Decluttering Your Home after the Loss of a Loved One: A Step-by-Step Guide to Moving through the Difficult Process

By HomeAdvisor

Updated November 7, 2019

Woman in mourning packing remembrances after dead husband

Losing someone we love is one of the most difficult life events we’ll ever face. When the loss is someone you share a home with, it can feel even more traumatic. A house full of the possessions that once belonged to your loved one can feel overwhelming, but the idea of letting them go may feel impossible.

The hard truth is that while it’s a difficult process to declutter and organize your house after a loved one passes away, it’s an important step in moving forward. Our guide will help you create a strategy for getting through the process as easily as possible.

Before you start, keep these things in mind.

Decluttering your home after losing a loved one will probably take weeks- or even months. Only you will know what timeline feels right. Don’t rush it, and keep these things in mind from start to finish, no matter how long it takes.

  • Ask for help, especially in the beginning. Even if there isn’t a lot to go through and you don’t need physical help, you’ll be thankful to have a source of emotional support should you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • Take breaks as often as you need them. Whether you need a 10-minute walk or a two-week hiatus, give yourself the space you need from the process.
  • Clean as you go. When you clear out space, give it a quick cleaning. While a fringe benefit will be having a cleaner house, the goal of this task is to make it less obvious that the area has changed. For example, if you clear out a shelf that displayed your late loved one’s bowling tournament trophies, you don’t want to see dust outlines of where they used to be. You’ll want to see a clean surface waiting for something new and joyful to display. If cleaning during this process feels overwhelming, don’t do it. You can hire a house cleaning service to do a deep cleaning when you’re done.

Step 1: Start with items that aren’t sentimental.

Starting small will ease you into the process. Begin by going through items that don’t have sentimental meaning and those that you might even resent, such medical equipment your loved one needed in their final days. Think of this step as getting rid of items you wouldn’t have minded parting with even when your loved one was still living, including their:

  • Mail
  • Toothbrush
  • Toiletry items, like soap and shampoo
  • Tools
  • Books and magazines
  • Office supplies

It may feel like a small step, but it’s a meaningful one.

Step 2: Move on to the big belongings.

Large items often don’t carry as much emotional attachment as smaller ones, so going through them is a great next step. Plus, getting rid of the big stuff helps clear out space and helps you feel more productive and motivated from the get-go. This is also a good time to be a little “ruthless” when deciding what to let go of. For example, you can finally offload that hunk-of-junk lawn mower your husband refused to throw away or that quirky piece of artwork your wife picked out.

Step 3: Sort through smaller items.

This will be a bigger project than going through large belongings, so it’s best to go into it with a strategy. Some people recommend working through one room at a time. Others swear by sticking to one category of items at a time, such as dishes, craft supplies, and souvenirs. Choose the method that works best for you, or in other words, the one that feels less overwhelming.

Whichever system you use, go through and decide whether you should keep, donate or sell, or discard each of your loved one’s items. Separate them accordingly. It may take days (or longer) to sort through everything. If you’re finding it too tough to decide what to part with and your keep pile is getting out of control, consider adding a maybe pile as well. That way, you can sort through it later when you’re feeling more ready to make firm decisions about what to say goodbye to.

Once you’re finished sorting, take these steps for each group of items:

  • Keep – Find a designated place for each belonging. Part of your purpose for decluttering is to make your home a more liveable space, so honor the possessions you’re keeping by putting them in designated “homes.”
  • Donate or sell – Pass along the items you’re gifting to loved ones. It will be a meaningful exchange for you both and make it easier to permanently part with items you’ve decided not to keep. You can hire someone to help organize and host a garage sale for anything you’re selling. If you don’t want to have a garage sale, you can use a resale app to part with items in good condition. Donate everything that is left over to charity.
  • Discard – It’s easier to throw away items as you go, especially if you have a lot to sort through. It may be helpful to rent a dumpster so you can offload these things as you continue to sort. If you don’t dispose of items as you move along, throw everything in your discard pile away as soon as you’re done with this step. Remember, you wanted to throw these items away for a reason. Don’t hold onto something you decided was trash just because it belonged to your loved one.

Step 4: Sift through clothing and jewelry.

The clothing and jewelry of a departed loved one can be the toughest category to go through. However, it’s one of the most practical to offload, so it deserves a step of its own. This is a process you should consider doing with loved ones in case there are any special pieces they want to keep.

Start by picking out one or two special pieces that you want to keep, like your wife’s wedding ring, your husband’s favorite sweater, or your child’s scarf. Consider this your keep pile. (Bear in mind that this keep pile shouldn’t be as big as the one for other belongings since you probably won’t get as much use out of clothing as you will other items.)

Be sure to set aside anything you think another loved one will want. Even if you’re not completely sure someone has a sentimental attachment to it, err on the side of caution. There will be a lot of hurt feelings — including yours — if you get rid of something only to find out it meant a lot to someone. Once you’ve picked out a few keeper pieces, decide what you can donate or sell and what should be thrown out.

Step 5: Take it day by day.

As time goes on, you may find there are other items no longer worth holding onto anymore. For instance, you may no longer want to line the hallway with your wedding photos. Instead, reserve a few of your favorites to place throughout your home. Similarly, you may feel less attached to a collection your loved one spent years building, opting to give it to family members or charity.

Once you’ve cleared out some space, there are a couple of additional steps you should consider taking to make the most of your fresh start:

Decluttering your home after the loss of a loved one is an emotional process you shouldn’t rush into. Take your time to move through the stages. Ask for support whenever you need it. Take heart in knowing that your beloved would want you to take this step to move forward, and remember, you’re just letting go of stuff. The memories you hold in your heart will last forever.

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