will need your muscle strength, so plan to be a part of the activities.

Based on the worth of your father’s items, you might also want to bring in an appraiser. Now is not the time to make rash decisions. The more information you have, the less likely you’ll be to have regrets in years to come. Also, if the process goes well, it will help significantly with the grieving process.

If hiring a professional organizer and/or appraiser isn’t in the financial cards right now, I strongly recommend reading the book The Boomer Burden by Julie Hall. Julie has worked with many people in the same situation as you, and her book is full of valuable information and insights. I also recommend the book to anyone who is helping his or her parents downsize from a family home.

Thank you, John, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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36 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Processing the possessions of someone who has passed”

  1. posted by Gena on

    To the OP, I’m also sorry for your loss. When my dad passed suddenly about fourteen years ago, it fell largely to me and my brother to deal with his belongings. Our parents had divorced a few years prior, so mom was largely out of the picture for this.

    Did he leave a will specifying that any particular person should have any particular thing? Tools, esp specialized ones, come to mind. Did he have any personal jewelry like a watch or a special ring? If he didn’t specify, I’d set that stuff aside at first. When your mom is more ready to deal with that, that’s when I’d suggest having a family meeting and distributing those sorts of things. It doesn’t have to be done right away.

    Second, and this is something I wish someone had told me, don’t be in a big hurry to bag up his clothes and stuff. If he had anything that was just “him” like shirts or something, set some of those aside for family members to take as a memento if your mom is okay with that and if they so desire. I have one or two of my dad’s shirts, but I wish I’d saved some of his Grateful Dead stuff to make a quilt out of.

    Lastly, document whatever you donate. You’ll need it for tax purposes later on.

    Again, I’m sorry for your loss. May your grief pass in time.

  2. posted by Fred E. on

    someone *who* has passed

    Anyway, my heart goes out to the OP and his mother especially. It’s hard for her to have an empty house still filled with his things but not him.

    Get your father’s personal belongings such as clothes, shoes, and toiletries out of the house as soon as possible, giving them to someone who actually needs them or donating them so they can be sold or given to someone who needs them. If there are a lot of clothes, start witht coats and sweaters and other winter clothes since they are seasonal. If that is hard for your mother then start with the bathroom removing all of his stuff.

    It is unclear what “plenty of things” means in terms of type or quantity. Tools, books, record collection?

    If you are worried about your mother’s feelings and opinions, ask her permission and advice but try to do it for groups of things. “Mom, do you want me to take all of dad’s books to the library or are there a few you would like to keep?” “Mom, do you think Dad’s friend Jim would like his beer-making supplies?” That will make it easier for both her and you.

  3. posted by megan on

    All good advice.

    When my grandmother passed, my grandfather decided to downsize to an apartment. We had him put post-its on the things that he wanted the movers to take. Once he was all settled in, the family came in and went through everything that was left at the house. We had 3 categories. 1 — Keep in the family (we put this stuff in the bedrooms), 2 — Donate (we put this stuff in the living room), 3 — Trash (in the garage). Granddad had a roll-off trash bin brought in, and we actually filled 2 of them. The whole family was there and was able to go through things before they were donated or trashed.

    I know this may not work for someone who is not moving to a different location, but I thought it might be helpful for another situation. The post-its and the roll-off trash bins were wildly helpful.

  4. posted by Melanie on

    Do not do anything major for at least a year after the death. That includes removing from the house all personal possession of the deceased. Your mother will know when she is ready to tackle the decluttering.

    You don’t say how long it has been; but unless there is some outside force (such as foreclosure or a need to settle the terms of his will) I strongly advise taking your time and letting it just happen naturally.

    Let the grieving process for the person happen before concerning yourself with their things.

  5. posted by OogieM on

    Sorry for the loss. As someone who has dealt with that task my biggest suggestion is not to be in a rush. It can take a year before you are ready to deal with the stuff. If it’s upsetting to see it every day box it and put it in storage. It’s far too easy to either keep too much or get rid of too much in the throes of grief. Wait a bit and the process is much easier.

  6. posted by Handy Man, Crafty Woman on

    I agree on not tossing/donating too much at once, let some time go by, if possible. This is such a hard situation to deal with. When my grandfather died, my family had to help my pack-rat, raised in the Depression Grandmother downsize a 2 story house to a 1 bedroom apartment. It was very, very difficult!

  7. posted by chacha1 on

    I’m with the “deal with it now” camp. OP mentions that his mom was taking care of his dad for at least two years, indicating serious illness and disability. This means the house is likely full of sick-person stuff that is best disposed of immediately; there are NO good memories for his mom in that stuff and it has probably been in the way of her ability/desire to manage the household.

    Also, when someone has been ill for a long time, the caretaker generally has already dealt with the imminent death. It’s not like it was a surprise or a shock, and the grief is not going to be the same as for someone whose longtime spouse dropped dead while setting up the grill some Sunday afternoon.

    As to keeping personal mementoes … just from watching shows like “Hoarders” and “Clean Sweep” I would venture that the longer you keep something, the harder it is to let it go. Again, a good deal of OP’s mom’s grieving is probably already done. By all means set up a room for the rest of the family and put potentially-special things in there. But the focus should be on the living, and making sure she has what SHE needs.

  8. posted by ErikaF on

    I am sorry for your loss. If your father had a hobby, or was a member of a collector’s group, you might ask hobbyist friends or the collector’s group to help sell your father’s collection.

    Our club has handled selling the science fiction collection of a few folks, and we were able to collect much more money for the families than a standard estate sale. We collected the items, catagorized them, and sold them online and at conventions. Some groups might be willing to do the same.

  9. posted by *Pol on

    I have seen what happens by “not rushing into it”.
    I realise this isn’t quite the same, but I’m sharing it anyways….
    My father in law ended up having to deal with his mother’s belongings, and put the entire contents of her small home into a large storage unit. Unfortunately he wasn’t in a position emotionally nor financially to deal with the unit, and the rent got so far in arrears that my husband and I had to step in or lose EVERYTHING from that side of the family. We had to take out a loan to get the contents of the locker back — even though we were in a very tight time of our lives as well — then promptly dealt with what we could. Heirloom antiques were distributed between my husband and his sister, (storage wasn’t kind to them) family photos were salvaged and the majority of rest of the furniture was sent to charity. The belongings that we weren’t sure what to do with went back to my father in law, and he shut them away in the second bedroom. That was 12 years ago, and he hasn’t even opened one box. I’m not sure what he is afraid will happen if he deals with these things, meanwhile they are slowly degrading and neglected and costing him a huge percentage of his tiny living space. By not dealing with it at all, the burden has just grown, and put a strain on the rest of the surviving family.

  10. posted by jenG on

    My condolences to John and his family…

    I’m the executor of my mother’s estate (although I really hope to complete that duty shortly). “Estate” sounds so grand, doesn’t it? But her estate wasn’t grand–there was a lot of “stuff,” but it was normal, everyday stuff that people have in their homes: dream catchers and coffee mugs and collections of Christmas wrapping supplies.

    My situation was a little different–the cancer was quick by the time it was diagnosed, my parents are divorced and Mom lived alone, and there were few others to consult about decluttering decisions. I wrote about trying to clean it out (and linked back here, of course); if any of my thoughts are useful to you, you’re welcome to them. I should note that I wrote pretty baldly about it…it may not be very consoling if little time has passed.

    The last line is what I try to remember: You carry within you as much of your parents as you need. The rest is negotiable.

  11. posted by Fred E. on

    Sorry to post again but yes, definitely deal with it now rather than later.

    My grandmother died over twenty years ago and my mother has had some of her furniture in climate-controlled storage the whole time and it has cost about $50,000 total–it’s hard to say exactly since it goes up almost every year but it is well over $200 a month now. My mother can afford it but that furniture has been in the family since just after the Civil War and my sister or a cousin could certainly have used it. For that matter, my mother could have used it herself. I could have used the $50,000 and so could have a bunch of hungry or sick children all over the world.

    So it is a ridiculous situation that could have been avoided by never putting it in storage to begin with. In the end it is just stuff.

  12. posted by Wendy on

    Listen to what your mother’s wants done with your father’s/her husband’s items and follow her lead. Getting rid of items too quickly could lead to a family rift especially if you are dealing with multiple packrats.

    When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother did not want to get rid of any of his stuff and nor did she want to let anyone else do it. Compounding the issue was that my father didn’t want to get rid of his father’s stuff either (and still doesn’t).

    Both my husband and I lost grandmothers in 2009 and each grandfather asked for help from family members soon after the funerals in going through clothing and my grandma’s large sewing/craft collection. My grandpa will send out an email to the family about a group of items and anything unclaimed goes to goodwill as he goes through items. He also had us go though stuff at Christmas time when everyone could be there.

    My husband’s grandfather asked both of his daughter-in-laws to go through his wife’s things. That has taken longer because of family living out of state and she had a very large volume of clothing.

    After witnessing how frustrating it is to clean out 60+ years of stuff from a house and knowing that my father will do to my sister and I the same thing his mother did to him with never throwing anything away has made me more organized with important papers and I regularly get rid of unused/unwanted items.

  13. posted by Sky on

    My sympathy to you and your Mother. I have been there and it isn’t easy. I suggest first to remove any medical equipment, medicines and end of life items that generally bring back bad memories. Box up personal items such as jewelry, wallet, keys, Bible, even razor and other toiletries. Put these aside for your Mother to deal with when she is ready.

    Don’t rush, it takes time to process a death in your mind and to come to terms with all the stuff.
    I have just recently thrown out all the sympathy cards, etc. from my parents death. It brought back terrible memories and I want to remember the good and positive.

    The best thing you can do is just be there for your Mom.

  14. posted by Kari on

    My condolences.

    The situation was similar to that of my mom; my stepfather died after 2.5 years of serious illness. In her case, she really wanted to get things out and moved on from his illness; but we also needed to get her ready to move to be closer to a family member (from Ohio to Texas) and that was harder. What worked for us was that I went in for about once every two weeks for a weekend (I am in WI) to help my mom work through the things in the house and decide what to keep, what to let go of, and where those things went. We took a multi-step approach: first we’d do an initial pass through a set of stuff and do an initial sort. Anything that was not “go to a family member” or “have to have to take” we’d put in a pile to be reviewed later. Next time, we’d go through that pile and re-sort and anything that she was still uneasy about we’d put aside again and revisit. So, once the process got started, for each trip, we’d go through the oldest to be revisited pile, then the next one, then start a new sort. We were able to get through a four bedroom house in about four months and I think it made it easier for my mom to let things go when she had a bit of time to process it.

    I think so much of this depends in large part on the person; in my mom’s case, she is a sentimental keeper, and she needed to work through the emotions of letting go.

    Good luck; this is such a difficult process.

  15. posted by Beth on

    When my father died suddenly in 1992, it took my mom about a year before she could go through his things and donate most of his clothes to charity. And there was still a lot of his stuff (old hobbies, dead files, etc.) that just stayed put in the basement, untouched, till she sold the house some years later and brought in a charity called “Everything Goes” to haul away the entire contents of the basement.

    My brother & I had to deal with my mom’s stuff when she died last winter. We each took some trinkets and smallish items, saved a few sentimental items for relatives who wanted them, and my brother got all the family photos (to eventually scan & share), but for everything else we got a recommendation from the lawyer and engaged a local auction guy who brought a truck and a 5-man crew and took the whole lot away — the garbage & broken stuff to toss, everything else to be sold if possible and what didn’t sell to donate. This final clean-out happened about 7 months after she died, so we had plenty of time to pick over the stuff and make sure we weren’t getting rid of things we would regret losing.

    It probably helped that my mom was not a pack-rat, and as a family we tend to take a practical rather than a sentimental approach to other people’s stuff.

    @jenG – I agree completely with your approach and what you say in the linked article.

  16. posted by gypsy packer on

    Dispose of medications through hazardous waste disposal sites. Old underwear can be cut down for cleaning cloths, and socks can be used for dusters. Check all pockets for mementos.

    Scan all paperwork. IRS allows scanned records. This process also will allow you to review all documents and determine if any are historically significant or are family mementos (love letters etc). Keep those paper documents, and keep birth certificates, marriage licenses, and any records of litigation or real property transactions. If the survivor insists on disposing of them, keep the scans, since she may change her mind at a later date. Any non-essential paperwork should be shredded or incinerated.

    Check with all family members on clothing. I once encountered a woman who still had her deceased father’s shirts and wanted me to weave rag seats for her antique ladderback chairs from those shirts. Family quiltmakers or antique fanciers may want the ties and/or suits for quilts or rag rugs.

    Keep any military mementos and records for future enlistees inside the family. Hell hath no fury like the young service personnel who know the family’s Civil War uniforms have been sold to the local antique dealer, and find that the gun which survived D-day was shipped off to the sheriff’s office for disposal!

    Your mother should be the judge of current and/or eventual disposal of furniture, collections, and tchotchkes. If she must move to smaller quarters, speak with her about drawing up documents giving furniture and other items to family members on the condition that they not be sold during her lifetime, and allowing her a life estate in those items to assure that she has legal ownership until her death, no matter where those items are located.

  17. posted by MemeGRL on

    Bravo to Gypsy Seeker above. Great, great, great advice, all. And let me second, my quilt made from my mother’s t-shirts is something that brings me great joy.
    My father died in 1992. My mother died in 2001.
    I HIGHLY recommend NOT getting a storage unit…it is too easy to just forget about the stuff there. I cringe to think of the money I’ve spent on that but we had extenuating circumstances at the time. But now that I have kids, the chances of me going through it are few and far between.
    That said, my mother kept many of my father’s items for a long time after he died. When she was ready, she distributed things–his tuxedo and accessories to my cousin, that kind of thing. But she kept his clothes in the closet for a long time as their scent brought her pain but also tremendous comfort. Eventually she was ready.
    I had many, many people say to me, we were in a hurry to just do the job and I was sorry we got rid of X. But I never heard anyone say “I waited too long to go through the stuff” *except* for those who ended up paying for storage.
    OP: Try to let your mother take the lead. Try not to do anything she isn’t ready for, long illness or no. Please accept my condolences. And thanks to all for the good ideas.

  18. posted by anniep on

    My mother passed two years ago – she lived with us for about seven months prior to her death. In a way it was a blessing because we had downsized her possessions – but we still had quite a task ahead of us. The best thing I can advise is give everything time – there are some things that you can remove immediately – medications, health aid items, things that have little reminder of the person. It took about three weeks before I was ready to clean out clothes and shoes -it was hard, but I am glad I did it when I did. After a year, some things don’t seem so sentimental and it is easier to let go. Best of luck!

  19. posted by Annette on

    I admire Gypsy’s advice.

    I was sole caretaker of my mom until she died. Both my siblings came for the funeral and we went through the stuff and chose what we wanted. No one wanted allllll the Christmas ornaments, but one of Mom’s ‘adopted kids’ loved her house at Christmas so we gave it all to her and she loved getting it. Some of the dresses were requested by the good friend who bought the house so we left them and the bedroom furniture. Her food storage and some of the cooking gear was given to a young coupleOtherwise everything was taken to the local thrift shop and donated. It got rid of everything but the paperwork and photos which my sister took and divided up among us.

    It is often hardest to go through clothing because it still smells like the person, so be aware that a mask rubbed with a small amount of Vics vaporub can help in the packing.

  20. posted by Mletta on

    ChaCha1 writes:
    “Also, when someone has been ill for a long time, the caretaker generally has already dealt with the imminent death. It’s not like it was a surprise or a shock, and the grief is not going to be the same as for someone whose longtime spouse dropped dead while setting up the grill some Sunday afternoon.”

    This is not necessarily true. A close friend’s husband passed at 56 after a long illness of which she was the primary caretaker. My friend knew how serious his illness was (the doctors were amazed he was still alive more than a decade after they predicted his demise)–she was not in denial. But I heard the shock in her voice. She was NOT prepared even though he was in the hospital at the time. And she’s not alone in this kind of situation. Believe me.

    There is, IMHO, no such thing as “prepared” even if death is imminent. I know this because on the same day her husband died, our mother died. (And here’s the irony. She had been in hospice care for six months and had to move five weeks earlier because she was too healthy and no longer qualified for hospice!) Trust me when I tell you that grief is grief and it’s highly personal.

    To say that what you experience at the death of a loved one who had been ill for awhile is not the same as someone whose spouse dropped dead…well, that shows your inexperience. And a great lack of understanding of how life works.

    Everyone responds differently and the length of illness or suddenness of the passing is not what necessarily affects how someone mourns and experiences loss. There is sooooo much else involved, including IF the person passing had prepared the family, which many do not and causes unimaginable and unnecessary pain. (If you love your family, and you are ill, prepare them and do not avoid the tough stuff. Most important, talk to them from the heart. If there is stuff you did not say, say it now.Get your life in order in terms of the emotional stuff and the financial stuff.Give that gift to your family. If you care. )

    My friend, who is a very “get it done” kind of person did NOT rush into ridding her Zen-uncluttered home of her husband’s stuff. In fact, it took her almost a year before she began the process of removing items. Even then, it got tough because her son (19) became very emotional over removing much of his father’s stuff. So she then retreated a bit.

    We did not have that luxury when our mother died in an ALF. We literally had four days (the last four days of the year, which made it even more time-crunched) to remove all of her stuff. We temporarily put it into storage (along with some other of her stuff as we had, literally, moved her from a one-bedroom apartment into the ALF only five weeks earlier!) to clear her room.

    Since I was out of state and for health reasons could not travel, I never got to go over her stuff before my gung-ho sister in law tried to sell everything off in mid-January, less than two weeks after her passing. She had no idea what might have had sentimental value or other value as my brother would not even look at the stuff, and I could not be there.

    FYI: I was the one who was paying for the storage and I had no problem with it. I regret to this day that there are items I would have wanted to keep that were jettisoned by my sister in law who had no familiarity with my mother’s stuff. (There is a huge age gap between my brother and I because my mother divorced and had a second family. My brother doesn’t even know, literally, my mother’s birth family! He didn’t even care about the family pix, which my mother did say: Please keep them. Something she did not have to do as I treasure them. My brother could care less.)

    For those of you who only know people who regret paying storage, meet the many folks who regret that they do not have items of great sentimental value around because a gung-ho sibling or spouse just chucked everything.

    And a note to the relatives who lived closest to or were possibly even caretakers —just because the rest of the family isn’t close by, you don’t get to make ALL the decisions about what to toss or keep.

    You’d be amazed at the insanity that can prevail when people die and families trying to clean up apartments and homes don’t have a chance to discuss the disposition, or worse, fail to respect the wishes of the deceased.

    If you want to make your family’s life easier when you pass, leave resources and instructions about the disposition of items. Of course, you can only hope someone will adhere to them.

    Finally, no matter how you think you’re ready to “move on” when it comes to the physical stuff early on after a passing, you’re not ready. You’re. Just. Not.

    It’s not that simple and it’s not that cut/dried. It’s NOT like cleaning out YOUR closet or home.

    So, show some respect and not treat it like an uncluttering project! Because it isn’t.

    The people I know who waited and thought carefully about what to keep and toss did the best. They also got rid of the most because they had time to deal with emotional pain and not rely on “things” to assuage their feelings. Only when you have dealt with your inner feelings can you really deal with the “stuff.”

    Finally, if it should be necessary to move items from one place to another and you really can’t deal with it, discuss your overall goals with someone in the family that you trust and allow them to make decisions. Some people simply cannot deal with this, no matter the timing. If you are one of them, recognize this.

  21. posted by Onlinehandyman on

    OP I am sorry for your loss and I am so glad to see all of the good advice listed above me here.

    I lost my wife almost 9 years ago so I am going to add my opinion to the mix. The most important thing however is for you to do what is right for you which will probably be a combination of answers.

    Unless you have to, don’t do too much until you and your mom feel ready and only you will know when that is.

    A professional would be great, but only if that is right for you. You may feel more comfortable little by little getting rid of stuff by yourself.

    It’s a very difficult time right now and the last thing that you need is another thing to do.

    I would say don’t do to much now. Take some time, relax, maybe get rid of some stuff that is easy to get rid of like medical equipment.

    As you begin to get better emotionally the answers that are right for you will begin to fit into place.

    Good luck, once again I am sorry and I wish you the best!

  22. posted by Supa Dupa Fresh, the Freshwidow on

    I am a widow who has dealt with THREE estates in the past few years and I recommend a balanced approach to purging the house.

    Reducing the overall bulk for your mother will be very helpful for her. One thing I’ve found useful is to first identify things that may be really valuable or emotional and just resolve to do those later. If they go into storage, they won’t be accessible to help in her grieving and no one will ever want to sort through them later. I’d leave those things as they are now, even if they’re not handy, even if they ARE in the way. I wouldn’t make decisions about some of these things for a year if you can possibly put that off.

    Then, I’d identify things that no one will care about. It WILL help her to have less stuff around. Ideally this will be something like clothing or tools. In my case, my husband didn’t care much for his clothes; I saved a few things and gave much away to thrift stores (find one that picks up) almost immediately. It was easy. The tools were heavy, but I thought I’d use them, but many women aren’t handy and would be happy to sell those right away.

    I’m not sure a professional organizer is really warranted unless there are a lot of assets. Nonetheless, we all tend to forget the true cost of paying “rent” for junk that we’re not using (Don’t say “junk” in front of your mother — she’ll start in a few months but let it be her choice not yours!).

    Above all, don’t just the grieving person, and understand that as child, you are grieving too. Honor yourself by asking your mother early on for a few things that would mean something to you. Keep in mind through the next few years that one or two mementoes have as much value as 100 or 200. And try to extend this privilege to everyone who cared — it’s only stuff, and not worth the kind of fights that USUALLY happen over effects.

    Join a grief group for more ideas on how to cope. You’d be amazed how much energy the topic of dead people’s stuff holds, and sharing can be really therapeutic.

    Best to your family and sorry for your loss.



  23. posted by Richard | on

    We’ve had this come up in our lives recently. I agree that sharing can be really therapeutic but each to their own and at their own times too.

  24. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Thanks to everyone for the insights and experience shared. What has been touched on is that it’s not really about The Stuff, it’s about dealing with a huge loss. Everybody’s different. My stepmother thought up until the day my dad died, (at age 91, after getting a little weaker and a little less able to talk/feed himself/etc every day for 14 months), that he would be able to come home and they would be able to sleep in the same bed together again. That was her goal, to get him home, and it kept her going through those last difficult months. Drove us, his kids, crazy, as our goal was different – to have him pass peacefully and be at rest.

    Each of us has to live with our own feelings. The kinder we can be to each other when in deep grief, the better.

    To John, who lost his dad and is helping his mom cope with her new life, my condolences. From all these wonderful experiences that have been shared, take what advice will help your mom and you the most. My heartfelt wishes for your peace of mind as you go through this difficult process.


  25. posted by Louise on

    A simple, tedious task that can happen right away to help reduce further clutter is to remove the deceased’s name from mailing lists. When my stepfather died a few years ago, he was on over 100 lists, and the amount of paper coming into my mother’s house every day was staggering!

    Armed with a roll of stamps, a box of envelopes, and a huge stack of unwanted catalogs and letters in the recycling bin, I was able to stem that tide. It gave me something concrete to do as we spent long hours in the house just talking and grieving.

    This task can also be given to a friend or neighbor who wants to help out. Just be sure to instruct them to set aside anything that looks personal or official. This will greatly reduce the amount of paper that the grieving spouse has to look through later for important items.

  26. posted by Pat on

    My brother took the lead when our Mom passed.
    He lived the farthest and wanted only a few items that he would actually use, his own things that were stored at the house and some family paintings, so he and his wife tackled organizing the basement into boxes and packing up their choices for shipping.
    My sister has a lot of kids and thought to take some for each of their homes when they grew (they are all still with her!) and all the gifts she had sent over the years went back to her. It all created a storage problem at her end, but that was her choice.
    I had more than I needed left over. I donated, freecycled, garage saled, put stuff by the curb, etc. until it got down to just a few duplicates that could be used when our things wore out, or for our kids down the line.
    We’re in good shape, everyone is talking to each other, and all have items they need.
    A few items that I gave away in all this were a bit too much, but I was able to replace them from ebay for little.
    It does take time, but is worth it. There are so many opportunities to share stories, etc.
    If one person takes the photos and scans some of them, it is a great thing. No bulk and lots of memories for as many people as you need. This could be a great job for someone who can’t do other things due to health.
    One thing I would say is to save some items that his friends would like, they may have been closer than some of the family.

  27. posted by Sandra on

    When my mother downsized from a condo to assisted living, a woman who does estate sales said there wasn’t enough for her to do a sale, but she recommended a guy who came and did an estimate, then paid my mother a set amount and took EVERYTHING, including cleaning out the pantry, etc. What he could resell he could. My mother could have gotten more by selling items individually, but in this case it was worth it for the convenience. In the end she ran out of assets and her monthly fee in assisted living was covered by their foundation, so more money when she moved out of the condo wouldn’t have made any difference.

    This case is obviously different, since the mother is still living there, but may be helpful in other cases.

    I think a lot depends on how many surviving relatives there are and how close they are, geographically and emotionally, but I think it would be smartest to ask people to choose things quickly and not put anything into storage. Even if there are future generations, they may not really want much.

    Remember too that much donated stuff can’t be used. It’s often simpler to just pitch stuff out than take marginal items to Goodwill that they have to sort through and then pitch anyway, unless you really have a lot of time and energy available. There’s so much stuff in this country, and for those who are inclined to clutter, saying you’ll donate stuff often means procrastination.

  28. posted by Abeline on


    I have in-laws who are hoarders, and who have the most disgusting garbage from their dead parents. Half-used make-up is the least of it. I want to take your article and beat them over the head with it.

  29. posted by Gillian on

    I have already decided that, if I am widowed, I will hire an organizer/personal assistant to help me go through things, sanely. I wonder if I will stick to it?

  30. posted by Its never too late to deal with the clutter — Mama's Keeper — A work at home caregiver's journey. on

    […] stumbled upon this post from Uncluttered about dealing with someone’s stuff after they passed. Unfortunately, this has been me for the past 4.5 years  (13 if you count my […]

  31. posted by on

    John I am really sorry for the death of your father. Although, we can not deny these inevitable circumstances but, we are just unable to handle the naked reality. And in this situation we just fail to remember what to do and what not to. And this is the high time to have some experienced friends, philosopher or some helping hands who can show the right path. I definitely appreciate “Unclutterer” for their unrest attempt to raise the issue in the right time.

  32. posted by Terry on

    Hi. Sorry for the loss. I also lost my Dad in October so I know what you are going through. My dad lived alone because my mom passed in 1998. So we are in the process of selling the condo. I am also a personal organizer so I decided to take on the task of going through all of the remaining belongings that he had that no one wanted.

    Sometimes it makes me feel emotional to go through past memories but I try to view it that by my taking care of the things that I am still taking care of him. It’s hard to explain. Yes I could call in a charity or moving company to haul the stuff away but I chose to do it myself because I want to handle his stuff in a dignified manner just as I took care of him in life. I want to take care of his stuff after death. It’s important to me to do it this way.

    The only things I cannot handle is his clothing and shoes. I have asked my husband if he could bag that stuff up. I just don’t have the heart to do that myself.

    If you need the help of a personal organizer try to contact one. They are very helpful by nature and will help you go through your stuff in a very careful and thought out manner. Good Luck

  33. posted by Vania Tashjian Frank on

    Hi John,

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I know there’s not much else that can be said that is comforting right now. I hope that you and your mother are doing as ok as possible each day.

    I completely agree with Erin. When you and your mother are ready to go through your father’s belongings, a professional organizer can be a very helpful, objective, understanding, non-judgmental third party. As Erin suggested, the right personality fit is key.

    As a professional organizer, I also know that it can take families a while until they are ready to start the process, I think because on some level people understand the effort that will be required. What is helpful about hiring a professional is that they can help minimize and ease the discomfort during the time “it gets worse before it gets better.”

    I hope you and your mom are able to give yourselves kindness and patience during this time. There is no right way to grieve – having lost my own father – and no right timeframe to do it in. My prayers are with you and your mom.


  34. posted by LWJ on

    I am so sorry for your loss.

    Having just done this, (actually still doing it), here is my advice – set a time limit (ex. 2 or 3 years) as to when all items that are donated or sold will be eliminated in that manner. After that – put it in the trash. Waiting to find “just the right place” for something in order for it not to go to waste is admirable, but after years it can become paralyzing, and then little has been accomplished other than to prolong pain and depression. My two cents, hope it helps.

  35. posted by Nat on

    My condolences.

    From my own experiences from my mother’s estate: There will be things that need to go that are obvious (ie. medication, things only useful to the deceased, etc.) My mom was borderline hoarder. There was a lot of garbage, such as 4 broken tv’s in the backyard that needed to go ASAP. My mother also had a baby grand piano. That was less obvious and left my house (the one I inherited from her) about 6 years later. Just make peace with the fact that this will take a long time.

    Over time, think about how you want to remember the person and try to distill that into as few possessions as possible. There will be some crossover with your own life and experiences, and those possessions will be the hardest to get rid of.

  36. posted by Beverly D on

    @ Mletta, you nailed most of my thoughts. As a hospice Nurse Practitioner, I deal with death and grieving every day. This whole issue is about loss, and most of uncluttering is about loss (even the shows about hoarders are about people who can’t deal with loss). People don’t ever finish grieving those who are as close as a life long spouse. My mother died 7 years ago and even though we didn’t get along that well, I grieve her every day. My advice echoes those of others: go slow, take a few things at a time, and don’t be in any hurry about this. It’s not like your mother has to move anywhere. If something is distressing to her, then deal with that thing. But some things bring comfort. My husband travels, and I sometimes will sleep on his pillow just to smell him. Don’t neglect your own grieving, this is your loss too. Take care of yourself, exercise and try to get good sleep.

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