A Daunting Task: Cleaning Out a Late Loved One's Home
Navigating the emotional process of deciding what to keep and what to let go
After a parent or another loved one dies, one of the hardest tasks is cleaning out their home. Whether or not it’s the home you grew up in, the house or apartment will likely hold some memories and going through the contents can be emotionally draining.
John D. Moore, a licensed psychotherapist in Chicago and editor of Guy Counseling, says, "In many cases, the child (or children) of the deceased aren't properly prepared for the torrent of emotions” that can erupt from sorting through a parent’s belongings after they have passed.
BJ Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based sociologist and author of many books, including Why Don't I Do the Things I Know Are Good for Me? , says, "Much depends on the nature of the relationship you had with the family member who died, as well as your attachment to worldly material things in general. Some people are also more sentimental than others —and we all process grief a little differently as well.”
Because of these differences, there are no “shoulds” when it comes to clearing out a late loved one's home. Instead, experts offer tips to make the process a little easier. But as Gallagher says, “What's important is to honor your own emotional process.”
When to Get Started
Deciding how long to wait before clearing out a deceased parent’s home is up to the individual. Gallagher explains, “The process is not just a simple job of moving things; it's fraught with mixed feelings, emotional significance and personal meaning.”
If there is time, it may be best to wait until you are further along in the grieving process, although this may not always be an option, especially if the home needs to be vacated quickly for financial reasons.
Patty Morrissey is a lifestyle and organizing consultant in Huntington, N.Y. certified in the KonMari (aka Marie Kondo) method. She says, "You may want to just get it over with, but it's better, if possible, not to force it and to wait until you feel ready to tackle this task.”
"The process is not just a simple job of moving things; it's fraught with mixed feelings, emotional significance and personal meaning."
Don’t plan to do the whole job in one day. Instead, consider working in manageable time chunks, maybe a few hours a day, so as not to get overwhelmed. Consider bringing someone to help you, such as a close friend, sibling or spouse.
“Talk in advance with this person and create a plan for moments where emotions may run high,” says Moore. “This allows the sibling or friend to make decisions and lets the grieving person take a five-minute break, away from the emotional triggers.”
How to Start Clearing Out
Cleaning out a loved one’s home can feel daunting. Among clothes, household items, photographs, paperwork and more, it can be hard to know where to begin.
Moore suggests creating a plan and making a list before heading into a deceased parent’s home. “The list should contain the basics of what should be kept and what should be donated or thrown out. This helps to provide a tangible, concrete approach,” he says.
Morrissey concurs and adds, “Walking into the space can be overwhelming and disorienting. A ‘space’ list made before you enter of what you want to retrieve from the home allows you to really connect with the items that remind you of the person.”
In Morrissey’s view, the KonMari method offers a gentle, cathartic approach to cleaning out the home. "I advise my clients to visualize how they want this process to go. How do they want to honor and remember the person? It may help to create a vision board or even draw a picture,” she says.
What to Keep, What to Let Go Of
Intellectually, people may understand they can’t keep everything. But it can be hard to let go of items, especially when you are still letting go of a parent. Morrissey suggests going category by category: "I like to start with clothes. Choose what you are keeping by which items transcend the loss.”
Don’t make the mistake of holding onto everything because you feel guilty or think you might need it “one day.” Walk around with a pen and pad to create four columns that follow the “keep," “donate," “sell” and "toss" approach.
Says Morrissey, “Many objects will be sentimental, so you need to build up your muster. Understand what you really need and what brings you joy.” She also suggests taking stock of your own home first, and de-cluttering it so you have room for the items you are planning to bring in.
Come prepared with garbage bags, containers and Post-it notes, as well as a list of phone numbers for services you will need such as places like Goodwill, appraisers and moving companies. “Don’t worry about donating to the ‘best’ charity. You want to make the process as convenient and easy as possible,” says Morrissey.
Should You Hire Someone?
For some people, the task of cleaning out a parent's home proves to be too daunting to handle alone. In those instances, professionals can be hired to complete the entire process.
While there is nothing wrong with having someone else handle the cleaning out of the home, Gallagher cautions that by doing so, you run the risk of losing any valuables that may be hidden in the house.
She recalls a cousin who was so distraught after his brother passed away that he wanted to hire an estate sale professional to clean out the home. Gallagher suggested they clean out the house together slowly, at a pace he could handle. They wound up finding a lot of valuables — especially jewelry and family heirlooms — stashed in unlikely places.
“In the end, he was glad that we allowed ourselves several months to complete the process, rather than hiring strangers to do it in one fell swoop,” she says.
In addition to possibly losing valuable or sentimental items, allowing someone else to clean out the home means you miss the chance to go through some of the grieving process. “It can help to talk during the process,” says Moore. “This means sharing old memories, laughing and crying." (If financially possible, it may be beneficial to hire a professional to work alongside you.)
Although it’s an upsetting task, clearing out your parent's home can be therapeutic and cathartic.
“It is a life review. It gives adult children an opportunity to handle each of their parent’s objects, expressing gratitude, keep what brings them joy and then let go of the other items,” says Morrissey.