How to Clean Out a Loved One’s Possessions

“Cleaning the closets and drawers after someone dies is one of the hardest things to do,” Gabby Jimenez recently wrote about dealing with a loved one’s belongings after they’re gone.

“Some people leave it for weeks or months because they just can’t bring themselves to do it yet … and others move everything right away because they can’t bear to look at it. I get both of these responses. Neither is wrong or right.”

The hospice nurse, end-of-life doula and author of The Hospice Heart offers a few tips for coping with the often emotional and visceral task:

  • Tackle one drawer at a time.
  • Ask friends or family if they’d like a special item.
  • Make 3 piles: save, gift and donate.
  • Make a quilt of beloved t-shirts.
  • Put trinkets and jewelry you can’t part with into a special box that you can open anytime.

But Jimenez says the most important thing to know is that you don’t have to do it right away and you can ask for help from friends or family. Asking someone to drop off a box for donation gives them a meaningful way to help you and gives you one less thing to do, she says.

Rachel Donnelly, an after-loss consultant, says if you can, hire a professional to help you. Other tips include:

  • Take a photo if a treasured item isn’t practical to keep.
  • Use a photo to create a custom item (like a pillow, scarf or blanket).
  • Don’t wait to downsize your own belongings: “Experience the joy of gifting today.”

Sometimes you may choose to do things right away for financial or other practical reasons. When Richard Eisenberg’s father died, he and his sister had to clean out his dad’s entire apartment to avoid another month of rent. The former Managing Editor of the Next Avenue website wrote about his experience in an article that went viral, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents Stuff.” It struck a nerve with those who had already experienced – or feared – the same problem.

Eisenberg shared with Solace Cremation what he learned about donating or selling a loved one’s things after they are gone and what you can do to make things easier on those who may have to handle your own affairs in the future.

“I learned how hard it can be to quickly find takers for your parents’ possessions. The demand for brown furniture is especially tiny – few people want these big, bulky pieces and the same is true for charities and our grown children. You may be able to sell or donate small items, pieces of art and clothing, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort,” he explained.

The best way to be able to confront the situation without having to resort to using a hauling service as Eisenberg did is to plan ahead (if you can).

“The earlier you can start the process, the better. If it’s possible to begin selling, donating or disposing of items of your parents (or other loved ones) with their approval while they’re alive, that will help avoid finding yourself in an emergency situation needing to unload them quickly after a death,” Eisenberg says.

While most of us don’t have to struggle with what to do with a box of love letters from Frank Sinatra like Anderson Cooper has, even the CNN personality has been struggling with the emotional experience and documenting the difficult task of clearing out the apartments of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt in a new podcast. The apartments were filled with journals, notes, letters, postcards and thousands of books.

Cooper sums up the emotional experience that many of us grieving a loss have – or will – go through, “It’s not just stuff, it’s memories, her memories and mine. It’s evidence of my brother’s life and my dad’s, of their existence, that they were here, that they mattered. It’s all the people they knew, whom I knew. They’re alive and holding them and going through them. I feel their presence again … I need to learn something from all of this.”

But as Cooper’s experience illustrates, while clearing out a loved one’s things is often overwhelming, it can also be an opportunity to remember those we loved and savor the memories the objects bring to mind.

Most areas have a Goodwill or Salvation Army where many items can be donated. In addition, consider other local charities.

Be aware that the pandemic and popularity of downsizing-themed shows created a huge surge in donations, so many charities urge you to see their websites for specific needs and be mindful of the condition and appropriateness of what you give.

Where to donate

In Jacksonville, Florida
New and gently used clothing can be donated at City Rescue Mission. The Hubbard House also will take linens and kitchen supplies (dishes, pots, pans).

In Los Angeles, California

Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles takes building materials, televisions, dishes and furniture. The Downtown Women’s Center accepts women’s clothing. The Los Angeles Mission takes clothing, hygiene products and toiletries.

In Portland, Oregon

Blanchet House takes new and gently used clean, appropriate adult-sized clothing. Rose Haven accepts clean and gently used women’s clothing as well as camping gear, kitchen items and pet supplies. Dress for Success takes limited items for women.

In San Diego, California

San Diego’s Clean and Safe program lists a number of local charities that accept donations including Dress for Success and Father Joe’s Villages, among others.

The Vietnam Veterans Association also provides the “Pickup Please” program in San Diego. The national organization also offers pickups in most cities including Jacksonville, Portland and Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo

Solace Cremation offers online arrangements for direct cremation services with one flat price and 24/7 customer service. Solace proudly serves Portland and Southern California. Learn more.

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