Uncluttering after the loss of a loved one

The loss of a loved one, no matter the circumstances, can be an emotionally charged time. Having to sort through the things that belonged to a special friend or family member who has died can make the time of mourning even more difficult. The process can take longer than expected, other family members will likely need to be involved, and there may be disagreements about what should be kept, discarded, or donated. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to get through the decluttering process more easily.

Be mindful of your feelings

Remember that you are grieving and that it’s natural to feel a variety of emotions. It’s normal to laugh, to cry, to get angry, and to be overwhelmed. Feelings of guilt also can come up and stall your plans to decide what to do with your loved one’s belongings. Rather than pushing your feelings aside, accept them and try to declutter during times when you tend to be at your best. For me, that would be morning time. I can take on just about any challenge at seven o’clock in the morning, but the situation is reversed at seven in the evening.

Decide when to work alone or with others

It can be helpful to work by yourself, especially if you’re not in the mood to talk and prefer to focus on what you’re doing. There will, however, be times when you need to include others, not only because certain decisions need to be made, but also because it’s helpful. You may be feeling emotionally and physically drained and it can help to have other people to lean on.

Create simple ground rules

Having a plan to guide you through the process will keep you on track and minimize disagreements. Come up with some basic rules that you will stick to. For example, if something is broken, it will be thrown out (or recycled, if possible). Here are some more to consider:

  • Things that are difficult to decide how to handle can temporarily be put in a maybe pile and decided on later.
  • Any items with mold will be immediately thrown away.
  • Unwanted items in good repair will be donated to your loved one’s favorite charity.
  • Valuable items will be given to specific family members or sold. *An appraiser can help you figure out how much items are worth.
  • Duplicate photos will be given to specific people who want them.

Take regular breaks

It can be very easy to just want to plow through the uncluttering process. You can be particularly productive on a given day, so much so, you might forget to take a breather or to eat. There are days when you may be very emotional and need to take a moment to regroup. Remind yourself to take breaks at regular intervals by setting an audible timer. Hearing it (rather than having one that only vibrates) will prompt you to stop when you need to.

Be easy on yourself

You don’t have to decide what to do with everything all at once.  And, you don’t have to get rid of it all. I kept the dress I wore to my brother’s funeral over 20 years ago. I never wore that dress again. I hung it in my closet and it was with me through three moves. Just last month, I donated the dress to charity. I was finally ready to part with it. The dress was still in good condition and I felt good knowing that I wasn’t throwing it away, that someone else would appreciate it.

Anyone — even a very organized person — has difficulty at times like this. Don’t expect all decisions to come easily or to always be in control of your emotions. There will be highs and lows. Some days will go very well, and others, not as much. Be aware of how you’re feeling and don’t beat yourself up. It can feel like being on a roller coaster. On days when things are not going the way you want them to, remember that it’s a process. You will get through it.

24 Comments for “Uncluttering after the loss of a loved one”

  1. posted by Marlene on

    Great article for a difficult subject. I find my clients definitely can relate to the “maybe” pile…eventually they may be ready to let go. It’s a challenge to be easy on yourself when you’re wrapped up in this. Very good advice.

  2. posted by amy on

    Great advice. When my mother passed, we had a short amount of time to get through an extremely overwhelming amount of stuff. Quick decisions had to be made. I tried my best to distance my emotions from the items and if I had any doubt, I boxed it up to go through later. We donated a lot of stuff, my dad took a lot to his apartment, and I brought quite a bit home to mine. Months later when the boxes remained full and nothing had been removed, I went through them and asked myself WILL I use it? Do I need it? Most of it got donated as well. The things do not equal the person or the emotional attachment, they are just things. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, and that’s okay as long as you acknowledge it.

  3. posted by Lisa Westbrook on

    My father died 19 years ago, and during the past year I have finally convinced my mom to part with his things (as well as many of her own). It has been steady, but slooow going. To me, they are indeed just things, but my only sister has an interest in studying everything before it goes out the door. Be prepared that your family will react differently than you to this process and be prepared for some revisionist history. Try to remain calm and kind and be very, very patient.

  4. posted by linda on

    I had the luxury of time to get through the items. It softened the blow to give items to charities. I donated T-shirts, sneakers, etc. to a local rehab center for patients who came to physical therapy without workout clothes. Hearing aids went to a school for the deaf. Imaging someone with a genuine need benefiting from the items made it easier to part with them.

  5. posted by Val on

    When my husband passed away 6 years ago I had a very difficult going through his things, since he was a real packrat. I was blessed with several friends who would come over for a couple hours at a time to help me go through different areas of the house. Especially difficult was his office, with lots of old video games, books, textbooks, and papers! Once done I donated two pickups full of clothes, books, etc. to the homeless shelter. I know he would have felt good about helping others. It was funny how certain items would make me cry – like his favorite screwdriver set(which I kept and still use), and others were very easy to give away (like his clothes). I did keep a small bin of items for my kids to have someday – like his watch, tie clip, and a few other smaller items.

    The unclutter is a great inspiration to me, to keep working on my own stuff!

  6. posted by Marjoryt on

    A member of our church died, and the family just didn’t need her kitchen supplies. They donated everything to our church (with our permission). Some things (punch bowl and glasses, baking sheets, hand towels and cleaning supplies we kept for the church kitchen. Some things went to some young members setting up their first apartments (such as her crock pot and electric skillet). Some things went to a family getting their first apartment after living in a shelter (sets of dishes, flatware, tupperware). A few things we just smiled over and threw away.

    That’s another option – call the local church.

    If there are collectables, I very strongly suggest getting an expert in, or at least checking these against ebay. A former neighbor gave away all her husband’s electrical tools, and the receiver just hocked everything and walked away with hundreds of dollars – the widow could have done the same and used the money to pay for the funeral.

  7. posted by Karen on

    This is an excellent post, as always. Another factor to consider is if the estate to be cleaned out is nearby or far away, or if there are circumstances that necessitate a quick clean-out.

    In my case, when my mother died, we were not in a hurry to clean out the house, but it was located 10 hours away and I had 3 small children at home. It required some creative manpower plans, such as hiring a handful of youth group members from the church I attended back home, and renting a large dumpster for 2 weeks (we filled it 5 times).

    My emotions ran the gamut that Erin lists, but my program management skills kicked in and helped me get through it in the 2 weeks’ time I had. And though I didn’t have the ability to work on it for just a few hours a day, I was able to build in a few evenings off when I would have dinner with long-lost friends who still lived in the area.

  8. posted by Katrina on

    I lost my dad when I was 24, less than 2 years ago. I was the only child and he was single, so it was my sole responsibility. I was also in the middle of my senior year in college. I had very little help, and my boyfriend at the time kept telling me what to do. Including sticking everything in a storage facility and quickly selling the house. This is one thing that caused our separation. It was tough dealing with everyone’s ‘you should…’. I have an article about my story on my blog and through another blog too. Thank you for reading.


  9. posted by Lala on

    I’m facing this in the very near future. My father has progressive and incurable lung condition and was given less than a year.

    Unfortunately, he is a full-blown hoarder (rooms mostly head-height with small paths, rotted food, mold, dust, bugs and mice and something like 20 years’ worth of accumulated trash and things that he was sure he might need or got for a bargain). We finally got him out of this filthy, dangerous house and into a clean, safer senior apartment, but he refuses to allow anyone to clean it now (and despite being told that the mold/dust/dirt was a contributing factor in causing his condition to advance, he still is in denial about how bad it is).

    I’ve done some research on how best to tackle the house, but it’s in a small town with no heavy-duty cleaners and I live out of state, so I’ll have limited time to even go through anything. It’s going to be horrible and really taint the memory of my father. My sister and I will have to figure out how to get all of this done without dragging it out, so this post really struck a nerve with me. But mostly I am really heartsick that during a time when we’ll be mourning his death, we’ll be stuck under a mountain of filth trying to find the few things we’d like to keep and dealing with a hideous mess. 🙁

  10. posted by katy on

    After my husband died, I just put everything aside for a long, long time. Then slowly began to give away his personal clothing – most went to a local outreach program but others such as good suits, etc. went to the Salvation Army for them to resale.
    I kept the most personal things – still have them now after 12 years. I have his favorite pair of dress loafers for example. I just could not part with some things that were associated with a marriage of almost 50 years.
    Am glad I didn’t do it all in a rush now.

  11. posted by Anna on

    Why postpone uncluttering until after we die, bestowing that job on others?

    Having already been through the ordeal of uncluttering after the deaths of my elders, I hope to spare my own children as much of it as possible. Therefore, I am going through all my things now, while I am still in good health and of sound mind, and tossing/donating unimportant items and giving important items to those who will eventually receive them. If I need a particular thing, or feel a truly strong sentimental attachment to it, then it stays with me until the need or attachment has expired.

    The “golden years” are a golden time for making such decisions. No excuses!

  12. posted by Dana on

    Great article and advice. Having been through this after my Mom passed 3 years ago I have to agree with your advice. I actually waited several months before cleaning out things. Sometimes doing things immediately may be your only option but if you have the opportunity procrastinating on this task can allow for a better frame of mind.

  13. posted by Linda on

    When my first mother-in-law passed away, we were fortunate that my father-in-law was still using the condo, so we didn’t need to go through everything right away, except that he wanted her things and the silver things (flatware, serving pieces, etc.) out right away and my sister-in-law lived out of town, so we needed to do it immediately.

    My mother-in-law, however, had prepared us for this! She told us the story several times of how she and her siblings divided up their mother’s things, so we were able to follow the pattern. Here is the way we did it:
    1. Each person makes a list of what s/he wants. In our case, my husband and I collaborated on a list, since he wanted some things, and I had views on which things we wanted–each sibling is represented once.
    2. If something is on only one person’s list, that person gets it. (this requires love and trust among the siblings, of course)
    3. If something is on nobody’s list or on more than one person’s list, it goes into the central pile.
    4. Determine who goes first (She recommended drawing straws).
    5. The first person picks one item. Thereafter, it follows around the circle (or back and forth in our case of two siblings), with each one knowing that if they didn’t get the first thing they want, they have a chance to get the next most important item.

    We got first pick, and there were two most important items, a teapot and a coffee pot. One was most valuable and one was most sentimental. Then I had to choose, both for me and for her! Did we take the value? Did we take the sentiment? Knowing that, I finally decided on the valuable, because she should have the teapot. I remembered it forever in my mother-in-law’s house, but she remembered it also in her grandmother’s house. This just drew us closer together.

  14. posted by Matt on

    A remarkably insightful post. Thank you! Having been through this process with a number of family members, I can attest that a little organization goes a long way toward managing stress and grief.

  15. posted by Northmoon on

    A friend of mine took all my dead husband’s clothing to a charity. She thought she was helping. I was devastated (also very angry at her). This process cannot be rushed. Do not push a grieving person to deal with everything at once, it can take a long time. I just sold his saddle after eleven years, and it still hurt to let it go, but I knew the person who bought it will use it, and that helped.

  16. posted by wednesday on

    I was recently laid off, which has afforded me the opportunity to declutter. Reading your article made me realize I’m in mourning, and doing things in haste/high emotion isn’t a good idea.

    The advice you offer here is good for any major loss, not just the death of a loved one. “Be gentle with yourself” is perhaps the hardest thing of all to remember, at least right now. Thank you for your sensitivity and advice, both in your book and your ongoing writing. It helps more than you know.

  17. posted by Alison on

    When my mom died my siblings and I each got a different colored sticker and went through the house placing our sticker on items we wanted. If the item only had your sticker, the item was yours. Multiple stickers meant you negotiate with the other(s).

    Once the sticker portion was done, we hired an estate sale company. For a percentage of the proceeds they sold the rest and guaranteed an empty house at the end. This service was WELL worth their take of the proceeds.

  18. posted by donna on

    Thank you for this! My husband has not died, but has gone to a Dementia facility and will not be returning home. He has been living in our house with part time care, but I have not lived there for 2 years. he was hoarding, churning and taking things apart.I had the caregiver lock up things she found that were valuable or sentimental but in pieces. Now I need to get it all put back together since he is not there. It is overwhelming as some things I have no idea what goes with what. I think maybe I’ll donate the musical instruments to a school if they will come and put them together and put into the cases. An estate sale sounds like the best plan, but since important papers and things maybe hidden, I still have to go through a ton of stuff.I have organizational skills, but I have not dealt with a total mess before. The early morning time sounds like best deal for me, to avoid overwhelming paralysis.Part of that is the sadness of it being my once perfect home that I had to leave because of his alcoholism and now must deal with what he did to it. I never want to live there again so will need to rent or sell.

  19. posted by Liz on

    I have been the executor for two estates – my aunt and my mom. Both were different events.

    My aunt lived by my grandmother and essentially took everything when she died, even though there were two brothers and eight grandchildren. My father was her representative and when he died, I offered to take over. She basically had decluttered many things and left a list of which SIL was to get what, but there was still issues.

    – if there is a large family, suggest that a list of who gets what is written up.
    – do not let a relative push you into giving something to them until there is an evaluation by an outsider. If you are the executor and you let someone take someting from the estate, you may be held responsible, especially if you find that it was to go to someone else.
    – Find a good estate sale person – they may be able to give the tax evaluation as well as help with the estate sale. Some even have started with the “senior move to apartment” issue and will do the move and then the clean out.
    – if you can, get the parent/relative to walk through the house and say who gets what. If it is writing or on video, it’s easier.
    – you may love your relatives, but things change when someone dies. My sister only wanted “2 things” from my mom’s house. When I told her that Mom’s wishes were that if you gave something to her, you had first dibs on it… my sister changed her attitude. But, when I suggested that her daughters might like some things, she said no. I checked and they were thrilled to get some things.

    My mom had 50 years worth of stuff in her house. She was from Europe with depression and war experiences. i accepted her because I loved her and I respected her wishes to deal with her things. My sister thought it was clutter.

    I have saved things for my nieces that I think they will enjoy in the long run. My sister is losing out on family history.

    If you have family history – embrace it, take your time. Ther are lots of places that will love to have a slice of life from when back then. I have lots of WW2 stuff that I am writing the history and will look for the appropiate place to give it to.

    But, I have changed my attitude in that I am decluttering so my nieces don’t have to… but there is a generation that we have to respect. Don’t push them. After all, do you want to be pushed when your time comes?

  20. posted by Liz on

    Oops… there are typing errors in the previous post. I really can spell, typing is another issue.

    This was an emotional post, since I have dealt with my mom’s place by myself. My sister did not want to deal with it. But, she gets half.. so when you write your wishes, let everyone know that the executor does get paid for doing stuff. It is important. My aunt lived in a state that gave me something for dealing with all the stuff. My mom did not. So be aware of that issue.

  21. posted by mab on

    This is very good advice! Lala, my father was also a hoarder, to the point where there weren’t even paths in some rooms. My mother had already passed away. I spent nearly 6 months full-time emptying the house. Everything had to be gone through, because I’d find stock certificates at the bottom of a box containing recipes, cardboard, plastic bags, and other junk. And the filth! At times I was furious. Taking breaks was key — some days I’d just go out and off, doing anything but sorting, tossing, and cleaning.

    Some things I put aside to be dealt with later. Some things need a home, but I can’t figure out where yet. Luckily I could put things in storage and will get to them later.

    But through the whole process I also rediscovered my parents, my life, their lives, the lives of our relatives. It was a very healing process. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and I’m incredibly grateful that I did it.

  22. posted by Angela on

    Great article. I’ve found it helps to find just the right charity to give things away to, or perhaps a community group that will benefit from some items…all helps to know that someone else will appreciate the things.

  23. posted by ninakk on

    Anger and cleaning up after a hoarder. Accept the storm of feelings and know that you are not alone. If possible, take a step back and have a break of a few days.

  24. posted by Arnette Cookerly on

    Re: Kitchen Counter Clutter

    We have lots of pill bottles that we keep on the kitchen counter so we don’t forget to take them. Does anyone know of an attractive counter-top box that would conceal the bottles? The box would have to be easy to clean and waterproof.

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