I receive many emails with people sharing with me their decluttering challenges. A very common one I hear is the question of how to declutter a loved one’s personal belongings after death.
There is a range of scenarios I’ve had shared with me from spouse to parents to siblings and children.
While this is not the cheeriest of topics, I realize this is a tough situation that everyone will likely face at some point. So, today I want to offer some tips on how to declutter after the death of a loved one.
In an ideal world, everyone would have decluttered their belongings before they passed. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson was written about this very thing.
The idea is to declutter now not only to enjoy your home more but also to lessen the burden placed on family members after you’re gone. It can be a great motivator for proactively decluttering your home.
But in many cases, that is not the reality of what happens. Some people don’t declutter because they were in poor health. Others simply really enjoyed their things and didn’t want to part with them. And other times, we just assume we have more time than we do.
No matter how you’ve come to be in this situation of dealing with someone else’s items, there are practical steps you can take as you declutter personal belongings after death.
How to Handle Getting Rid of a Loved One’s Belongings
Some cultures do a better job than others in being able to openly discuss death as they recognize that it is part of life. In the U.S., we don’t do a great job at this.
Most people don’t want to talk or think about death in advance. However, the more we are willing to have these conversations and prepare for what’s to come, the better off we can leave our loved ones.
After losing a loved one, there are many emotions to process through. There are logistics to deal with in the midst of this. It can all feel rather overwhelming.
These practical tips will help you walk through how to declutter a loved one’s personal belongings after death.
Figure out when is it time to go through things
First, you’ll need to figure out when the right time is to go through their things. There can be quite a variety of circumstances. If the person lived alone, you may need to deal with their belongings rather quickly.
If it is a spouse or another family member you live with, that’s a different situation for deciding when to go through things. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer as it depends on your unique circumstances.
In some cases, I’ve heard about entire households being relocated to storage facilities and that’s not something I would recommend. It becomes an expensive burden to have to deal with later.
I also wouldn’t suggest moving tons of belongings into a space that is already full as that will also feel like a daily burden you’re surrounding yourself with. If the loss is someone in your household, the timing will vary depending on when you feel emotionally ready to deal with their things.
If you experienced an unexpected tragedy, have grace and patience with yourself as you navigate your journey. There is no set prescripted time.
Do what feels right for you, although, I realize sometimes life circumstances force us to deal with things before we feel ready.
Decide who’s going through the belongings
If you are in a situation where you and siblings have a shared responsibility in managing an estate, discuss with the others involved when you plan to go through the belongings.
Sadly this can be a time when family members struggle to agree on when and how to deal with things.
Always keep in mind the only person you can control is you. Try to respond in a way that you can feel good about regardless of how other people are behaving.
Ultimately, do your part to maintain peace if possible and also realize that everyone deals with loss in different ways.
Ask for help, don’t take on the responsibility alone
When you are clearing a house after a loved one’s death, don’t go it alone. Have trusted family members and/or friends help you through the process.
It can be challenging to make decisions as you grieve so having someone who can support you and offer perspective can be very helpful.
How to decide what to do with personal belongings after death
Now comes the challenging part. How do you decide what to declutter after a death. What do you do with their personal belongings? Here are some practical tips to help you get started.
How to start clearing a house after death
Begin in a room with fewer sentimental items. The bathroom is a good option to start with. Likely most of what you find in this room will get tossed in the trash unless you or a family member can use the overstock of toiletries.
The kitchen is another good option to do early on in the process as decisions tend to be easier there. Go through the whole home by starting with the easiest rooms and work your way up to the most difficult.
Most people save the bedroom and storage areas for last. This is just a general guideline so choose the order of rooms based on what you feel are the easiest to most difficult rooms for making decisions.
Begin Decluttering by Sorting Items to Keep, Throw Away, Sell, and Donate Piles
How to declutter after a death is largely the same process for how you would declutter your own home. You’ll sort the items by what you are planning to keep, throw away, sell, and donate.
A big difference is that when you’re getting rid of a loved one’s belongings your keep pile will be significantly smaller. More than likely, a large portion of what they own is not going to be something you need or have space for in your home.
What to keep when someone dies
Deciding what to keep when someone dies can be tough. In an ideal world, you could have thought through which items you want to keep before the time comes. That helps to keep the emotion of out decision making.
In the midst of grief, it can be challenging to separate the person from their things.
Letting go of their stuff may feel like you’re letting go of them, but keep this in mind. People are not their things. Your memories will not be any less real or meaningful because you don’t keep their belongings.
Keep a few select items that are the most important ones to you. If you are someone who is sentimental, it becomes even more important to have help and outside feedback through this decluttering process.
What couple of items remind you most of this person? What do you truly have room for in your home?
Not just as in can you cram it in somewhere, but is this something you will really be able to use or treasure in your home?
You don’t want to relocate a lot of excess items in your home for them just to weigh you down. In being very selective about what you keep you can prevent the burden of extra stuff in your home.
Another way to keep memories without holding onto more stuff is by taking pictures of certain items you want to remember. Create a memory box with meaningful items and pictures that you can reflect back on.
There are other creative options like having a quilt or throw pillow cover made with shirts they’d worn if you want to reuse things in a meaningful way.
Don’t keep items out of a sense of obligation or guilt. And remember that even if you decide to keep something initially, it is ok later to decide to let it go.
Have grace and patience with yourself as you make decisions through your grief.
What to throw away after someone passes
After someone passes, throw away items that are broken or in bad shape. Get rid of used toiletries. Throw out the perishable goods unless you are realistically able to make use of them yourself.
If the items couldn’t be sold in a thrift store, then that’s a good indication it is something to throw away. Things like mattresses may not be able to be donated, but could be given away via Facebook.
What to sell in an Estate sale
If you are considering an estate sale, contact a company in the area that specializes in them. Estate sales are a lot of work and tend to be better handled by professionals.
It is one thing to have people try and haggle with you at your own garage sale, but it’s another when it’s your deceased parent’s items. Estate sales take a lot of time and emotional energy that may not be worth the effort.
Estate sale companies also know how to price items to sell and it can take unnecessary pressure and work off of family members. Yes, they will take a portion of the proceeds, but it is still worth considering.
What to donate to those in need
What do you with someone’s clothes after they die? I’d recommend donating most of it. If there is a special piece of clothing you want to hang onto, feel free to do so.
You could also consider if other friends, family, or organizations your loved one liked would have liked to support that would be able to make good use of the clothing.
If you’re not doing an estate sale, then likely a lot of what that loved one owned would get donated to people in need. It feels good to donate to causes that mattered to the one who passed.
Death is hard in itself so don’t take on the responsibility of sorting through a loved one’s personal belongings alone
It can be tough to know how to declutter after a death. Remember to take a lot of deep breaths. It’s ok to feel sadness and grief and to go through a range of emotions throughout the process.
Don’t try to go through it all alone. Share how you are feeling and ask for help when you need it.
Do your best to be patient and kind with yourself as you work through letting go of the physical belongings.
Choose to honor that person through your life and how you live it and treasure the happy memories that you shared. Their legacy can live on through what you learned during your time with them.
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Very useful article. Thank you!
My father’s family decided on a great idea when it came to dividing up many of the more valuable articles of my grandfather’s estate. Each “Child” (no spouses were allowed to participate) were able to bid on each piece of furniture, or article they wanted for themselves…..then, all of the cash proceeds from the “sale” was equally divided between the six of them. Everyone left happy. Think this was an excellent idea!
What a creative solution. Thanks for sharing, Jeanne!
Great solution, but how did you handle the issue of “siblings who can AFFORD more than others who have to means to pay for the things they want? Did it become an unfair situation?
My family drew names on Specific special items.
(You can work out the details, like if your name was drawn for an item, you might not be in the next drawing, until the names are exhausted and you start over.) Or if there is only one special item, the one who’s name was drawn gets the item.
Our family took turns picking out one item at a time. We did about 5 round robins. Unfortunately, we were sworn to not sell the family items, so they have been doing a round robin with our homes.
Very good idea!
I came across your article. Thank you..! It’s been 8 months and I am still going thru items from my 31 yr. old son’s sudden death. He had a heart defect from birth..we knew nothing of. I am glad you state to take time with slimming items down…and to not feel bad of taking my time doing so. It is a process of many feelings. From a Mom whom misses her son …so much
I am so sorry for your loss. It’s ok to go slow.
I lost my 24 year old son almost a year ago. He was still living at home, starting his career, when he tragically died in a car accident. I haven’t been able to change anything in his room. My husband finally agreed to throw the junk mail addressed to my son away that we still receive. His younger brother (by 2 years) agrees with not changing his older brother’s room, even though he is stuck with a smaller bedroom. We are finally planning to go through all their old toys stored in the basement and do some major cleaning – my oldest always wanted a family, my youngest seems to have no desire for children. I think my youngest is afraid of being stuck with everything one day. I don’t want to overwhelm him with that burden, but I don’t want to outlive both my boys.
I am so sorry for your loss.
I’m glad you found it helpful, Karen.
I guess I was so surprised when my husband’s mother passed away. She was in the hospital and doctors told us she was doing good.
I had already planned a trip with my sister on a cruise. It left out of Galveston, Tx , on a Sunday. We were gone a week. My phone was turned off and most of the others in the group had done the same. We came back that filling Sunday and I immediately called my husband to tell him I was back. His voice broke and he was crying. I asked him what was wrong. His mother had passed away the Sunday evening that I headed out on the cruise. They had already had a funeral and buried her. I was in a state of shock and immediately headed back home which was about three hours.
You know when grandmothers are given so many pictures overtime. We had all these photos and asked the love ones that gave them to her if they wanted them back. They said no. I’m sure they themselves already had their copy. It was so sad throwing all those pictures away. It just not seem normal.
I’m trying to get my husband to start de-cluttering. But he just will not budge. I have done some de-cluttering of my stuff. I guess I look at it and think would one of the kids really want or use some of this stuff. If I wander, I will call them.
It is a hard thing to start. My heart goes out to people that are going thru this.
Regarding throwing away pictures etc; I lost my mom & only sister in 6 mos. I found it consoling to burn the items, bury the ashes and plant a rose bush…💕
What an awesome idea – as I am in the process of going thru tons and tons of pictures too. Some of these people I do not even know? But what a comforting way of taking care of this process!
That is a great idea ! My Darling had so many books & some in good condition but the ones that were tattered & torn had to go into Recycling .bins .I had to ask someone else to do that part for me .
What do we do with my mom & dad’s old high school year books?🤔 What about boxes of old photographs of vacations with people, places and things I know nothing about?
Year books I threw away mine and my moms . You can’t keep stuff forever. Plus it’s really clutter.
I am trying to move on with my life . I have found a new relationship and want to de clutter ,but am finding difficult to to separate myself from my husbands keepsakes
My partner of 37 years passed away within 2 months from Covid in January 2021. We live here and in Florida. Most of his suits and shirts from Florida I gave to his nephew who was the same size. That was easy. T shirts and such I donated.
Here in NY its a bit tougher. He had most of his personal items here and the kicker is he was somewhat of a packrat. He passed at 65 and I found his draft card and high school autograph album. Ive given away all of his clothes from here.
Other items I haven’t been able to bring myself to get rid of but eventually it needs to be done. I just haven’t been ready to dispose of University diplomas and such although no one wants them nor do I.
My only advice is take it slowly and don’t do what your not ready to do. It will keep until you are.
That’s great advice and I’m so sorry for your loss.
My son and I downsized a few years after I retired. I was ready but it was brutally hard work, physically and mentally. In the end it felt so freeing to let go of so much from a big house. And many organizations and individuals were so thankful for the donations. Now I’m have no idea what to do with my dearest mum’s oil paintings. We have no room! Any ideas? Very little extended family left and they don’t have room either. It’s so personal, such happy memories watching her paint when my kids were little! Help!! Thank you!
That’s so hard, Nancy! My grandma recently passed and she did paintings as well but they are on the smaller side and are being dispersed among family members. If you don’t have any family with room for them though, you could take pictures of the pieces and list them on your local Buy Nothing group to gift to people who would love to have them. I find that making a more personal connection for those types of items feels better than dropping it all off at a thrift shop.
Maybe consider donating them to personal care homes, assisted living etc. nursing homes are also a thought as quite often the rooms have very little decoration to them. It would bring a little brightness and beauty to the occupants.
So sorry for your loss. Your youngest is still growing, kids are a blessing, one of my boys did not want kids either, he know has 4 and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s God’s timing …as for material items that is hard..keep only what matters most…take pics of rest..I’m still giving away some toys and letting my kids decide as we go..that helps them to learn life skills as well..praying for you.
Our Mother died at age 90. As did many women of her generation, she had a lot of nice items (crystal, silver, etc.). We used this as an opportunity to honor a dear family friend, Dee. My sister and I took items we liked and gave many things to family members. But we wanted to give something special of Mom’s to Dee. We selected a beautiful china vase, not from among the items we didn’t want, but from the items we both wanted. It had been a fiftieth wedding anniversary gift to Mom. I arranged flowers in it and took it to Dee. She wept. So did I! This idea doesn’t dispose of a lot of items quickly, but it brought joy to us at a time when we needed it, and it gave this cherished friend a keepsake of remembrance.
Today, my best friend of 45+ years passed away in the hospital of cancer. She was also my caregiver\roommate. I have mobility issues and it is down to me to do it. I have no idea where to start. Her sister suggested I hire someone to decorated and clean the place. That costs money and I have a limited income. She loved to read and has hardback books in several bookcases. She hated paperbacks. Who should I call to donate them to? Also could they come in and get them. I have nothing to put them in. So stressed and heartbroken right now.
I am so sorry for your loss, Marianne. Resources vary by area but you could check with your community to see if there are donation centers that will pick up where you live. Libraries are often happy to get books, but I don’t think pick-up would be an option for that. Best wishes.
It should have said donate not decorated.
I lost my father 2 years ago and my brother 9 months before. Brother had a family, I don’t. Mum died in 98. I was left to clear the family home for sale, there had only been my family in it.
I have the photos and some books that meant a lot to my parents and things like cross stitches that I’d sewn for my parents. It’s like what do I do now. I moved just the month before dad passing and had not even unpacked my things now. I’m overwhelmed and a struggling and have no family due to isues with l ate brothers family.
My elderly Dad just passed on 4/23. He was living with his lady friend and caregiver for the last 2.5 yrs., so he had minimal things to go through. It certainly was harder going through stuff when he moved out of his house -my family home growing up- three years ago. Lots of contention during that process. We divided much amongst siblings; there are five of us, and we had a yard sale. Dad was still alive at the time and reveled in watching he and Mom’s things walk away with others who wanted them. He made a few dollars to put in his savings.
The older three siblings are more established financially and are in good state with paid mortgages and strong assets. Myself and my younger brother, not so much…we are in our 50’s and 60’s, and will most likely not be able to pay off our mortgages before retirement age like our older siblings. However, my younger brother now lives in the family home, has a tenant renting a MIL addition for add’l income, and the land the home sits on was given to him per my father’s wishes *if house is sold to a family member, give the lot to them, just as it was given to my Dad 70 years prior. He has instant equity.
Seems like the more someone has, the MORE they seem to want. We are still trying not to bicker over stuff; but I sure feel like in 15 years I most likely will have to move out of my house because I will not be able to afford to live there anymore, while my siblings will live happily, secure, going on trips, cruises and leaving their gifts to their progeny. This is the sad truth. Dad wasn’t a rich man monetarily, just in talent and in love. I kept one shirt my Dad wore to wrap myself in, and his old sweater. His expensive musical instruments will go to grand and great-grandchildren. The haves keep having, and the have nots – have not. I may be the poorest of them all, but they cannot take my memories.
**MORAL OF THE STORY: Plan ahead; try not to get divorced in life if at all possible because this sets you up for financial failure as you lose so much in equity for your future; give stuff away while you are alive to see it go to who you want it to go to, without regret, arguments, or bad feelings in later days.
Thank you! This is such a helpful article that guides you along the way and reminds you that it’s okay to process over time and to go slow. The heartache is tough enough.
Very well written article. Thank you. If I may, I took my mom’s things to the thrift store. It was a horrible experience. Later that day I went back to the thrift store and ask if I may have them back. They were very kind and said yes. The lady at the thrift store told me this happens more than you think. Be sure you are a ‘ready’ to donate your loved one’s items. It takes time and lots of Kleenex.
I started in the garage. While it was Amon my husband’s favorite places, it made me sad every time I saw his beloved John Deere – and the fact it wasn’t being used. I donated it to a recently married couple, envisioning it might bring the same fond memories of toddlers riding with daddy… I’ve started a Hope Chest for my 12-year-old daughter, which has made some mementos easier to single out… my bereavement therapist helped me realize toiletries and underwear can’t be donated (lol). Still a home office and closet… his kitchen drawer. Like idea of quilt made of shirts, teddy of flannels… and much donated. In time.