5 tips for sorting through the deceased's belongings

Over 62 years a person can collect a lot of “stuff”.

Especially my mom, who found stories, beauty, and joy in being surrounded by sentimental trinkets and keepsakes that reminded her of family and her home in Canada. We’re not just talkin’ souvenirs from every giftshop she could find on a vacation. (My dad and I now joke about the times that he knew to bring an empty suitcase on vacay because without a doubt mom would want to come home with a load of bark, pine cones, and rocks she found in the bush.)

So now, of course, I’ve now got my own collection of objects that I tote around, move after move, from LA to Scotland to Vancouver. Her unmatched earrings, her animal t-shirts, her old thank you cards still in the packaging.

When I first started reading other articles about how to sort through someone’s stuff, I realized that though I deeply connected with a lot of it and had employed many of the tactics myself, I didn’t agree with some specific parts of the advice. When it comes to my mom and my memories and my life, things are not just things. Technically, I understand that things aren’t my mom or the memories. But they are the positive triggers that I can have in my life to feel comfort and they definitely help me through the grieving process.

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When I get complimented on those mismatched earrings I kept, I get to tell stories about her awesome fashion sense. When someone comments on how cool her animal print t is (yes, this happens, don’t laugh) I remember the first time she figured out how to send me a picture over text (look at that wolf shirt glory, dude). And when I need to send a thank you card, I use the ones my mom kept in drawers all around the house, send them to friends, and keep up her tradition of handwriting notes.

I get that we can’t keep everything, but there is definitely some method to the madness.

If you’re getting ready to go through someone’s endless piles of stuff and things and knickknacks. Or if you’re thinking about offering a friend a hand. Here’s 5 tips for sorting through the belongings of someone who has died.

1. Take it easy on yourself. Start whenever.

This advice is for those who have the luxury of time, though I know not everyone does. You might have to clean out a house or an apartment quite rapidly because of a rental policy, house sale, or just because the rest of your family wants/needs to.

But if you have the time, think about taking it. You don’t have to sort everything immediately. Maybe there is some stuff that’d feel great to sort through because it’ll help you bring back positive memories while you’re suffering through the first few weeks of grief (Helloooooo sitting on the couch with whiskey, Gilmore Girls, and cases of my mom’s jewelry). But you don’t have to make every decision about every old hairbrush right f’ing now.

2. Consider asking yourself a few questions.

When you’re ready to start, do some prep in advance and ask yourself a few questions to help weeding out stuff before you even look at it.

How much room do you have to store things?

Maybe all you really have is a closet at your apartment, and your dead loved one had a WHOLE house worth of stuff. You’re probably going to need to make some decisions. And maybe you have an empty wall at your place where you could put up some shelving and display art or trinkets or books, but that means maybe you won’t keep too many of the clothes they had. Which really comes down to the next question…

What will you do with it / use it for / wear it to?

I had to ask myself this a lot, and you can do so in advance by thinking about buckets or themes of items you know they' had a lot of.

Clothing: Can you wear it? Will you wear it? Or are there those few things that you just really wanna keep and pull out of the closet every once in a while? Is there a tie that you gave your dad for Father’s Day that you can keep and wear every Father’s Day as a tradition? Or are there scarves that your grandma knit that you can wear during the holidays every year?

Books: Will you read them or will they solely be for display? Maybe just take a few that you know they loved or that you’d pass onto someone one day. And when it comes to the “one day”, unless those items are for future babes, consider passing them on right now.

Trinkets: It pains me to even write these words… but “How many trinkets do you actually need to keep?” And are you keeping them because they have sentimental value to you and a memory you share with the deceased? Or just because they owned it?

Kitchen items: Are you taking multiples of stuff you already have? And if so, can you part with the stuff you already have so that you don’t become a (maybe functional) hoarder of dinner plates? Maybe you’ll just want to keep the items you’ll use often, or the items you can display and talk about at dinner parties, but consider purpose and function (aka do they even work?)

Bathroom items: You’d think that most of these could be thrown away (like old razors and louffas) but that’s not always the case. Can you save one or two lotions or soaps for a self-care routine during your hardest grieving moments? Keep in mind that these are finite resources and that one day they’ll run out. But it can be really nice to take some time for yourself with something super nostalgic and special.

Bedroom/living room items: Are they things you’ll want to actually use and snuggle up with? Or can they sit in a closet and stay protected from moths (make the effort if you’re going to take it)? Or are they things that have specific memories that you want to be reminded of? I’m sorting through old blankets right now that are from time my mom spent in the hospital, which I’ve definitely got to let go of because they’re the thing I hate most in our living room.

Furniture: Can you realistically take it and fit it somewhere? Or can you sit in it, take some pics, and give it to someone who can fit it in their place? (see below for notes about taking pics).

3. Don’t feel bad about throwing things away.

Unless you’ve got a mansion or money to pump into a storage unit, many of us can’t keep everything. When we first started going through my mom’s belongings, it wasn’t clear what’d be the most important for me to take, but it was clear that we needed to do some serious purging.

In the first round of cleaning out her closet, I took a few dresses and carried them all the way to Scotland, where they sat in a closet, never got worn, and I eventually donated them. Now there’s her accessories, which I’d like to find a good home for other than a plastic bag in my closet.

Not everything will be kept forever, but I’m sorting, taking, using, and discarding in waves. And that’s just the stuff that I keep with me at home. I still have drawers of my mom’s makeup at their house, which I haven’t cleaned out so that it can still feel like I’m borrowing make up from her when I visit my dad (that stuff will stay with no shame) but her shoes that none of us cared about and some of her purses that just took up space had to go.

4. And don’t feel weird about taking pics first!

Like I noted above with the furniture, taking pictures can mean that you reference the item without having it in your possession, meaning you only have to make room for a badass memory scrapbook and not an entire house-worth of things.

Consider dressing up in some of the clothes for a portrait session, getting all the kids piled into grandpa’s chair before you start the estate sale, or have a HUGE family dinner with all the pots and pans and plates you can use, take some beautiful photos, and keep those forever instead of the things themselves.

5. Do you.

It’s that simple and I have to say it. Sometimes these processes can mean hours and days and weeks and months of sobbing over old handkerchiefs, and it’s just totally exhausting. So know that you can schedule time, do it in pieces, and keep or get rid of whatever the heck you want. No one knows better than you what kind of boxes you’ll want to dig out and look through when the days are tough, so find your peeps to help if you must, but just. do. you. Good luck in there.

Alica Forneret