How To Deal With A Dead Loved One's Belongings

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
As a professional organizer in New York City, a big part of my job is helping clients declutter and hone in on which items are necessary and positive additions to their lives. I have spent countless hours working to help them gain control of their belongings and rid themselves of physical burdens. This often involves encouraging clients to say goodbye to excessive sentimental items or possessions that can be hard to let go of. I can assure you that people are always thrilled at the end of the process, but the work itself can be challenging. And when it comes to clearing out a space after the death of a loved one, things get even more difficult.

Going through someone’s stuff after that person dies can be a brutal task. I should know; my mom died two weeks before my 15th birthday.

She had been losing her battle against cancer for almost a year, so it came as no surprise when she was taken from us one evening in late August. The disease took a toll on her entire body, changing it from the inside out, to the point where she was almost unrecognizable and couldn’t put together cohesive sentences. It was terrible to witness and now, over 13 years later, I can still feel the pang and intensity of the loss. My family chose to move about a year after her death, and my aunt, sister, and I took it upon ourselves to go through her belongings. We boxed up the most special clothing and shoes and some of her beautiful, delicate nightgowns. The myriad of get-well cards and letters were put into a box and sealed up. All of her jewelry went into a safe along with her old passports and ID cards. My mother’s work papers and files were thrown away, and we donated the rest of her clothing and shoes at a center in Brooklyn. We went about the process in a swift, practical way — focusing mostly on getting the job done, figuring we could revisit when the pain was less intense.

I know the desire to fill countless storage units with every last belonging of the deceased can feel insatiable.

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It wasn’t until years later that I finally went back into those boxes to see what was there. At that point, most of my mother’s clothing had been attacked by moths or other garage inhabitants and was ruined. There was a pair of boots that I took for myself (they were super cool and my size, which was exciting), and it was nice to look through the cards that people had made for my mom. But honestly, I felt fortunate to be confronted with such a small collection of her belongings. It was clear to me that day that these were only things, and I didn't need anything external to sustain my bond with my mother. Accepting this idea was a choice that I made, and that choice continues to comfort me. It powers me through the moments when I wish I could have access to my mom's shoe collection, or when I wonder what happened to her oversized tie-dyed T-shirts. Yes, I could choose to dwell on these physical items and feel sad that they’re not in my life. But allowing that would be wasting my energy, and I recognize that.

I know the desire to fill countless storage units with every last belonging of the deceased can feel insatiable. But trying to keep a person alive by surrounding yourself with the stuff that he or she cherished is just a dream. In reality, death is as natural as life, and possessions will never bring that person back. Below, find some practical advice — handed over with love and compassion, and based on real-life experience — for dealing with what can feel like an impossible task. Keep in mind, though: Coping with death is incredibly personal, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.
Take your time, but acknowledge when you’re ready to take the plunge.
Unfortunately, it will never be an easy time to go through this process. But there is an inevitability that should be recognized. Although there’s no “right” time to face this undertaking, I do believe that it gets harder the longer you wait. Give yourself a few months, and then ask yourself: Do I have the strength to do this? Will waiting be beneficial or detrimental to my well-being? And when you feel ready to take the step, go about it with patience and bravery.
Moving on in this way does not mean you’re “over” anything.
It’s easy to feel heartless when getting rid of belongings that were so much a part of a loved one’s life. But practicality and emotions can coexist, and focusing on real-world necessities is an important part of dealing with death. Allow yourself to feel the emotions that come along with this endeavor, and be kind to yourself throughout. I went through the entire process ridden with tears, and that’s okay.
Remember that things are only things.
If you allow yourself to put weight and value on every possession, you run the risk of burying yourself in the physical. So take a moment to tell yourself that the material is nothing more than that. Recognizing this will help you let go of items that aren’t particularly special and need not be held onto.
Creating a curated collection will make everything more approachable.
If there’s a collection of paper keepsakes that feel special, store them in a binder or book so they can be accessed with ease and pleasure. Saving stacks and stacks of papers or pounds of clothing will make the entire collection overwhelming to interact with. Since these items can help spark memories, they should be welcoming, but not excessive. I always encourage clients to keep the sentimental items down to one box. This way, they can easily enjoy looking through the items without feeling like there’s an overwhelming amount.
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Taking pictures is a great cheating method.
If there are many items that ignite happy memories, taking photos of them is a practical way to hold on without taking up endless storage space. Make sure the photos end up in a folder or printed out and placed into a small album. Otherwise, they will just become electronic clutter and get lost.
Cherish the items you hold onto.
Safely protect papers and clothing by storing them in airtight plastic bins. And if you can incorporate your loved one's items into your life, even better! It’s a beautiful way to remember that person and keep him or her with you. I can’t even tell you how much money I’ve spent repairing my mother’s boots over and over again as I wear them.
Let go without regrets.
It’s very common to be afraid of throwing something away and wanting it later. But regrets are wasted, negative energy — so consciously protect yourself from them. Acknowledge that you might have moments when you wish you had held onto something, but you will ultimately be okay without it. When feelings of regret come up, remind yourself why you let go to begin with. I know that my life can be beautiful without every old item that belonged to my mother, and the thought of her possessions lying in storage in a box somewhere doesn’t appeal to me at all.
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