Ask Unclutterer: Uncluttering after the loss of a loved one

Reader Grace submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Almost 5 years ago my husband died. I was 35 years old, no children. As I approach my 40th birthday, I am attempting to unclutter my home, which also means figuring out what to keep and what to let go of that was his or ours together. This is so tough. I want to give a lot of this stuff up, but because it is “physically present” and he is not –it is my last tangible link of his presence. Help…

Grace, my heart goes out to you. I’m sorry for your loss and that you have to face such a difficult situation.

People who research and study grief report that after the loss of a loved one and the dark period of mourning, there eventually comes a period of reconstruction. How long it takes a person to mourn and then to get to the period of reconstruction varies greatly, but it appears that you have reached or are reaching this reconstruction stage in your grieving process. Having the desire to unclutter, but being conflicted about the process, is completely understandable.

The most important thing you need to remember during this process is that you are not trying to forget your husband. Uncluttering your home does not mean you are banishing him or turning your back on his memory. Uncluttering is a way for you to bring the best of him with you into the future.

As you start this process, seek out the treasured items first. Find the handful of his things that you value most and that best honor your memories of him. You will instantly recognize these special items when you see them, and they will remind you of his life and the life you happily shared together. Store these items temporarily in a secure location.

All the remaining stuff in your home that reminds you of him can be given away to charity, given to friends and family, sold, or distributed in whatever way you wish to unclutter them from your space. This could be a one-time process taking just a matter of weeks, or it might be an on-going process taking years. You need to move at a pace that is right for you. Don’t feel pressured to part with things if you’re not ready — you can spend however long in the reconstruction period as you need to.

Once the clutter is gone, find a way to honor the treasured items you decided to keep. Frame and/or display these things so you can enjoy them. Let these wonderful objects continue to bring you happiness. Since you’ll only have kept the most valuable pieces (and I don’t mean financially valuable, I mean the pieces that make your heart sing), they will remind you of the good times you shared.

Finally, if you find this process difficult to go alone, I really believe that hiring a professional organizer can be a good idea. Interview as many organizers as necessary to find one who is the right match for you. You can find professional organizers in your area through the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Thank you, Grace, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you, and know I’m sending you good thoughts as you continue through your period of reconstruction.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

25 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Uncluttering after the loss of a loved one”

  1. posted by Victor Riley on

    So sorry, Grace. I know it’s hard.

    One of my best friends lost his partner 2 years ago. Then less then a year later, his house burned down in a wildfire, and lost pretty much every memento of his beloved. I can’t even imagine the loss he felt on that.

    Just remember, that material things… even sentimental ones, are just that. Material things. But you never have to unclutter your memories, and that’s the most important thing. Those can never be thrown away, taken away, or burned away. You’ll always hold onto the memories. *You* are the tangible link of his presence… your love for him ensures that.

    I hope it gets easier for you.

  2. posted by Dorothy on

    As one young widow to another, know that you may give away and sell his things when you are ready. You may keep what you like as long as you need to, but you’re not obliged to keep things you no longer want or need.

    All the best!

  3. posted by Sandra J on

    Dear Grace
    I walk the same path as you, experiencing the same painful & lonely journey. My husband died very suddenly three and a half years ago at the age of 34. In the time since then I’ve grieved not only for losing him but for losing the dream of our life together. As you no doubt know, we all have different periods of recovery & renewal. The material things we choose to keep and/or let go of continue to evolve throughout our lives but our memories and our experiences are the building blocks of our true selves. Take your time and you will know when the time is right to let go. I wrote a lot during the first several years of my widowhood.

  4. posted by Aslaug on

    Having lost in a similar way a few years ago I can agree with what has been said. Especially about giving stuff away to others who loved him (as long as they want the items). They might love to have something to remind them of him and when you see them wearing, for example, a coat or suit that was his you’ll share in the memory without the items cluttering up your house. (if you think it would be too hard to be reminded like that, then don’t go that way).

    I suggest you squirrel away the definitely-keep-ums and then put the rest out (or send pictures if loved ones don’t live close by) and invite those who want to grab a memory. Whatever doesn’t get grabbed up, you can go through again and see if there’s more you want to keep and the rest goes to charity.

    I still have a hard time with some things, wondering if I should keep them for our son to look through later (I know I don’t need them around, but would he be glad to have things later or am I then just causing future clutter for him).

  5. posted by trillie on

    There are a few threads in the Unclutterer Forum that deal with this topic, they are tagged with “death” (http://unclutterer.com/discuss/tags/death) and “emotional attachment” (http://unclutterer.com/discuss.....attachment). There is great advice and wisdom in some posts. Good luck to you!

  6. posted by Nana on

    Condolences extended from a woman whose father died young … and whose mother kept his rollerskates for a number of years (to be fair, we had a basement and an attic, and they were boxed and out of the way).

    Surprised no one has suggested photographing Stuff. Sometimes having the photo enables one to part with the actual item/s more easily. I did this with Mom’s things I thought others might want. After sending out the photos and following up by giving Stuff to those who wanted it, it was much easier to part with the left-overs.

  7. posted by Mike on

    Grace, my best to you and yours and I hope you can find some comfort in this difficult time.

    My wife and I recently had the unpleasant experience of having to sort the estates of two older family members who died within weeks of one another and cleanup on a third who was forced to move into assisted living. When I read your “last tangible link of his presence,” it was like deja-vu. That was EXACTLY what made it so difficult — the idea that the number of things still binding these loved ones to our lives are finite, and once those things are gone, will our loved ones fade from memory? This is, I think, a very realistic worry, and my wife and I felt it the same as you did as we parsed through the household and personal items that our loved ones had accumulated over a lifetime. Did we dare let these things go?

    In the end, what Victor says is true, and it was for us as well: WE are the link to their memory, not the tangible things. That served as a helpful filter that eliminated most of the household items as such: while they might have belonged to our loved one, they are not in themselves remarkable, and if that person were still alive, we would hardly even notice them. But things distinctive of the person… things that can only be theirs… those are the things you treasure because the way they evoke the person is genuine and not just a reflection of current grief.

    Of course, I don’t think anyone would blame you if you decided you needed to hold on to much of your husband’s things just a while longer, to have time to become comfortable with which things belonged to him versus which things were truly HIS.

  8. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    Ugh… I had to do this with Dad’s things last summer. Fortunately, not only did I not live with him, but he lived in another state alltogether. I can’t imagine how much harder it would would be with a spouse that you share a house with.

    What has worked for me was to save the things that were really him and that I’ve always liked. As time has passed, I’ve been able to let some of the things go. I try to keep only useful things, very few are purely decorative. I wear his jacket and boots and his bowl is used to hold the change on my dresser.

    Best of luck, and don’t rush yourself!

  9. posted by Lynsey on

    A woman I shared several friends with died in a tragic accident at a very young age. Something her mother chose to do was very touching: any clothing that was suitable for quilting was turned into quilts for her loved ones. She was a university flight instructor and hoped to be an airline pilot one day, so the quilt blocks were small airplanes made from her clothes, with purchased fabric filling out the design. The quilts were beautiful, comforting, and useful reminders of their loved one.

  10. posted by kris on

    thank you for your considerate and conscious response.

  11. posted by Leonie on

    Grace
    I’m a little more removed from the situation. My mother in law died two years ago. My FIL held on to things for 6 months and then started giving things away. I know he misses her everyday though we were amused to know that he got rid of the things he never liked almost immediately – the house plants that she loved. They kept almost everything – books, papers, things, so there still are a lot of things that are in piles. At some point he’ll figure it out though he did say that he’s just going to leave it to us to decide once he’s gone.

    Given that it is your husband’s items, I can only guess at the memories that you have as you go through his possessions. I wish you the very best and I hope you have loved ones who can comfort you through this process.

    take care

  12. posted by Carol on

    The quilt is an excellent idea … you might also think about having a teddy bear made from a special shirt of his. My cousin had teddy bears made from a flannel shirt that my uncle always wore, and I had a great photo of my sons sitting on his lap while he was wearing that shirt that I passed on with the bears.

  13. posted by Jude2004 on

    My dad died 28 years ago from leukemia. I have a lot of his stuff. I still wear his long underwear, for example, and display his WWII uniform insignia in my bedroom. The silliest thing I kept was a paperback book with a piece of gauze in it which he was using for a bookmark. I had no interest in ever reading that book, but I kept it because it seemed that only my dad would use a piece of gauze as a bookmark. As a consequence of his leukemia and frequent blood clots, he was on a blood thinner that made his skin thin. He was a mechanic who frequently banged himself with tools as he fixed things, and he used the gauze pads to fix his wounds. This summer, when I came across the paperback, I was *finally* able to recycle it. It took 28 years.

  14. posted by Ginger on

    It seems that the fact that you’re willing to start asking the question about giving up things means you are moving towards healing. I’m not speaking from personal experience of so great a loss, but I know I have a few treasured items from my grandmother and just honoring those in the right way makes me feel a connection even though I only have 1 or 2 items.

  15. posted by catherine on

    Like Ginger I have no personal experience of such a devastating loss. I was, however, very close to my grandfather and I still treasure his memory 20 years on. The one thing of his I kept was a small and very worn knife he used to cut vegetables from his garden. The significance of it for me is that I use that knife regularly, and see it almost every day when I open the drawer it lives in. It makes me feel like he is still a part of my life. If there are things Grace’s husband used and that she would continue to use, that could be another way to think about what to keep.

  16. posted by Lisa on

    This is something I am dealing with, thank goodness not alone. I have a brother and two sisters, we lost our daddy in Feb. and our mama in July. It seems quick to be going through the house now, but we need to because we must sell the house. I have had to remind myself that having the stuff doesn’t mean I have my parents back.

  17. posted by Zen friend on

    I am so sorry for your loss, Grace.

    After my mother’s death, I boxed up items (scrapbooks, notebooks, old report cards) I wasn’t ready to go through. They stayed in my closet for several years. Last summer I realized I was ready to began to go through them.

    I asked one of my closest friends to help me. She gently asked questions to help me sort (“Do you need to keep her award, or would a picture do?”), allowed me to talk about the memories as they flooded back, gave me permission to stop when I was becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

    Her presence made a difficult, necessary task possible. I still have several boxes left–but she’s promised to come back when I’m ready to wrestle with this again.

    Is there someone you trust to stand with you as you go through this?

  18. posted by priest's wife on

    zen friend has a great idea- someone to be with you while you go through things- too difficult to do alone

  19. posted by Kay on

    I understand the very difficult process after the loss of your loved one. I lost my husband some decade ago and it took me ages to tackle all of that.
    I kept the sentimental things – probably most of no value but they meant much to me such as his old hunting boots, maybe some clothing items that were purchased at a very significant time in his life.
    I gave most of his clothes to a clothing closet in our community run by a church – I knew there would be so many who used those good heavy flannel shirts – most of them quite new.
    I didn’t start this process until months – yes, even years – after his death. Why rush? Why dispose of something, then later come to wish I had kept that?
    It seemed to me that time eventually told me to begin this chore – and I am glad I waited

  20. posted by Lisa on

    Grace, my sincere condolences. My husband was killed a little over five years ago; we also had no children, and there’s almost no family left, so I have been holding on to things that no one will want when I go to join Steven. But it has taken me over five years to even begin to be able to think about getting rid of his stuff – I mean, I still have his socks and underwear. But I have finally allowed myself to realize that no matter how long I wait, he will never be back to wear his clothes, read his books, listen to his music, and that it is time to pick what means the most to me (the t-shirts that he bought on our honeymoon, for example) and let the rest loose into the wind so they can enrich other lives. Believe me, I understand the agony in your heart – you feel guilty just thinking about getting rid of his stuff, as if somehow that will translate into your getting rid of him. BUT DOING SO IS NOT A BETRAYAL – your husband, like mine, would not want you to remain trapped by material things; he would want you to move on with your life. Just last month I made the conscious decision to shed a few of Steven’s books and other items – I gave things to all his friends and family when he died so that route had already been trodden – and while it broke my heart, and I cried, I made sure to explain to him that this did not mean I was beginning to forget him, to shed him from my life. And you know what? I survived. And while I will never be comfortable or easy with disposing of the majority of his material possessions, the possession of memories is all that really matters. And those I will never shed. To close, Grace, I wish you strength, and send to you my sincere hope that you do what you have to do, when YOU want to do it. Your husband knows how much you love him; he doesn’t need you to keep his old sweatpants to prove it to him. But – I know. I know.

  21. posted by Gillian on

    I have already planned to hire an assistant/organizer or some form of help after my partner dies. Hopefully having thought about it beforehand, I will be able to get going afterward, some time.

  22. posted by Anonymous in SF on

    My husband died 17 months ago at age 32. Thank you all for your helpful comments. Lisa, I especially found yours helpful.
    So far, I feel like I can only get rid of the things we talked about getting rid before he got sick. While he was sick we didn’t make cleaning out a priority. I sold the car a week after he died (this was already in process the month before so I kept it together long enough to complete the sale), got rid of random household stuff we both agreed was OK to go but never got around to disposing, and I know I am permitted to sell the rigid heddle loom once I finish his last project that’s still on there.
    I also gave some small items to his immediate family, items they would find significant. For example, I gave his grandfather’s WWII watch back to his mother so she could give it to whoever she feels should have it.
    I figure eventually I’ll feel that someone else should wear those warm flannel shirts and that’s when I’ll start getting rid of the things he will never be back to use. For now, I wear the shirts when it gets cold in the apartment.

  23. posted by Deb on

    Having lost my Dad recently, I’d suggest the key is to let yourself set the pace. Don’t feel pressured to finish it quickly, and don’t be afraid to come back to it later if you need to take time out and have a good cry. Sometimes you just need a little more time.

    That said, here are a few of the things that have helped me:
    1) Go through and organise ALL the photos (not just ones of him). They don’t need to be in albums, they can still be in the packets, but try and get them in a sequence that works for you (I went with time). As you look through them, have a pad to note down the things that represent your loved one, or trigger memories, things that you or other people associate with that person. It could be a hat, or a hobby, or a particular habit. See if you can find photos that represent that aspect. Also look for your favourite photos of your person with members of the family or special friends. Get physical copies of those reprinted at a suitable location, and ensure that the friends have copies of the photos they are in.

    2. Set up a photo board(s) to show these aspects of your husband’s character. These boards (we have three, all framed behind glass) represent some of my favourite moments, and we also made sure to include photos of dad with every key family member. We’ve also written on the back AND printed out little labels to explain where/ why the photo was significant, and attached all the photos and the labels with blu-tac.

    3. Think about writing down / retaining the nice things that people said about him. Throwing out sympathy cards, flower cards etc is really hard, but if you’ve made a list on your computer of the wonderful quotes, it may get a little easier. We also updated our address book to ensure all those who sent sympathy cards or flowers had a current listing. Alternatively, if you’re a scrapbooker, sympathy cards can be worked into a really effective scrapbook.

    4. Now that you have your list of things that represent your husband, you can locate key items through your house. You may want to put them all in a box initially, but ideally, find a way to display these things so that the people who loved him will look at them and smile. Be aware that things which are happy memories for you may have adverse implications for other people, but THAT’S OKAY! This is about your relationship, keep the things that YOU treasure.

    5. In terms of the clothing, check with younger generations – he may have a nephew, or some young friends who’d be interested in expanding their wardrobe, and many accessories are useful cross gender – eg nieces might like belts, and pocket knives!

    6. Before you give anything away outside the immediate family, ask around. You may be surprised when a member of your circle wants certain things. If they don’t get the option on them, that can cause resentment. Perhaps set up an email distribution list of your family and friends, and update them on your progress weekly/ monthly.
    “Hi folks, this week I’m planning working through x’s closet, including accessories. If you’re interested in anything, please shoot me a quick note”. Don’t forget that older members of the family may not be email savvy.

    Just a warning on that though, to ensure those things set aside for people are delivered promptly. When my mum’s dad died (she lived interstate), a trunk was set aside for her containing special mementos. At the next council cleanup day, a family member chucked it to the kerb, not realising it’s significance. She’s still devastated.

    7. Think about the hobbies/ groups he was a part of, and whether his books / other remaining things might be of use to a member starting out in the field. If so, you can donate them, and if appropriate, ask them to add a book plaque, or just tell the person receiving the item a story about your hubbie.

    8. Take joy in your memories. He was a special person, and you deserve to laugh, and to cry, when you remember him.

    Good luck!

  24. posted by Donna on

    Condolences and warm thoughts to you, Grace, and to all those here who are dealing with loss. My husband died four years ago, and I still have an entire room of his stuff. For me the biggest complicating factor is our son, who’s 17 and who still clings to a lot of his dad’s belongings – even when I’m inclined to get rid of something, I have to think about what it may mean to him, now or later, and about how to reassure him that I’m not trying to eradicate his memory. Some of the advice here will be helpful in talking to him about these things, I hope.

  25. posted by Amy Walsh on

    My mother passed away almost four years ago. At first I kept quite a few material items that she loved. . .a purse, clothing, accessories, housewares, holiday decorations. But as the years have passed I’ve been able to let go of quite a few of these items. You have to do what is best for you in this moment. Re-evaluate next year and maybe you will be able to let go of some more items. Good luck!

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