Dealing with loss and grief is no simple matter. However somehow we have to make headway going through all of the memories.
Considerations for Getting Started: The 4 Ps
I would love to say take your time, do everything at your own pace, don’t rush. Make a list of priorities that need to be done for practical reasons (bills, bank accounts, housing, things from the workplace, etc). Set some goals for time frames and consider specific people who will be your best supporters. The most common items people feel an immediate need to address are financial items. If your loved one had a lot of bills and insurance paperwork that you need to deal with, ask a friend who is a bookkeeper, accountant, or just very well-suited to those sorts of tasks for help.
Though the practical items may have deadlines and consequences if not quickly addressed, equally as important is to prioritize those which will help maintain your sanity. That will vary from person to person. Some people are going to feel like they are losing it if they can’t bag up everything immediately and start getting rid of it. Other people are going to want to keep everything in its place for as long as possible. Like so many things in grief, there is no right way or wrong way. But one thing that is almost always helpful is to make a plan. Bagging everything up and trashing it without thinking it through? Not a good idea. Avoiding going through items for years because you just don’t want to face it? Also not a good idea! Whenever you decide you are ready to start planning consider the following questions:
PARTICIPANTS: do you want to do it alone or with support from others?
If you plan to do it with others, who? Think of close family members, but also consider friends who may be helpful. Do you have a friend who is a good organizer? Or one who is good at helping you make decisions? If you are putting it off, tell a friend a goal date to get started so they can help you face the task.
PEOPLE: If there are people who can’t be present, what items do they want you to keep?
Make sure to ask in advance and be very specific. Throwing or giving away items that were of value to other family members can become a source of conflict. Often one item that has little meaning to one family member can have significant sentimental value to another family member. Don’t assume you know what might be important to other members of the family.
PRIORITIZE and PLAN: What order do you want to go through things?
This may be dependent on priority. For example, if your spouse owned a small business or took care of all the household bills, going through the office first will likely be a priority. Room-by-room often makes sense, but decide what will work best for you.
PACE YOURSELF: How much time will you spend per “session” going through items?
This can be an overwhelming process. Keep in mind you will probably stumble upon objects you haven’t seen in a long time and continuous reminders of the person you’ve lost. It may be tempting to want to do it all at once, but taking breaks is important if it gets too overwhelming.
Save for Me, Save for Others, Sell, Donate, Throw Away boxes
Now that you are ready to start, keep five categories in mind: save for me, save for others, sell, donate, throw away. You may want to get color coded Post-It notes to place on larger items reflecting these categories and start bag/boxes with the five categories for the smaller items. Almost any item should fit in one of these categories. Focus on being realistic. Though it was dad’s favorite suit, if no one in your family is going to wear it, it probably does not belong in a keep box. Though your grandmother may have cleaned and kept every margarine container she every used (like mine did) they probably are going to need to be recycled.
The Not Sure Box
You may want a sixth box for items you are not sure about. It can be easy to hit a block if you get stuck on an item you really don’t know what to do with. If this happens, put it in the “not sure” box and keep moving. Set a limit to your “not sure” box so it doesn’t become out of control. For example your limit is 10 items, once there are 10 in the box you will need to revisit something and make a decision on it before you can add something new.
Challenges: The Keep Pile
Ultimately several challenges arise when these boxes start to fill. First, the keep piles become huge. It is so hard to part with objects when they can feel like all we have left. When the keep-pile has gotten out of control, consider the following: Keep Pile
1) Do you have space for it?
If your loved one collected dragonflies or salt and pepper shakers it may be impossible to imagine parting with that collection. Consider keeping just a few favorites, sharing others with friends and family, and selling or donating those that remain.
2) Have you kept multiples?
If your wife collected dragonflies or salt and pepper shakers it may be impossible to imagine parting with that collection. Consider keeping just a few favorites, sharing others with friends and family, and selling or donating those that remain.
3) Can you take a photograph of the item?
Some items will be extremely painful to part with, no matter how much the rational part of your brain tells you that you need to. Consider photographing items that are hard to part with, so you can create a memory book of photos. For especially meaningful items, such as a house your family may need to sell, consider bringing in a professional photographer to ensure that you get high quality images.
4) Can you create something meaningful from a subset of items?
Keeping your sister’s clothes when no one will wear them or books when no one will read them may not make sense. Consider ways you can keep and display a meaningful subset items while letting the rest go. A more extensive blog post on this is coming, but one example of this may be taking swatches of your loved one’s favorite clothing items and creating something to keep in your home, like a quilt. If your loved one had hundreds of books, perhaps frame the title pages from her favorites in high quality frames and hang them in your home. You get the idea.
Challenges: Selling and Donating
The sell and donate piles may become overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to donate so many items that we want to ensure go to a good place and a good cause. It is also be hard to know how to go about selling items. Read our post on how to go about selling and donating items, including a list of great organizations to which you can donate items.
When cleaning out my grandmother’s house we found dozens of letters my grandparents had written back and forth when my grandfather was in the war. I found a newspaper my grandmother saved from the day I was born. We found more photo albums than we could count. All of this can be overwhelming. Be ready to take breaks. Be ready to put things into a keep box and sort them later – we knew we were keeping those letters, but during the sorting process was not the time to read them, no matter how much we wanted to!
Good Luck and Get Going!
Our best advice is to approach this experience with a positive attitude and, if doing it with others, surround yourself with people who love and support you. Though this can be an overwhelming task, it can also be healing. Though there may be tears, there will likely be just as much memory sharing and laughter.
Tomas Fonseca author, Certified Probate Agent, Dave Ramsey Trained Financial Coach, Featured in the Wall Street Journal, Best Selling Author, Realtor of 31 years. wwwTomasFonseca.com