Sorting through the belongings of someone who has died is so final. It means facing the fact that the person has really gone. Yet sooner or later, it needs to be done, and there are some things you can do that will help.
Learn the Grief Recovery Method
Get yourself a copy of The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman and work your way through all the grief recovery steps.
There are many books about grief. This one is different. It guides you through the process of becoming emotionally complete with the person who has died. It helps you to resolve your feelings and heal your broken heart. It won’t take away all your sadness, but it will ease the pain and allow you to move on.
When you have done these steps and feel ready, choose a day to start sorting through your loved one’s belongings. It’s best to find a friend to help you, or hire a clutter clearing practitioner you feel you can work with – someone who is comfortable with emotions, and knows how to hold a heart space for you.
It’s a good idea to make a list before you begin so that you can cross each item off when it’s done. Be sure to do just one small area or category of things at a time, and take breaks as you need to, to refresh your energy.
For clothes, I recommend you follow the Pile Plan described in Chapter 13 of The Grief Recovery Handbook, and repeat as necessary until the job is done. It may take a few days, a few months, or longer in some cases. As long as it’s progressing, that’s fine. Proceed at your own pace. If you get stuck, get help.
For other items, use the box system I describe in detail in Chapter 16 of my Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui book, with the addition of a Memento box if there are treasured items you want to keep. Feel free to use the Dilemma box liberally rather than forcing yourself to make a quick decision you may later regret. As the title of my book suggests, this system was designed for clutter clearing rather than sorting through the belongings of someone who has died, but it will work equally well for both.
Feel your feelings
Another word of advice is not to attempt to “be strong” or choke back your tears. Let them flow as they will. Sadness is a natural part of grieving and if you don’t allow yourself to feel those feelings, you close down your ability to feel joy and happiness too.
In The Grief Recovery Handbook, the authors ask the question, ‘What do we mean by recovery?’ and they explain it this way:
Recovery means feeling better. Recovery means claiming your circumstances instead of your circumstances claiming you and your happiness. Recovery is finding a new meaning for living, without the fear of being hurt again. Recovery is being able to enjoy fond memories without having them precipitate painful feelings of regret or remorse.
This process may bring up many emotions, but it will also bring an added level of completion to your relationship with the person who has died, opening the door to a new phase of your life. If you have any questions specific to your own personal situation, post them in the comments section here, and I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can.
Fast Track Clutter Clearing online course
The Grief Recovery Method
When someone dies, do you really need to keep things to remember them by?
Where’s the best place to store ashes?
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I agree about trying to get sympathetic help with sorting through a loved one’s belongings and a dilemma box is needed because I hated being rushed into making decisions (and some things I let go before I was really read to). Some things can be let go easily but others not – and it may take 6 months or a year or longer before you can do so. I lost both my parents last year and one things I am REALLY struggling with is letting go of their home (it wasn’t the family home but I spent a lot of time there over the past 10 years).
Karen, you’ve written about letting go of possessions, and about moving house, but this is slightly different. Maybe you could write about it sometime? I’m hoping that doing a space clear in it will help – though haven’t been able to motivate myself to do one yet.
Hi Caroline – Your question is not one I’ve actually been asked before. Many people like to keep some mementos to remind them of parents who have died, but you seem to be saying that the entire house is a memento for you. A space clearing ceremony would be an excellent way to help you move on when you feel ready, but in this situation it would be best to call in one of the professional space clearers I’ve trained to do it rather than doing the ceremony yourself. It can be a very emotional and sometimes risky experience to space clear a building that was occupied by parents you are still grieving for. A professional will be able to do the ceremony safely, at a much deeper level, and will know how to hold the space for you to say your goodbyes. It would be a lovely gift to give yourself.
Very true everything described in the article, we must accept that our loved one is no longer with us because it is a natural human being, born, live and go as Gabriel Garcia Marquez said “Do not cry because it is over, smile because it happened.”
We lost my first child two years ago, unexpectedly and from no apparent cause, three weeks before her second birthday. In the ensuing shock, we were very fortunate to have both sets of our parents help us by packing up all of her things and taking them to a storage space for us. We could not. The only thing we got rid of was her crib, where she had died (if I could have, I would have chopped it into pieces and burned it, and then buried the ashes – instead we donated it to a women’s shelter). Even so, for the next few months I would still come across a shirt or dress of hers, or a piece of paper she’d drawn on, and her crayon marks were all over our furniture.
Still, having her things in storage was a blessing. Where normally I would feel uneasy having any belongings in storage and not either in use or passed along into the world, this was different. I needed to suspend it until I could make a decision about it. We recently had her little sister, and it felt surprisingly wonderful to bring all of her things back into our home. We were reunited with her books that we loved reading together, favorite items of clothing that we’d lovingly dressed her in many times, bookshelves she’d drawn on…it felt like we were re-integrating a part of ourselves that we had had to be exiled from for two years. Seeing my baby in her sister’s clothes is not sad or strange. There’s a logic to it. Of course this would not be the solution for everyone. It was only ours. But is has been good. Needless to say, we physically cleaned and space cleared everything after bringing it back!
L, That’s wonderful. I’m so happy that those items from your daughter were reintroduced to your family. I understand what you mean by “it felt like we were re-integrating a part of ourselves that we had had to be exiled from for two years” – Wishing you and your family the very best. E.