Unfortunately, sometimes clutter is not cleared and affairs are not put into order until someone dies. I’ve been privileged to have helped many people as they go through a lifetime’s worth of possessions, either those of a spouse, a parent or — most devastating — a child. Even if the organizing project at hand is not directly related to a loved one’s death, grief is almost always a part of the organizing process; think of the parent whose child has just left for college and they suddenly have an extra bedroom or the people who had to sweep up every breakable in their china cabinet after the Napa earthquake.
For many organizing situations involving a death, there is time pressure. Few of us can afford to hang on to a parent’s home until we are finished grieving and feel up to dealing with the task of clearing it out. There should be at least enough of a time cushion to get over the initial shock and numbness that a major loss can cause.
Get compassionate help, either a professional organizer or close friends and family. If you involve family, the fewer the people on the job the better and, if you have a choice, choose those who have the least attachment to the stuff.
Do your utmost to not just hire a U-Haul and bring everything to a storage unit or your garage. Like planning the memorial service and burial, these projects can paradoxically serve to take your mind off your grief and keep you moving. Postponing going through things can often mean years of boxes taking up valuable space that end up either getting wet or rodent-infested or mildewed on the one hand, or costing thousands of dollars in storage fees on the other. I’ve seen it happen.
Even if you aren’t under pressure to clear out a home, you might think of organizing someone’s things as a way of honoring and remembering them and helping you find closure. The trash should be obvious, and doesn’t need a lot of time and thought. Items to be donated should be clean, wrapped if breakable, neatly folded if clothing, and put into bags or boxes. Treat these items with respect and it will certainly give dignity to the process and make you feel like you are making a more significant contribution on behalf of the loved one.
Choose the donation site with intention. I love Goodwill, because it is the most convenient, but if the loved one died of a disease or incident (drug or alcohol abuse, etc.) associated with a charity, or if they had a favorite nonprofit, you might donate to that cause or have an estate sale and donate the proceeds.
Financial paper and memorabilia like letters and photographs is best packed up for the moment. These important items can be perused carefully in a neutral, less emotionally charged site and at a time you are thinking clearly. Many documents might be necessary for tax purposes, and as far as memorabilia, you don’t want to toss (or keep) every single thing in a fit of overwhelm.
Hiring an objective professional who specializes in estate sales is highly recommended. Few of us can assess the real value of a loved one’s possessions. We all too often overvalue them. Get an expert opinion on where to sell items, and donate what can’t be sold. You may get more value from the donation than from the time, hassle and, often, expense of moving and selling furniture and dishes.
Be sure to treat yourself well during the process. Be prepared with water, boxes of tissues, food to eat. Take breaks every hour and get some fresh air and a change of scene, even for a few minutes. Plan a meal with supportive people to follow a day of this work to share feelings and memories and decompress. Or you might need time alone to go for a run and clear your head.
We can’t escape our grief — the closure afforded by handling a loved one’s possessions is an important part of healing.