As a professional organizer, I take on all kinds of projects and hear all kinds of stories as I do. I am also asked lots of questions about such projects on a daily basis, and one that people understandably have the hardest time even thinking about getting started, let alone completing, is sorting through and organizing belongings after a loved one’s death.

There is no right or wrong way to handle going through a loved one’s belongings after a death, just as there is no right or wrong way to approach so many other aspects of mourning.

Making a plan, on the other hand, is virtually always beneficial. Putting everything in a bag and throwing it away without thinking about it? This is not a good idea. You’ve been putting off looking through your belongings for years because you don’t want to face it? It’s also a bad idea. Consider the following questions whenever you believe you’re ready to begin planning:

PARTICIPANTS: Do you want to go it alone or complete the project with other people’s help?

Who are you going to sort with if you’re going to sort with others? Consider close family members, as well as friends who may be of assistance. Do you have a friend that can help you organize things? Or one who can assist you in making decisions? If you’re putting it off, set a goal date with a friend to get started, so they can assist you.

Another alternative that many people find helpful is enlisting the help of a professional like myself. It can be hard to complete the actual physical work of sorting, packing and perhaps even discarding belongings, and it can be easier to have a third party complete this work, after they have worked with you to make some of those difficult decisions.

PEOPLE: What items do people who can’t attend want you to keep if they can’t be there?

Make sure to ask ahead of time and be as clear as possible. Throwing or giving away items that were valuable to other family members can lead to arguments. One thing that has no sentimental significance to one family member may have great sentimental worth to another. Don’t assume you know what’s meaningful to your family’s other members.

PRIORITIZE and PLAN: What is the order in which you want to complete tasks?

Knowing where to begin while sorting through a loved one’s belongings after their passing can be difficult. Try to come up with a loose plan for approaching things in order of priority. If your spouse ran a small business or handled all the household bills, for example, going through the office first will almost certainly be a priority.

It’s common to go room by room, but decide what will work best for you. Again, in many cases, professional help can be an excellent resource here as we can help keep the project on track while still allowing you to move at a pace you are comfortable with.

Though the practical issues may have deadlines and consequences if not addressed fast, it’s just as vital to prioritize the ones that will help you maintain your sanity. This will differ from one person to the next. If they can’t bag everything up and start getting rid of things right once, some people will feel like they’re losing their minds. Others will want to keep everything in its original location for as long as possible.

PACE YOURSELF: How much time will you devote to going over items in each “session”?

Sorting through a deceased loved one’s stuff is a difficult task. Keep in mind that you’ll likely come across items you haven’t seen in a long time, as well as constant reminders of the person you’ve lost. It’s tempting to want to complete everything at once, but taking breaks is necessary if things become too stressful.

Now that you’re ready to get started, consider the following five categories:

  • To keep yourself
  • To give to others
  • To sell
  • To donate
  • To discard

You might want to implement a color-coded system here. Start bag/boxes with the five categories for the smaller goods, and place Post-It notes on larger objects reflecting these classifications.

Almost anything should fall into one of these groups. Concentrate on being practical. Even if it was Dad’s favorite suit, it probably doesn’t belong in a keep box if no one in your family will wear it. Even if your grandmother cleaned and saved every sauce jar she’s ever used, they’ll almost certainly need to be recycled.

The Not Sure Box is a possible sixth category.

You may want to create a sixth category for objects about which you are unsure. If you become stuck on an item you don’t know what to do with, it’s easy to become fixated and for the project to stall. If this occurs, file it away in the “not sure” box and go on. Set a limit on how big your “not sure” box can get, so it doesn’t get out of hand. If your limit is ten items, for example, you’ll need to revisit something and make a decision before adding something new.

Keepsake Pile

When these boxes begin to fill, a number of issues occur. First, the keep piles grow rapidly. It’s difficult to let go of possessions after a death. Especially when it seems like they’re the only ones we have. Consider the following if your keep-pile has gotten out of hand:
1) Do you have enough room for it?
2) Have you kept any duplicates?

If your mother has a collection of dragonflies or salt and pepper shakers, it may be difficult for you to part with them. Consider retaining a few favorites, sharing others with family and friends, and selling or giving the rest.

3) Is it possible for you to photograph the item?

No matter how much the sensible side of your brain tells you that you need to let go of something, it will be excruciatingly difficult to do so. Consider photographing items that are difficult to part with so that you can compile a photo memory book. There are lots of great apps that can help you to create such things at a later date – everything from collages to printable scrapbooks – but you will need the basic images to make use of them.

4) Is it possible to make anything significant out of a small number of items?

It may not make sense to save your sister’s clothes or books when no one will wear them or read them. Consider how you can keep and display a select group of items while discarding the others. Taking samples of your loved one’s favorite clothing items and making something to keep in your house, like as a quilt, is an example of this. If your loved one owned a lot of books, consider framing the title pages of her favorites and hanging them in your house. You get my drift.

Donating and Selling

It’s possible that the sell and donate piles will become overwhelming too. It’s difficult to determine where to donate so much stuff that we want to go to a good place and help a good cause. It’s also difficult to know how to market things.

If you need help, the resources are out there. This is, for example, a great list of places in the Greater Houston area that accept donations of common household items and clothing, and this is an excellent list of popular online marketplaces.

Our best advice is to approach the process of going through a deceased loved one’s stuff with patience and flexibility. If you’re doing it with others, make sure you’re surrounded by people who love and support you.

Though this might be a difficult task, it can also be therapeutic. There will almost certainly be tears, but there will almost certainly be just as much sharing of memories and laughing. And if you find you need a neutral third party – or simply an extra pair of hands and a sympathetic ear – feel free to contact us, we’ll be happy to help in whatever way we can.

Just Organized By Taya
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