Death and dying are never easy things to talk about. The emotional impact of losing someone we love can make it feel almost impossible to deal with the logistics of what that means on a practical level. It can feel like every part of us has shut down, and just the simple idea of putting one step in front of the other feels like a foreign concept.
Once the funeral or memorial service is over, it can even seem like the world expects you to simply “get back to normal.” The only problem is that you’re not sure what normal really is anymore, and you’ve still got a lifetime of memories–and stuff–to sort through. It’s a daunting prospect.
Believe me, I get it. Over the past few years, my husband and I have faced the loss of two very close family members, and I understand all these feelings I just described all too well. And yet, the reality of the situation is that there are logistics that must be dealt with. There is a house full of furniture and clothing and pictures and knick knacks to sort through. There are bank accounts and insurance policies to figure out. There are things to do that can’t be ignored, whether we wish we could or not.
And so, you have stumbled upon this page because you recently lost someone you love, please let me be the first to say I’m so sorry for your loss. The goal of this post is to provide a simple road map for you to follow at a time when life feels like it has turned upside down. My hope is that it will help make knowing what step to take next just a little bit easier.
1. Get Support
Grieving can be a long process, longer than most of our friends and family members can know how to deal with. It can also be incredibly complicated and it can drudge up a lot of feelings that need to be addressed. While friends can be wonderful, consider also seeking out a support group or a grief counselor who can help you work through the specific emotions you are experiencing.
Once you’ve decided to start sorting through all of items left behind, enlist a friend, spouse or sibling to help you. It can be overwhelming to deal with the flood of emotions you’ll experience, and it may feel impossible to remain objective about what you would like to keep and what you can let go. Keep someone close who can help you stay on track and stay reasonable.
2. Don’t Feel Like You Have to Address Everything at Once
The truth is that most of the time our deadlines are self-imposed, and there is no rule that says you have to figure out what to do with a lifetime of someone else’s stuff within days of the funeral. While some people might feel better dealing with everything right away–almost as if keeping busy will keep the pain away–others need time to grieve first before they can dive in.
Both approaches are just fine. We all have different methods of coping and healing from grief. For some, action might give control to a situation that feels vulnerable and out of control. For others, it might be too painful or too much.
Give yourself permission to set your own timeline and allow yourself to grieve and feel. It’s okay to go through a myriad of emotions. But do keep in mind that when all this “stuff” that you’ve inherited “stuff” begins taking over your space or interfering with your life, that’s when you need to find a way to start addressing it and working through it.
3. Organize Your Plan
Schedule time on the calendar to sort through items. Be realistic and kind to yourself about what you can do in a set amount of time. Dealing with an estate, memories, and a flood of emotions is quite a departure from organizing your pantry or storage closet.
Assemble the things you’ll need beforehand: boxes, bins, trash bags, markers, tape and labels. Schedule time to deal with each area or room one at a time. Figure out your plan of action before you go into the situation. Not only will this help you stay focused and calm, but it will also help when you have to make tough choices.
4. Separate Your Memories from the Stuff
Keep in mind that you don’t have to keep everything. Photos, writings and items that were unique to your loved one are good items to keep. Remind yourself: even if your loved one collected something, it doesn’t mean you have to keep their whole collection. If they loved cats, thimbles, decorative broaches…any item they kept in multiples, limit yourself to one really special knickknack or item meaningful to you.
This can be especially challenging when faced with a whole house of useful stuff. It can seem wasteful and even disrespectful of the person’s memory, but in truth, you would be holding them more dear and close by keeping something very special than “dealing with” a cupboard of saltshakers or old postcards from someone else’s vacations.
After my sister-in-law died, and we began sorting through her things, my husband said, “it feels like I’m throwing her life away.” It was excruciating, and he struggled with so much guilt. Eventually though, we had to come to accept the fundamental truth that people and things are not one and the same.
Memories take up space in our hearts; stuff takes up space in our homes.
Memories last forever; stuff breaks, gets lost, and fades away.
Memories bring joy; stuff brings stress.
Memories are honoring; stuff is diminishing.
Memories bring peace; stuff brings chaos.
Memories actually matter; stuff really doesn’t matter at all.
When facing the loss of a loved one, it’s amazing how our memories become intertwined with the belongings of that person. The smell of our grandmother’s perfume on a box of old handkerchiefs can bring us to tears; small porcelain figurines become priceless mementos. Items that don’t fit our style, our taste, or even our within our homes become the things we cling to.
When my mother-in-law passed away, we were left with a lifetime of items to clean out—a house full of stuff. Her memories, her paperwork, her furniture and clothes were all our responsibility. Needless to say, when we were both racked with sadness and grief, sorting through her belongings was an impossible task.
My husband and I packed everything up and moved it to our home in Florida, so we could get a better handle on what we wanted to keep, once the tears had settled. It seemed so callous and difficult to simply discard her possessions, as though we were disregarding her memory. So we held on.
Then, not even two years later, my sister-in-law passed away after a battle with cancer. We were her only surviving family members. Again, we were faced with mourning a loss and trying to sort through a lifetime of stuff at the same time. Once again, we found it nearly impossible to simply “get rid” of her stuff.
But we were one small family in an even smaller house. We didn’t have the room or the need for many of the items that surrounded us. We clung to their stuff because we were terrified of losing the memories, but eventually we realized all this “stuff” wasn’t making us happy. It wasn’t helping us through the loss or bringing us comfort. It only brought chaos and stress. We had to let go.
What you decide to keep may be different than what I or other people might, but that’s okay too. There are no right or wrong answers here. The important thing is that you are able to give yourself permission to keep those items that are meaningful, and to let go of the rest…without any guilt.
5. Let Go of the Stuff
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few key items you’d like to hold on to, it’s time to figure out the best method for sorting through, discarding, selling or donating the rest of the items.
There are several resources to help you through the process and you certainly don’t have to deal with it alone. If you’re working with several family members, the will and testament may offer some answers.
Depending on the value of their estate and the amount of their possessions, you may have different options open to you. I’ve known people who marked many of their belongings with names of family members or kept lists of who should get what. It’s always best to first respect the wishes of the deceased in these cases.
Time and time again, I’ve heard of families torn apart in feuds over the possessions of a loved one. Oftentimes, the process can spark hidden emotions not related to the actual “stuff” they’re fighting over, which can very much damage relationships.
If you’re going head-to-head with a cousin over grandma’s candlesticks, try to remain objective. If the item is very valuable and was not outlined in a will, you may need to seek the advice of a lawyer or mediator to assist. If the item is valuable only for sentimental reasons, try to take a step back. Would grandma really want your relationship ruined over such an item? Very few possessions are worth destroying a relationship over. It’s far better to let it go.
When you’re ready to part with items and things have been sorted amongst family members, you still don’t have to go it alone. There are professionals out there who can help you sort through the situation.
- Estate Sale Companies
Estate sale companies are the most experienced and quite possibly the easiest option. You simply give them a percentage of the sales (usually between 10-30%) and they come in, sort, and take care of everything. Not only are you spared the stress of pricing and appraising items, but you also don’t have to feel a twinge of pain and guilt every time you sell an item. You can be assured the items are wanted and headed to a good home where they’ll be used and appreciated.
People who run estate sales are experienced at dealing with all aspects of the process. Despite the heavy price tag, this is certainly the easiest and most convenient option.
- eBay and Consignment
If you have a collection of items and you’re concerned about getting a fair price or reaching the best audience, you may be better to go with a professional eBay company or consignment service. This can be helpful if your loved one had a large collection of sports memorabilia, handbags, figurines, or other items that might not hit their target audience in a local estate sale.
eBay services are not as expensive as estate companies and you can often bargain or set up a minimum price you’d like for the items. Consignment shops will take items and then set a price point depending on the length it takes to sell the item. This can be especially helpful for furniture, jewelry and clothing.
- Hold a Sale of Your Own
If you’re feeling up for it and you’re experienced at rummage and garage sales (and have help), then holding a sale on your own might be an option. Depending on the amount of items you have and the neighborhood you’re selling in, you could find surprising success. This option is not, however, for the faint of heart. It can really stir up emotions when someone wants to bargain over the belongings of a loved one and it’s difficult to see each item being carried off and walked away.
If you’re living in an area with lots of young families or college students and you have some furniture or household items, you might be hitting your target audience with a rummage sale.
- Donation Services and Pick Up Services
Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and other organizations will often pick up donations at no cost to you, especially if the items are gently used and of good value. Be sure to contact them to find out guidelines and limits. For example, some services prefer not to pick up clothing and some services have a weight limit on furniture and other items.
Remember, it’s perfectly natural to go through a spectrum of emotions when you experience a loss. You can feel sadness and anger, frustration and depression. Don’t expect too much of yourself when it comes to dealing with your loved one’s estate. When you’re ready, ask others for help and seek comfort in knowing you’re honoring your loved one’s memory by not taking on their stuff and resenting it. Instead, you’re sending it to a good home and keeping their memories alive, not the stuff that surrounded them.
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