Just when you think you have endured all the pain and suffering a human could tolerate following the death of a loved one, a new daunting task lurks around the corner. What to do with all the personal belongings?
The quick answer is — do nothing right now unless you have to. Why? Making decisions too soon can lead to regret and disappointment in the future. As you begin your new grief journey, wondering what to do with your loved one’s personal belongings weighs very heavy on a survivor’s heart. Typically, those around you suggest that the faster you sort through the personal belongings, process necessary paperwork and close an estate, the faster you will be on the road to recovery. The truth for most people who are mourning the loss of a loved one is quite the opposite — the desire is to remain connected to their loved one for as long as possible. In fact, pacing the sorting and cleaning activities over an extended period allows the survivor to deeply connect, reminisce special memories and share stories with friends and family.
The million-dollar question is when to start the process of cleaning and organizing items that are personal in nature. The answer is very simple –when the griever is ready! For many the task is so emotionally and physically overwhelming that one often needs a gentle nudge from a trusted source who can help with a plan. Typically, the process is triggered when looking for something or when the clutter becomes too overwhelming. For others, the process begins when they figure out what to do with a particular item. For example, a recent fundraiser prompted a widow to donate her husband’s professional sports memorabilia– giving her the satisfaction that others could benefit from her donation. Whatever the trigger, embracing the process and cherishing the memories are essential to moving forward.
Before you begin, consider family members and friends who may take pleasure in having a special item from your loved one – a special coffee mug for the office, tools for the handy person, athletic watch for the running buddy, books for the reader, clothing to make a quilt, jewelry to pass down to future generations or just a simple possession that will always remind the recipient of that special person.
For those who are scared and emotionally paralyzed to begin, think of the process as “thinning out” rather than “clearing out” the personal belongings. Reducing the closet full of t-shirts to 50, consolidating the tools in the garage or sharing SOME of the jewelry will help you feel progress is occurring.
When you are ready to start the process, the best approach is to tackle a small area – one corner, one drawer or one file at a time. And to avoid the inevitable paralysis of making a final decision, create six piles and place each item in one of the piles to ensure forward momentum and a sense of accomplishment.
Pile #1 – Keep for yourself
This would include items that you just don’t want to part with. Maybe your loved one’s eyeglasses, favorite hat or the last book they read. These items have sentimental value and they need to remain in your possession.
Pile #2 – Bestow to friends and family
Once you have decided what is right for you, the next step is to determine if the item would be of interest to a friend of family member. The recipient would treasure the personal belonging whether it is a family heirloom, a coin collection, a piece of art or a simple token item to maintain the connection.
Pile #3 –Sell
If the belonging could be valued by a collector or individual, sell the item. Craigslist, eBay, local newspapers or club newsletters are great places to showcase items for potential buyers.
Pile # 4 – Donate to a not-for-profit
The not-for-profits in your community can benefit from any donations. For instance, coats can be donated to a homeless organization; business clothing would be helpful for employment initiatives and medical equipment for the underserved.
Pile # 5 – Trash, recycle or shred
The processing and sorting through paper is emotional, overwhelming and time consuming. Once you determine there is no need to retain certain paperwork, place it in the trash, recycle or shred pile.
Pile #6 – Not sure what to do with the item
The most daunting pile is #6 – those personal belongings you just don’t know what to do with. Place the item in the pile and keep moving forward, as you can revisit your decision at a future time.
Throughout the sorting, cleaning and organizing be sure to take the time to savor memories of each item that goes through your hands. Once you start, you will develop a rhythm and find a balance between your sense of accomplishment and cherishing the memories of your loved one.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and coach who provides encouragement to those who are suffering a loss or setback. She is the author of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time and Grief in the Workplace: A comprehensive guide for being prepared. Rachel supports companies who have experienced a loss of an employee or supporting grieving employees as they return to work after a significant loss.