5 Strategies for Sorting a Loved One’s Stuff After They Die

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Cleaning out a loved one’s home after they have died can be both logistically and emotionally difficult, often unexpectedly so. “Obviously, you know a person is gone, but getting rid of their stuff can be much more salient,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist based in Chicago. After already making funeral arrangements and grieving with family and friends, she says, “many of my patients are surprised to find that cleaning out a loved one’s home triggers a period of mourning all over again.”

Before you begin, it’s important to remind yourself that there’s no right or wrong way to feel during the process. “It’s very likely that you’ll be hit with a wave of different emotions,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City and author of Your Next Big Thing. “You might feel nostalgia, anger, sadness, and maybe anger again. All of this is normal.”

Here, experts share strategies to help you cope and take care of yourself while taking on this challenging task.

1. Bring a friend

Having a friend or family member there to support you while you clean can be a huge help, according to experts. Ideally, this should be someone who was close to both you and the person who died, says Lombardo. When you come across a funny photograph, favorite T-shirt, or that Bruce Springsteen record they’d always play on repeat, the two of you can swap stories and reminisce about the life they lived.

“Together, you can turn the cleaning process into a storytime for positive memories,” she says.

2. Get on the same page with your family

Conflicts can sometimes arise when cleaning out a loved one’s home, particularly when siblings are going through a parent’s house together and divvying up sentimental and valuable items.

But this time spent together as a family can also be extremely meaningful. Keeping the process focused on supporting each other can help you grieve in a healthy way, Lombardo says. “After a funeral, a lot of family fights are the result of misplaced anger,” she notes. “Being mad at your sister might be easier than feeling sad that a loved one is gone.”

3. Don’t feel bad for not wanting their favorite items

Many people find it difficult to part with belongings they know their friend or family member loved, whether it’s a husband’s beloved golf clubs or the china your parents bought on their honeymoon. To make the process easier, Mary Kay Buysse, executive director at the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASSM), a membership organization for professionals that help relocate older adults, suggests reframing your way of thinking: “Remind yourself, ‘They lived with this item for many years.’ The real value should be in that.”

Another strategy: As you put aside things you don’t have space for but are hesitant to throw out, “have a little ceremony for the ones that have meaning to you, but you don’t need,” Michaelis says.

Gifting good-condition items to a local charity may help you say goodbye, too. If possible, Lombardo recommends physically delivering donations yourself. “That way, you can see how your loved one’s clothing, furniture, and more are helping someone else,” she says.

4. Use your phone to preserve memories

When you can’t keep a nostalgic possession, snap a photo of it so you can continue to remember the role it played in that person’s life. “Pictures trigger fantastic memories for people,” says Buysse. “Sometimes even more than the item itself, since they’re not in a box somewhere or on a shelf: You can easily look at it anytime on your phone.”

For example, one of Buysse’s clients was a woman who traveled frequently throughout her life and had accumulated a large collection of miniature teapots. When moving out of her home and into an assisted living center, she was devastated to part with the collection. As a solution, Buysse’s team worked to digitally photograph each of the teapots and turn the images into a framed poster she could hang on the wall of her new room. “She still kept three of the pots, but now she can look at all the others every day and tell visitors about her travels,” Buysse recalls. “The memories are more present.”

5. Give yourself time

The amount of time it takes to sort through a loved one’s belongings varies, so don’t feel pressured to meet a certain timetable. “It depends on the person and the emotions around different items,” says Michaelis. Going through a spouse’s belongings is naturally a more involved and emotional process than sorting through a distant relative’s stuff. Not everyone has the luxury of time, especially if a landlord needs it cleaned quickly or the house is being put on the market, but he recommends not rushing if possible. This will give you space to say goodbye to your loved one and the belongings that mattered most to them.

If you do have the option to go slow, try spacing out tasks over the course of a few days or weeks and tackling them in steps, says Lombardo. For example, go through their personal items one day, their papers another day, next do a Goodwill day, and so on. But if you’re the type of person who likes to complete a big task all at once, that’s OK too. “For some other people, having it hanging over them is actually more stressful,” she notes.

And don’t forget to look after yourself. “Try not to do it all in one shot,” says Michaelis. “Take breaks, eat well, and get plenty of sleep.”

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