In an ideal world, everyone would have cleared out unnecessary belongings from time to time, as their lifestyle changes, or as they lose interest in hobbies or as their children grow up and leave the nest. It is definitely best if you tackle the task before others have to do it for you, or before you need to move to a smaller residence or a retirement home. In the real world, it is the family who ends up with the uncomfortable and sometimes heartbreaking task of sorting out the belongings of a loved one that has passed away.

If you are the one who has to sort out someone else’s items after his/her death, you can expect emotions to overwhelm you as you hold part of your loved one’s memories in your hands. The logistics of it all require a practical solution, and we can make a few suggestions:

  • Depending on the circumstances, you may have to deal with belongings sooner than later. If someone lived alone, it means that their living space must be cleared out entirely, but if a spouse or another family member will continue living there, the process will be a selective one. Moving everything to a storage facility is not recommended, because that can be expensive and only puts the task off for a later stage. The right time would be when you feel emotionally ready to deal with a loved one’s things, but we do not all have that option, especially if someone has passed away unexpectedly.
  • If you and your siblings have a shared responsibility in managing an estate, you should plan to go through the belongings together so that to agree on when and how to take on the task. The process could be healing, but everybody deals with loss in different ways so be ready for the emotions of others.
  • If it is more practical (for instance if they live far away) the family could nominate someone to start by making an inventory and perhaps share photographs of valuable items so that others can decide whether they want to keep or allow someone else to use it. It can be challenging to make decisions while you grieve so having someone who can support you and offer perspective can be very helpful.
  • Begin in a room that does not have too many sentimental items, such as the bathroom. Used toiletries can be disposed of, but it is a good idea to have a box marked ‘donate’ to collect safe, hygienic and usable items for people who might need them.
  • The kitchen could be an easier room, but it may still be difficult to know what to do with durable items such as pots, cutlery, crockery, and equipment when everybody’s kitchens are stocked up already. Most of these can be sold online, but be ready for a period where you will need to store much of it, as everything will not be sold at once. Some welfare organisations and charity shops collect usable items for free if you are willing to donate it in bulk.
  • In each room, start sorting the items by what you are planning to keep, throw away, sell, and donate. Some things you would want to keep, but much will not be something you need or have space for in your home.
  • Some people want their belongings to go to certain people, like a piano to the grandchild that has musical talent, or the woodworking tools to a son who loves DIY tasks. This is an easy task, as long as the family is in agreement (or items were specified in the will).
  • The family can decide to keep a few sentimental items but the reasoning should be that “the belongings are not the person” and if you don’t have room for them in your home it may be better to keep smaller items or take photographs of the heavy antique imbuia furniture and 1969 Ford Mustang, before letting it go. Searching for reputable antique dealers to get realistic prices can be a challenge and it may take time to get valuable items sold this way, meaning that you will have to store it for a period of time at first.
  • Create a memory box with photographs of meaningful items that you can reflect back on from time to time. With modern printing techniques, you can have photographs printed on a pillow or duvet cover to remind you of someone.
  • There are creative ways to make keepsakes out of granddad’s collection of silk neckties or shirts if you want to reuse things in a meaningful way. Tapestries that your mother worked on for hours and hours can be used to cover a chair or combined to make an impressive wall hanging with special memories.
  • Don’t keep items out of a sense of obligation or guilt, and even if you decide to keep something initially, you could decide to let it go later.
  • Throw away items that are damaged or perishable. If tinned foods and unopened food stuffs are within their expiry dates, you can use them or give them to someone in need.
  • If items won’t be suitable to sell in a thrift store or charity shop, they can be given away (make use of forums such as Facebook/Junkmail/Gumtree) or delivered to homeless shelters. Clothing can be donated to charity organisations after you have given family members the chance to choose whether they might want to hang on to a special piece of clothing or make practical use of anything. A garage sale is an option but it will not be easy to bargain over the prices of a deceased parent’s items.

It’s ok to feel sadness and grief and to go through a range of emotions throughout the process of sorting out a loved one’s belongings after they have died. Be patient and take breaks if you feel overwhelmed. Find someone to help you even if you still do the sorting and they label the boxes or bring you tea and tissue when you need them.

Use the opportunity to also think about what you own and why you own it and consider changing some of your habits, beliefs, and patterns so that you can take a practical and unsentimental approach to putting a home in order or downsizing while reflecting on the tiny joys that make up a long life. Some possessions (like kitchen gadgets, old fashioned clothes, unpractical shoes and sports equipment) are easier to get rid of than most sentimental items (such as photographs, love letters, the children’s art projects or grandmother’s porcelain tea set). Scaling down and making space for yourself to enjoy your home is already a good idea, but it will also take away a burden on family members after you’re gone. Some people’s health doesn’t allow them to take up the task, others hang on to belongings to remind them of happy times, and others believe that there is enough time to do that “next spring”. Very few people talk or think about death in advance, but if your parent or spouse is willing to have these conversations and we can prepare for what’s to come, the process could be easier and more gradual than having to face a mountain of belongings all at once. Spring cleaning does not have to only happen in Spring time!

Just remember to always follow the instructions of the Executor of the estate in whatever you choose to do with the belongings straight after death has occurred.

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