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Dealing with the emotions of clearing out a home after a loved one dies

Feelings of helplessness and confusion are common after losing a loved one and everything you need to do can be overwhelming. 

On top of the rollercoaster of emotions during grief, the need to clean out the home of the person who has died, as well, can seem unsurmountable. 

For those who have no choice in this situation, the following  may help. 

Read the will  

While this may seem obvious, reading the will before you get started can be overlooked. What is stated in the will is not optional, it is a legal document that expresses the wishes of the decreased regarding distribution of their assets and personal effects. 

Give yourself some time if you need to   

Cleaning out a house within days of losing a loved one will only result in more grief and will make the process more difficult. Decisions around what to keep and what to give away or throw away, when everything has an emotional connection to the departed, can be challenging. Unless you are legally required to clean out and sell the house immediately, consider waiting a few weeks before getting started. 

Ask for help 

A sibling or close family member who also is grieving can be a good ally. They will understand the loss and can help you decide if an item has a real value or if you are sentimentally holding on to everything. Having one or two other people along to help you deal with the emotions can assist greatly. 

Go through the big items first 

Furniture, electronics, paintings or other decorations are less likely to have an emotional connection. Decide whether to keep, donate, sell or throw away items as you go through each room. You can use coloured stickers to mark your intention regarding different items. For example, red could indicate ‘sell’, so anything with a red sticker will need to be appraised or put up for sale.  

Also, remember to go through everything before throwing items out. Many valuable items have been found in places where you might not ordinarily think to look, such as in the pockets of clothing, in books, old birthday cards, and filing cabinets. People have been known to place a substantial amount of money in different spots all over the house.   

Start in the room that holds the least meaning for you 

 If the bedroom is where all the personal items are, begin in the kitchen or bathroom first and discard anything that has no sentimental value first. Old food or cleaning supplies and things like broken china shouldn’t be as difficult to remove. It helps if you give yourself permission to let go of things even though they were connected to a loved one who is no longer around. 

Set items aside in piles 

 When you finally attempt to sort through the more personal items, such as clothing, art, jewellery or personal letters and paperwork, start by grouping similar items together. Also, don’t directly start throwing these things away or you may have regrets later. When things are grouped together, go through each pile, and keep only one or two items from each of them. And if you’re unsure about keeping or discarding something, put it in a box and store it away. After a month, go back to it and make a decision then. 

Take a photo as a reminder  

For any items that you need to give away or sell but that have a special meaning to you, take a photo of them. This means you can access them visually when you are wanting connection with your loved one. 

Lastly, remember this is an emotionally draining time and, depending on family dynamics, can be fraught with tension and conflict. It’s a time when emotions are high and it’s important to take time to listen and try and understand the feelings of others while working out a compromise where possible. The last thing anyone wants to do is to lose family members over what is essentially ‘stuff’.