Some say that death is easier for the one who died than the ones they’ve left behind. In the months to come, the bereaved would go through regret, loss, and grief. There are days when everything would seem covered by a dark cloud.
Aside from this emotional maelstrom, many things have to be settled after someone’s demise. A spouse or close relative has to deal with funeral arrangements, property transfers, financial decisions, legal requirements, and more.
One of the most overwhelming tasks would be sorting through belongings after death. It is human nature to hold on to tangible reminders of a loved one. However, life moves on. Eventually, you have to decide which items to keep, share, or dispose of for good.
The first step in getting rid of your loved one’s things is acceptance. All the intense feelings you are going through are valid and natural. You may be feeling raw, off-balance, and disconnected. Deciding what to do with items you’ve shared with the departed feels like a make-or-break decision. Even going to a favorite café or hearing a familiar song can be fraught.
Early on, you may have a lot of excuses for skipping this duty. Perhaps the death is so recent that you can't bear to look at your loved one's things. You may not have the time to handle this task now on top of your other commitments.
This chore might be difficult for you because these things come with unpleasant memories. However, getting rid of your loved one's belongings is non-negotiable. Sure, you can postpone doing it as long as you like, but you cannot completely avoid it.
The question is: when do you start? Is there a perfect or appropriate time to dispose of the departed’s personal belongings?
There is no expiration date when it comes to dealing with loss. Some would grieve deeply until their last breath. Others would seem to move on from their loss, but they still carry that ache inside.
A parent will always mourn the death of a child. Often, you will see the kid's bedroom turned into a shrine. Everything is exactly the way it was when the child was still living there. Grieving parents would spend time in their child's room in the hopes of being closer to their lost one.
The death of a parent is just as devastating and bewildering. Adult children still go through the process of grieving their mother or father. They may be grown-up, but the loss of a parent is just as traumatic. Plus, these children have to deal with their parent’s belongings.
Those left behind sometimes fear that getting rid of these things would erase the good memories that come with them. Nobody can be prepared to let go of good things. They may also feel guilty about disposing of treasured items.
There is no right time when it comes to decluttering personal items of the dead. Sorting through belongings after death is rarely done with eagerness. Some may think of this task as an inconvenience, while others find that it makes the grieving process worse.
Looking at things that once belonged to a departed loved one is tricky. It becomes a constant reminder of that special person who is gone for good.
It may take months, and even years to heal after the death of a loved one. Some people find it difficult to move on after such a severe loss. Moving on can be further delayed if you see or touch things that belonged to the departed.
Would seeing these things hold you back from healing? While you may take a few days or weeks, know that the pain would still be there. Despite the heartache, it is best to start going through deceased belongings and identify what is worth keeping.
You might argue that every item is worth keeping. However, you have to be more selective about your choices.
Although memories are associated with physical things, there are ways to keep the memories without drowning in stuff. You don’t need a ton of toys, clothes, or photos to remind yourself of that person. Things are just things. Instead, your mind and heart will hold your memories of your loved one.
Besides, you have to consider that your loved one wouldn't want you to hold on to things that can delay your healing. They would want you to live a life that is free from grief and regrets. They would want you to move on and remember the good over the bad.
For example, you end up living alone after the death of a spouse. You are still in the same house you bought as a newlywed. Did you keep the house because it provides you shelter and security? Or did you stay because it is a daily reminder of your spouse?
Eventually, you need to identify reasons why you’re keeping their belongings. If your purpose is to have a tangible remembrance of the person, you can keep on holding on to that thing.
However, if it keeps you from moving on, then it is best to let go of these possessions. Otherwise, you will end up wallowing in the past and neglect to live in the present. You may be so consumed by old memories that you fail to make new, happier ones.
Grief is an emotion that can last for decades. It is a strong feeling that can overpower you – but only if you choose to let it.
Your loved one’s things should bring you comfort and not become an unexpected curse. If material possessions are keeping you chained in grief, then it's best to let go.
Have you finally come to terms with your loss? Is the pain still there but more manageable? Then you can open-heartedly start sorting through the belongings of your departed loved one.
Start the decluttering process when you’ve embraced a new reality without your loved one. It’s best to do this without any second thoughts or hang-ups.
Sorting through their belongings will still be painful, but you must understand why it needs to be done. You accept that by doing so, you are also looking out for your well-being.
You are moving on and being a better version of yourself. This is a positive commitment that can come out after a loss.
Going through personal belongings after death of a loved one is a major step. It may be uncomfortable to make decisions about their possessions.
As you go through each shirt, knick-knack, and tool, your emotions may sometimes feel like a dam bursting. Good thing we have some tips for sorting through deceased belongings. Hopefully, these will make this duty more bearable for you.
Again, this can be a nerve-wracking experience, so you need to do a self-check. Is it something that you want to handle on your own? Would you want familiar faces to lend you some support?
As you handle these objects, talking about the associated memories can be both cathartic and heartbreaking. Despite the pain, it always pays to speak up about your emotions. It’s not a good idea to not bottle up all those thoughts and feelings.
Do you plan to have the emotional support of family and friends while doing this task? Then you need to identify the people to share the experience with. Note that having too many people with you is not recommended. This is an intimate moment, so having people you can trust is essential.
Ask two or three friends at most to be there for you. Their company can prevent you from drowning in grief or blanking out. They can steer conversations and give you a much-needed hug during the process.
Make sure the schedule is clear for everyone. Take note that doing this the entire day can be emotionally exhausting. Instead, have several sessions to give you that much-needed break while still being productive. Also, if there are plenty of people who want to be involved, ask them to come in batches. Avoid having everyone over at the same time.
What if you prefer to be alone while unpacking? That’s also a valid option. You may wish to have solitude while dealing with unpleasant memories or intense sadness. Perhaps you want to preserve your loved one’s privacy, as some of their belongings may cause gossip or legal issues.
Whatever your reason, you can do this chore by yourself. Just be ready for some heavy lifting.
Not everyone interested in the things of the deceased can be there physically when it is time to sort through the items. If there are people who can't be present, it would be a good idea to ask them if there is anything in particular that they want to keep. Never assume that you know what is important to others. Remember, the things people like to keep are not just based on the dollar value. They also wish to have items with sentimental value.
An excellent way to manage this would be to create a group online. From there, you can take note of special requests. If feasible, you can set a face-to-face meeting before you start sorting.
Set aside what your family or friends want to keep. Either safely store it temporarily or arrange it to be shipped to their location.
This can also be a great opportunity to check how others are doing. Most likely, the last time everyone was together was during the memorial.
Ideally, your loved one should have a last will. Most states would require a legal document created by a lawyer, although holographic wills are accepted in certain circumstances. This document includes the wishes of the departed for disposing of specific things. For example, certain items or bequests may be given to particular people.
Following the stipulations of the will is a good idea. You can start sorting the items stated on the will first. Once you get that done, you can handle the remaining possessions. You can get help from the lawyer who created the will if you have any questions about it.
Are you planning to clear a multi-floor property? What you have to accomplish is not something that would be over within a few hours. Instead, it will take days and even weeks to get everything organized.
For this setup, you need to develop a plan that will help you complete decluttering while ensuring that you keep your sanity. Here are some recommendations so you can plan accordingly:
Sorting entails having storage and packing materials readily available. These boxes need to be appropriately labeled: keep, donate, or dispose. As you sort through the piles, you can add labels like "For Others.”
If you feel right about selling some of the stuff, then you can put another label "For Sale." You can add more labels when necessary. Keep them minimal to identify which ones should go to the correct box.
You can keep working on a single room first before starting with a new one. Consider it a part of your closure and another step towards complete healing. Or you can also start with the room closest to your heart. For example, after the death of your spouse, the most challenging room to bear would be your bedroom. You can start here or make this the last stop.
If your property has two floors, you can start at the second floor first and work your way downwards. You can also do the reverse. It doesn’t matter which order you follow, so long as you have a system in place. Some people find it best to start at the most painful place. If you are successful, the other rooms would be easier for you.
On your first day of sorting, you might end up doing more crying than packing. This is normal. As you do this repeatedly, it becomes more of a routine but with overpowering emotions on the side.
Take as long as you need to process everything. Stop and take frequent breaks. There is no timeline for this task, unless the house has been sold and the new owners are moving in soon.
Allocate half a day and twice every week to get things moving. Or you can set aside four hours every weekend to continue going through things and boxing them accordingly. It’s entirely up to you.
When it comes to clothes, your loved one probably has too much of it. If you are doing this, you should go through everything that you want to keep.
It might be several expensive outfits that you'd like to wear in the future. Perhaps you are holding on to a ratty, old shirt that brings you comfort. If you are creative, you can transform several favorite shirts into a quilted blanket.
You will probably have to deal with several closets and drawers full of clothing. It’s near impossible to keep all of that, so let your family and friends help you. Let them choose what they want to keep for themselves. The rest will be better off being donated to local communities so that they can still be used.
Expect your emotions to come in powerful waves. They may weaken your resolve to let go of certain things. You may even be tempted to stop sorting as the memories become too hard to bear. These emotions can be triggered by going through your loved one's belongings. If it's too much for you, set aside that particular item and come back to it later.
Being overwhelmed can cause you to make decisions that you might end up regretting later. Instead, give yourself some time. Then, go back when you are more comfortable with the idea.
Even better, let someone else handle specific things that can trigger more pain. For example, you may ask a trusted relative to deal with things in the bedroom. If you become teary-eyed at the sight of your mother’s kitchen, a close friend may help pack away cooking utensils for you.
Guilt is often associated with disposing of the deceased’s belongings. You may get a nagging feeling that deciding to donate or discard things is disrespectful. You may think that you are on the road to forgetting your loved one. You may also feel guilty when you remember things that happened in the past that you could not amend. This is unpleasant, but it is something that you need to overcome.
Just like James Howell's famous line, "There is no point crying over spilled milk," it's useless to feel guilty over circumstances that have already happened. Guilt still won’t allow you to change what has been. Also, don't be guilty about moving on. If moving on means parting with some earthly things, then let it be.
There is a bittersweet advantage to sorting through these items. You get to choose a keepsake from your departed loved one’s belongings. It will serve as a reminder of their presence. But keep in mind that too many of these things can prevent you from moving on.
These include jewelry, furniture, and other items that have been handed down in your family. Some of these may be quite expensive, especially if the deceased was a knowledgeable collector. While others may not have as much monetary value, they may still hold emotional weight.
Are you a young professional living in a small rental apartment? You may not fit in all of your loved one’s things on top of yours. This means you have to choose heirlooms that have sentimental value and suit your lifestyle.
You’ll probably say no to your uncle’s grand piano or grandma’s 24-piece china dining set. But you probably will appreciate Mom’s pearl brooch or Dad’s fountain pen.
Since you can’t keep them all, prioritize distributing these precious items to your relatives. Make sure they want to receive these heirlooms. Give them to someone close to the departed and who would appreciate the heirloom.
Useful belongings that you shared with a departed loved one are worth keeping. There is no point in discarding a comfy chair simply because its former owner passed away. If you are a fresh graduate or a newlywed, you could use those free, hand-me-down household goods for your new home.
These practical items may be a little difficult to use at first, but it will get better over time.
The decision can be tricky with shared belongings. For example, a widow may find comfort in sleeping in the marriage bed even after her husband has passed away. However, another bereaved spouse may change all the bedroom furnishings to cope with their grief.
As tempting as it is to keep all the pictures of your loved one and all the notes and doodles, you'll be surprised that you have just filled a box with these. You should keep an album with photos showing your best memories with your loved one.
A special photo can be an exemption, but only if you are brave enough to see it every day. What if you are not strong enough yet? What if this photo delays your moving on process? You can use the actual photo and transform it into personalized jewelry.
Handwritten letters are a rarity in the age of social media, email, and text messages. If your loved one left behind personal correspondence, these would make wonderful keepsakes. These letters offer a glimpse of your loved one’s personality and interests. Reading these letters is quite similar to hearing a long-ago conversation, albeit one-sided.
Before you share these letters with anyone, make sure they do not contain any confidential info or anything that might spark controversy.
This may be any random favorite thing of the deceased. It might be a favorite musical instrument, painting, or book. You may keep pressed flowers, a ribbon, concert tickets, restaurant receipts for a first date, and so on.
These items can range from costly objects to what other people would consider junk. The only caveat is that these should hold sentimental value. As long as you have room for it and it doesn't hinder you from healing, then keep it.
Your loved one may have left behind memorial urns, remembrance jewelry, and other items for previous generations. For example, your deceased parents may have commissioned personalized urns for your grandparents. Perhaps your deceased aunt was responsible for keeping your great-grandparents’ ashes.
If you have space, try to keep these precious items. They help you preserve your family history and serve as a tangible link with your ancestors.
Interested in continuing this tradition? You can also order special pieces like urns in memory of your departed. If your loved one was cremated, consider turning their ashes into jewelry.
Do you have a sample of your loved one's signature or handwriting? Have it engraved on custom jewelry. The concept is similar to that of fingerprint jewelry, which can be worn as a necklace, pendant, keychain, or dog tag. This is a more subtle and fashionable way of remembering your loved one.
There are plenty of options for artistic memorial photos that you can keep and give to other people. Photo engraved jewelry is a great option, especially since it is more durable than printed images. Unlike digital photos, you can touch engraved jewelry.
As you go through all the things that need to be sorted, keep only ones that hold meaning. Choose the mementos that remind you of joy and a sense of belonging. You can also select the ones that best represent the personality of your loved one. Or keep items that symbolize the positive impact that this person has had on your life.
At this point, you deserve kudos and a massive hug for sorting your loved one's belongings. But, with stacks of boxes, you are now left with another challenge. What should do with the things that you won't be bringing home with you?
Of course, some family and friends would be getting their choices of keepsakes. Perhaps you plan to ship these items to them. But even after they’ve claimed their share, there are still boxes that need to find a new home.
Resist the temptation to hoard these items. Don’t turn your home into a place that's haunted by memories and grief. Instead, find people who'd find these things useful. Remember: discarding things does not mean that you no longer care for the deceased person. It does not mean that you disregard the memories associated with these things.
Your loved one would probably love the idea that someone else is enjoying their possessions. After all, it shows that they had excellent taste and foresight when buying things. It’s time to ditch the guilt. Find out how you can get rid of these items fast.
There are so many places where clothes, toys, and household stuff can become useful. Instead of getting a storage unit, consider donating to any of the following:
These places are always happy to accept donations. You don't even need to disclose the story of these boxes unless you are comfortable. You will be making a huge difference in the lives of others.
Children will find delight in playing with preloved toys. Jobseekers would appreciate getting a well-made business suit for interviews. Retirees would enjoy reading out-of-print magazines and watching old movies. A warm coat and sturdy shoes are always welcome. These belongings may trigger painful memories for you, but they can lead to happy memories for other people.
At first, you might feel appalled by the idea of having a yard sale. While that feeling is valid, you can’t ignore the practicality of selling your loved one’s things. Often, the departed leave behind hospital bills or other financial obligations. Those left behind will end up saddled with debts on top of funeral expenses.
A yard sale helps solve this problem. Why not get a little extra cash out of a good couch or a barely used power tool? Other people can still use these items, plus they will probably pay more if they buy these in a store.
It’s a win-win. As long as you don't need it, you might as well have other people benefit from it.
Do you hesitate to sell your mom’s oven because it reminds you of the cakes and cookies she used to bake? Don’t let a functional oven rust away when another family may need it.
Do you wish to avoid the hassle of organizing a yard sale or contacting organizations? Then simply give away your loved one’s possessions. Ask your friends, neighbors, or colleagues if they are interested in certain items.
In some cities, you can leave serviceable items on the curb or beside the Dumpster. People have been known to pick up these discarded items for reuse. You can also check online for people who seek free stuff to be frugal and sustainable. The Buy Nothing group is one such example of the gift economy.
What if your loved one’s possessions are broken, worn out, or not fit for reuse? You don’t want to donate clothing that’s full of holes or bedding that has bedbugs. It’s probably not a good idea to resell items that were recalled because of safety concerns or are past their expiry date.
You can simply throw these items away. Let your local garbage disposal take care of them.
Expect to have a difficult time when you dispose of deceased belongings. It can be emotionally, mentally, and psychologically overwhelming. Don’t forget the physical impact, what with all the carrying and lifting you need to do.
You need solid support to do this. Otherwise, the experience can be traumatic. You might find yourself taking a giant backward step in your recovery phase. Without help, this task can throw you off-balance into deeper grief. Communicate with people you trust before starting this mission. Make sure you are in touch with them during the decluttering process and after the task has been completed.
You might be surprised at how things seem better after talking to a professional. A therapist or counselor will guide you to see things from a different perspective. Sometimes, you are so blinded by your grief that you fail to see the silver lining.
A grief counselor can help you talk through this difficult time and provide advice on managing the situation. Talking about your feelings is the best way to release them. Having someone who listens can be your lifeline of hope.
Spiritual enlightenment can be a strong force. By opening up to your pastor or priest, you can have some light about your loss. People of faith find reassurance after consulting a trusted minister. Prayer is powerful, and in times like this, you need to open all your options for strength and guidance.
Share your sadness, worry, and other negative emotions with a confidant. It can be a relative or a friend. While they may not know your departed loved one, they will appreciate how much their loss affects you. It is better to share what you are thinking and feeling with someone you trust. Bottling everything can take its toll on your physical and mental health.
Open communication can release all that pent-up negativity. For example, you can be transparent about your feelings when talking to a friend or close family member. You can cry, get mad, vent out, and release the turmoil raging inside you.
These people may also offer practical advice for dealing with the departed’s legacy. If your friend is known for her organizational skills, now’s the time to play the friendship card. The same goes if another friend has a talent for holding yard sales or knows someone who can appraise an heirloom.
You'll find it surprising but comforting to know that you are not alone. These strangers are also going through the same challenge. Soon, they can become your support group. People who are part of support groups are usually in varying stages of grief. You will benefit from hearing stories on how they cope and share best practices.
It is a relief to be with people who understand you. You get the sense that your feelings are valid. You don’t have to pretend that you have it all together.
When things become too much, dial your state’s grief hotline. This service is usually free. One advantage of this channel is anonymity. You can just be you and disclose anything and everything without revealing your identity.
Most find this empowering and liberating. While you are getting help, you still manage to keep your identity confidential. Plus, you don’t have to worry about being judged or shamed.
Did a friend or a family member ask you to assist them with sorting through the belongings of a loved one? This means that you are valued and trusted by that person. They think that you are reliable. Drop everything and help out. Although you have to play it by ear, here are some tips that can help you.
Mostly, you are there to provide moral support. Remember, you are there to comfort and support the other person. If they need to check if you're okay, then it defeats the purpose of your presence.
Be there because you want to. Be present because you know that you can lend your strength when needed. Be physically available to provide a hug, a word of encouragement, and even a good laugh. Anything and everything can happen during the process. Don't overthink and expect anything.
Everything will unfold based on the current emotions and situation. You don't need to stress about what to do, what to say, or how to act. You don't have control over everything, but you can adjust to the situation as it happens.
Are you planning to take the lead during the process? After all, you may be an expert at organization and decluttering. However, your input may not be appreciated or necessary. Understand that you are not following a stringent timeline. The schedule should be dictated by the people who are sorting the belongings of the bereaved.
If they want to stop then everybody stops. Take cues from what they tell you or how they act. Don’t be pushy.
Unsolicited advice is usually not appropriate and may make your friend feel worse. When asked, give your recommendations calmly and logically. Provide alternatives and make it clear that decision-making is optional.
Stick to safe topics at this time. Try to steer away from heavy and overwhelming discussions that can further dampen everyone’s mood. Consider sharing a funny story or your favorite memory about their deceased loved one. You may also tell a joke to lighten the mood. But only do this if you know the other person well.
Sometimes, your friend or family doesn't need your assistance with the actual organizing or boxing. Instead, they just want to have a familiar face with them. Your presence can provide reassurance that everything's going to be okay.
If this is the case, don't insist on being hands-on and going through the things of the departed. Instead, make yourself useful with other tasks like preparing boxes, putting labels, preparing food and drinks, securing breakables, or cleaning up.
What if your circumstances make it impossible to help? Say so immediately. It's best to be honest about your willingness or availability. This way, you can avoid feelings of resentment.
This means that you might not be ready for this step. If you can't fathom the idea of getting rid of your loved one’s belongings, take your time. This should be done when your heart and mind are willing.
However, you may need to do this despite your misgivings if you have a strict deadline. For example, you may need to sell the house and move out all of the possessions by a fixed date. Perhaps you only have a limited time off from work to deal with this duty. If this happens, make sure you have the support you need. You can also ask or hire someone to do it for you and just provide specific instructions.
Thank you, technology! If there are things that you can't keep for some reason, but you want a reminder of it, then take photos instead. You can create multiple copies of these albums and have them saved in memory cards or upload them in the cloud for safekeeping.
Make sure you keep these legal documents after your spouse’s death:
Are you wondering what to keep after spouse dies? Most would settle with their wedding and engagement rings, sometimes worn on a different finger or hanging from a necklace. You may wish to keep a favorite piece of clothing or a photo that shows a treasured memory. Others would keep something that your spouse enjoyed while still alive.
The death of a loved one leaves an indelible mark on the people left behind. Death is brutal enough, but the uncertainty and pain linger long after the memorial service. It goes beyond the physical absence of the departed. Once they are laid to rest, things can get complicated for those who remain.
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies... Something your hand touched some way, so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at the tree or that flower you planted, you're there." – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Dealing with the departed’s possessions is one task that can get overwhelming. But with the right support system and mindset, this is a feasible task. Once everything has been sorted and disposed of, you’ll get a feeling of freedom and peace.
June 1, 2021 by Frances Kay