Wednesday, June 27, 2012

After a Death: Dealing with a Loved One's Possessions

My mom's beloved stuffed baby seal — one of my gifts to her, and one of the few possessions of hers that I kept after her death.

Someone you love dies, and you grieve. And somewhere amidst the overpowering grief, the question arises: What am I going to do with all of the person's stuff?

I've been reading what some of my wise colleagues and others have written, and their advice mirrors my own. Two recurring themes are:

1. If at all feasible, take your time in going through your loved one's possessions. Don't get rid of things before you're ready to.
2. When you are ready, consider keeping a small number of very special things.

Lisa Montanaro is a professional organizer who, sadly, has had to grapple with this recently — and has written a thoughtful piece about it. Here's a bit of what Lisa wrote about organizing after the loss of a loved one — and I encourage you to go read the whole thing. It's not long.
My best advice is to take it slow and go at your own pace. ... Some clients only needed a few months, while others waited years until they took on the task of organizing their loved one’s possessions. Indeed, some clients only took on the project due to necessity – moving, selling a house, clearing room for new family member to move in, etc. ...

I often tell my clients to choose items that embody the person’s spirit, remind you of details of his or her personality, or that carry special memories. There is no magic number of how many items to keep, but remember that sometimes less is more.
This topic was also discussed on the Unclutterer forums. Among the many thoughtful comments, I especially resonated with those from Cole, a pastor, who wrote about his own experiences after both his father and his grandmother died. He wrote, in part:
Over time, you will be able to let go of more. Don't be frustrated by not being able to let go of certain worthless objects — I just now got rid of an old mirror from the 60s that was on my grandmother's door. She died three years ago. I was ready at certain times to say goodbye to certain things.
And, separately, Erin Doland of Unclutterer also addressed uncluttering after the loss of a loved one, saying in part:
You need to move at a pace that is right for you. Don’t feel pressured to part with things if you’re not ready.
Erin also suggests keeping a limited number of items (once you are ready to part with things):
Find the handful of his things that you value most and that best honor your memories of him. You will instantly recognize these special items when you see them. ... Find a way to honor the treasured items you decided to keep. Frame and/or display these things so you can enjoy them. Let these wonderful objects continue to bring you happiness.

Related Posts:
One Person's Story: Keeping the Memory of Our Loved Ones Alive
Not Clutter: The Odd Sentimental Items


Reiki Doc said...

Jeri, Thank you so much for this post. My mother went through some major decluttering about seven years ago. I had a newborn, and I felt overwhelmed enough without getting into dealing with all of her stuff. I put it away, as best as I could, and only started to deal with it this year. You are right, so right, about being 'ready'. I was not 'ready' to accept my mother's gifts, because it brought us both one step closer to her passing. I am still not ready for THAT yet, but at least I understand her motivation to share special treasures with us while she is still in good health. A very worthwhile topic. May I repost?

Jeri Dansky said...

Reiki Doc, I'm so glad this was helpful to you. You make a good point that "being ready" applies to any decision-making about one's stuff — not just the decisions we make after the death of a loved one.

Sure, feel free to repost, as long as you credit me and link back to this post; see my copyright notice along the right-hand side of the page.

Michael Tannery said...

Very helpful information. It's great to know that the common underlying theme is to take things at your own pace. So many of my clients feel the pressure, and they just have to be reassured that it's okay to take the time to remember and cherish.

Lisa Montanaro said...

Jeri - Thank you so much for sharing my article/post about Organizing After a Loss. As you know, I wrote that after I lost my Mom, and am so thankful that it is helpful to people that may be going through a loss and need guidance. Means a lot to me! Warmly ~ Lisa

Janet Hulstrand said...

Hi Jeri,

Thank you for drawing attention to this sensitive topic, which, sadly, everyone has to deal with at one time or another.

My coauthor and I wrote a book about the process of downsizing a home (with special attention to the situation of doing so in the wake of losing a loved one)

One of the main pieces of advice we came across as we talked to people who had been through this experience was, as you and some of your readers have pointed out, the importance of taking enough time for the process. This can help an awful lot to minimize stress and help things go more smoothly.

We now have a blog, Downsizing the Home: Lessons Learned
where we post regularly on a variety of topics related to downsizing, from very practical issues to emotional ones. I hope that you and some of your readers will visit us there, share your experiences and insights, and hopefully also find some helpful tips and advice.

JustGail said...

Thanks for this information. I think this is one of those things no one likes to think about, let alone prepare for.

Your cat gives me a giggle in the photo - he doesn't look too thrilled with his companion.

Anonymous said...

I just recently lost both parents within 3 months of each other and now have the daunting task of trying to find legal papers (amongst the socks & underwear) and downsize
My son & I moved in with them 2 yrs ago to care for mom so it's 2 houses worth of STUFF!!!! OMG