Death and clutter: clearing the home of a dead parent

    “When they die, our family members don’t want their belongings to be a burden to us.”

My friend’s father died a month ago. He was elderly, and lived a long, good life, but his death left behind a mountain of belongings for his children to sort through.

It was awful. My friend was still grieving, still mourning the loss of a good man who had meant everything to her, and yet she had to sort through a whole household of stuff, together with her sister.

Her father had kept everything. There was a full kitchen, three full bedrooms of furniture and belongings, and a twin garage that had been a general “catch all” for everything the house didn’t fit. The car had never been housed there – only more stuff.

At first my friend and her sisters tried to keep a few mementos. Then a few more. They shared out the photos, and the knick-knacks, and a few pieces of the better furniture. Then they started going through the old postcards, the old school certificates, the baby teeth. It soon got out of control.

“It got really emotionally draining,” she told me. “After a while, we decided to just sell everything that we thought we could sell, and bin the rest. We didn’t have the emotional strength to deal with it all, because we remembered so much of it, and were forced to deal with all this stuff on top of Dad’s death. Everything we threw out felt like a betrayal of him.”

Even after putting the better items up online for sale, and having several garage sales, there was very little money to be made from selling the belongings. My friend told me she might have made “a few hundred dollars, at most.”

This was a surprise to her. “Compared with the hundreds of thousands that the house sold for, it seemed it was hardly worth it,” she said. “The stuff itself was worth virtually nothing. In retrospect, I wish we’d just given everything to charity. And I think, maybe, that’s what Dad might have wanted anyway.”

The only thing of true value most people own is a house

The truth is, all of the belongings that we own, unless it’s genuine antiques or valuables, are worth very little once they leave the store. They cost a lot to replace, but on the secondhand market they won’t give you much.

The only thing of true value most people own is a house. This is the case, time after time after time.

This is something my Dad – a natural minimalist – knew when he cleared out my grandmother’s house over in England a few years ago.

Rather than go through it all, he simply selected a few items of remembrance and real value (a couple of old photo albums, two paintings she’d done, her jewellery), then gave the keys over to the Salvation Army charity guys.

The charity did the rest for him, clearing out the house and finding items of value to sell and gift to those in need. Grandma had been a Salvation Army member, so Dad knew she would have wanted that.

Then Dad sold the house. Everything was done, easily and quickly, with little stress and with real benefit to a valued charity that Grandma had worked with all her life.

Everything Dad kept for us fit in a small bag. And now, years on, the things we have that belonged to her are all the more meaningful because they are few, and were carefully selected.

Life is too short to spend on death

Life is short. And if I know one thing it is this: when they die, our family members don’t want their belongings to be a burden to us.

Eventually many of us do have to clear out the homes of elderly parents when they die. It’s a common thing a lot of people go through. Here are some suggestions on how to make the process easier:

  • Find trusted friends to help. Their perspective – and cups of tea! – can really help keep things level when it feels like your world is turning upside-down.
  • Deal with food first. Donate everything you will not use to a food bank as soon as possible.
  • Find the photo albums, jewellery and artworks. Almost everything else will likely be of little value. Keep these, if you want.
  • Contact a worthy local charity. Explain the situation, and ask that they help clear the house for you. Donate all furniture, whitegoods, kitchen items, toys, tools and clothing immediately. If necessary, ask a friend to accompany the charity staff while they clean the house out.
  • Ask a friend to deal with other paperwork. Ask a friend to deal with all paperwork other than photos. That includes old school books, certificates, birthday cards, and anything else the deceased may have kept. Don’t deal with these yourself, as it will be emotionally draining.
  • Estate auctions can be useful. If the deceased owned a lot of truly valuable items, estate auctions can help clear things out and earn some reasonable items. My parents own a lot of very valuable antique furniture and china, and I’ll probably go down this route when I have to deal with their passing.
  • Make a will. Make things easier for the next generation. If you haven’t made a will yet, do it as soon as possible. Keep it simple and clear, and don’t bequeath specialist items.
  • Never fight over stuff. People – and relationships – are worth more than that. If your brother, or sister, or cousin really wants something, let them have it. It’s just stuff, and probably worth a lot less than you think.



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