Cleaning Out a Deceased Loved One's Closet: 12 Tips to Make the Process a Little Easier

Regardless of how well you prepare, cleaning out a deceased loved one's home, bedroom, or even closet ranks among life's most stressful experiences. It may be many months before you are emotionally ready to tackle the project.
10/30/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Preparation and pacing can help make the unbearable task of sorting a deceased loved one's belongings possible. Before you begin the process, you will want to gather your supplies. Plenty of boxes labeled "Keep," "Discard/Trash," and "Donate," permanent markers, gloves, and garbage bags. You will want to ask friends to come and support and help you with this important and difficult step of the grieving process. You will need to clear a long afternoon, setting aside time for breaks and assembling snacks and beverages before you begin. You will want to have a good night's sleep the night before. Take a deep breath. You will survive this.

Regardless of how well you prepare, cleaning out a deceased loved one's home, bedroom, or even closet ranks among life's most stressful experiences. It may be many months before you are emotionally ready to tackle the project. The amount of time needed between the death and an ability to decide what to do with the belongings varies based on so many factors, including the relationship of the loss. A grandson will likely have an easier time cleaning out a beloved grandmother's pantry than a mother would sorting through her son's childhood stuffed animals. Remember that just as each relationship is unique, so is each grief journey. Don't let others judge you for how long (or short) the time period is before you feel ready to take on this task

My friend Shirley was recently telling me about her experience cleaning out her mother's home. Shirley felt like every time she donated one of her mother's possessions, her pots, pans and books, she was losing another piece of her. Then she opened the quilt chest at the end of her mother's bed and saw all of the beautiful quilts her mother and grandmother had spent years sewing together over the years. Shirley was overcome with memories of the two of them sitting together sewing on the front porch on late summer afternoons, as she sat at their sides learning stitches by making doll clothes. She realized that her mother was truly, permanently gone, whether or not Shirley saved her sweaters or glasses, and that the irreplaceable things she possessed were the memories. She urges others that if there are no external pressures, such as needing to sell a house, wait until you feel strong enough, and ready to part with at least some of the items.

Below are some tips to help smooth the process, and hopefully create order and harmony during a stressful, heartbreaking time:

  1. Choose a place of honor to hold or display the treasured objects you keep to remember your loved one, and discard those things that aren't either immediately useful or sentimentally important.

  • As you sort, clearly label the bags or boxes to donate, and set them obviously aside. Do not let the boxes become mingled with keepsakes, or you may feel compelled to resort everything again, to make sure nothing is lost. Stick with the OHIO rule ("Only Handle It Once").
  • It is not your job to find the perfect new home for every book, boot, or tennis racket. If a relative or close friend has requested something particular, or you think of an obvious new home, try to mail it that same day. If you haven't sent the item after a week, think about donating it. Trust that the universe will find the right person who needs the items you donate.
  • Decide how much room you have in your own home, and set concrete limits of how much to keep, such as "20 books, one set of dishes, six items of clothing." By creating limits in specific categories, it will be easier to choose what is most important and hopefully not become overwhelmed with sheer quantities. This is especially true for collections -- choose your favorite three of Grandma's ceramic cats, don't feel like you must keep all 258 kitties just because she loved them.
  • Tackle the project in steps. Don't try to do it all at once, or after eight hours you may be exhausted and traumatized and still not done, and reluctant to try again. This closet, room, or home full of things took a lifetime to gather and can't be packed up in one day.
  • Do not feel guilty about discarding or donating things. The important things to keep are your memories. The rest of the "stuff" served your loved one well, and it is not your responsibility to keep it forever and ever. Your loved one filled his or her home with objects that were pretty or useful to him or her. If they are not pretty or useful to you, donate them without guilt.
  • Take pictures of items you want to remember but that are not practical to keep.
  • Start with the items that are easiest to discard, to create momentum and clear space. Go through the house with a garbage bag and discard old socks and underwear, lidless Tupperware, soap and Q-tips, magazines and opened food items. If something is broken or stained, throw it away.
  • As you sort, put all papers in one box or bin to sort later. Don't stop and evaluate every greeting card, play program or receipt. You can download a scanner app to your phone to make electronic copies of papers you don't need to keep physical copies of (But of course always keep paper versions of official records like birth certificates, military discharge papers, or deeds).
  • As you think about items to weed or to keep, reflect on the cost of keeping the items, and set limits. What is the cost to your own psychic wellbeing to fill your home with a relative's belongings? What is the financial cost of keeping a storage unit to maintain a home's worth of belongings, going unused? What is the time cost and physical toll of reshuffling your own storage space, and filling garages, attics, and sheds with boxes of things? Sometimes people decide to store boxes and boxes of things because they cannot bear to sort through it presently -- ask yourself, "If not now, when?" before investing in storing items.
  • Items may not be worth as much as you think they are. The dining room table and chairs where you and Nana and Mom and Dad spent every Thanksgiving may be irreplaceable to you, but be prepared to let it go if the goal is to clear out the house. Sometimes families are unwilling to sell an antique dresser for $500 when they wanted and expected $700, and end up spending $1,500 on storage costs (at $100/month) before giving it away in exasperation.
  • Create a timeframe to finish the entire project. Clearing a house may take several months of weekends. You don't want to be too rushed, but you also don't want to let things stagnate. Plan four-hour blocks of time, with a reward at the end of it (maybe a manicure, movie, or dinner out with friends).
  • Your memories of your loved ones and relationships with family are more important than things, so choose only those belongings that have sentimental value to you. Pick your battles wisely when two relatives want the same item. Try to choose things to keep that you want to display in your home, or keep in a keepsake box, perhaps in a Memory Corner with photos. For more tips, read the articles on Belongings on the Open to Hope website.