A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 1)


sadEmails arrive so often describing how — in addition to all the heart-rending emotions of a death — there is the overwhelmed experience of not knowing what to do about all the “stuff” of a beloved person who has passed away.

One woman wrote that her usually uncluttered home is filled with all the items she cleared out from her mother’s house after her mom died. She said she often bursts into tears seeing paths through this new clutter in her house yet she doesn’t know what to do with any of it. She was clear that she did not want or need the stuff but she knew these were things her mother loved.

Another email explained the cost of two storage units filled with items from loved ones who have passed away. Payments for both units totaled over one thousand dollars a year, and he wrote that he had not visited them since he stashed everything into the units over four years ago.

So he is spending money he can’t afford on units filled with stuff he not only does NOT need, he doesn’t even remember what is in them.

He’s stuck.

Sorting through, processing, moving on and getting rid of items after the death of a loved one is possibly the most difficult work to tackle. Partly because there is SO MUCH (a lifetime of accumulation), partly because it renews the deep grief in our hearts and partly because there is an odd feeling of “I’m keeping this because I love him so if I get rid of these tools that he loved so much….it might mean I don’t love him ….or that he didn’t love me…..or something very convoluted and confusing….”

This is a difficult subject to write about, to read about, to think about and to live through, but because we are human, it applies to many of us.

We will start with with an excerpt from The Clutter-Busting Handbook and continue next week with more thoughts and ideas that we hope will help you or anyone you know who is in this awful situation of being overwhelmed with “stuff” after the loss of a loved one.

To start us off, here is the excerpt:
If a loved one has recently passed away less than a year ago, you may need more time to go by to be able to decide what to keep and what to get rid of.

When my mother died, we didn’t have the luxury of allowing much time to pass. Mom lived in a different state and her home had to be emptied so it could be sold. Otherwise there would have been huge expenses each month (mortgage, taxes, utilities, home insurance). Also we didn’t want to risk any damage weather or vandals might do to an unoccupied house.

When I flew to Florida to clear out her place, I brought my teen-aged daughter Kerry with me. As we sorted through Mom’s treasures, we laughed and cried sharing favorite memories. It would have been torture doing this alone. For this kind of difficult and painful work, you need someone to be with you.
I was lucky to have someone I loved with me, but even a stranger can be helpful with this tough task. If you don’t know anyone who can help, call a local church and explain that you need someone with you as you go through your loved one’s things. Everyone understands what grueling work this is, and they will find someone to help you.

My helper, Kerry, would question every single thing I wanted to keep. “Do you really want to pay to ship that home? Do you want to have it take up space – you know we don’t have a place to put it. Will you ever, ever use it? What will you do – hide it in a crawl space and pretend that it brings back memories for you? You’ll pack it away and when you die, I’ll get rid of it.”

Kerry was very persuasive. She made sense.

Together, she and I decided to get rid of what was junk to us, keep what we wanted to keep, and set up everything else on display. Then we invited her friends and neighbors to come over and select things to remember Mom by or to help themselves to anything they could use or somebody they knew could use.

We planned to donate anything left over to a worthy cause; then a friend of Mom’s offered to deliver everything to her favorite charity. Many people said that Mom’s friend probably would keep lots for herself, but why should we care? We were happy as long as somebody could use her stuff. We hoped that most of her stuff would be appreciated and maybe even cherished. It was that hope that helped me let go of so much.

And so, a short time after my mother died, we got rid of most of her things. We called home and none of the young newly married couples wanted the china that Mom had served her holiday meals on before moving to Florida, and Kerry didn’t want it either. We gave it away to her friend, Betty, and never once regretted it. (Kerry said her memories of Grandma are beautiful, her china was ugly.)

Every Thanksgiving, Betty would use Mom’s china and it always brought back memories. So Betty would either call or drop me a note with a remembered story about Mom. Doesn’t it honor my mother’s memory more that someone is using and loving her china rather than having it packed away in a box? Wouldn’t it honor your dad more to have some kid (who can’t afford a fishing pole) using his fishing gear instead of adding it to yours and having way to much fishing stuff to ever use?

Everyone selected something to keep. Most took only one thing, and they either use it at holidays or have it hanging on their wall. Kerry points out that doesn’t having my mother’s Bible on display in my bookcase bring back just as many memories as if I had twenty boxes of her stuff stashed in the crawlspace?

We have not regretted any of the other things we eliminated. In fact, we don’t even remember what we got rid of that week. But none of us forget Mom, so trust me, you don’t need a heap of clutter to bring back happy memories of those you love.

Rita Emmett
Author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook,
The Clutter-Busting Handbook and
Manage Your Time to Reduce Your Stress: A Handbook for the Overworked, Overscheduled, and Overwhelmed


2 thoughts on “A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 1)

  • July 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    This was a timely reading for me. We have been battling inherited clutter for years. I think it’s a larger issue for us forty-somethings, because many of us don’t come from the larger families of yesteryear, and so there are fewer children to inherit a multitude of relatives’ belongings. Maybe I just need to start writing down family history, instead of holding on to the artifacts; otherwise, my own children will end up inheriting a museum….

  • July 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Chris! It’s so nice to have someone address this issue, isn’t it? And I like the idea of writing down the family history. I have an “heirloom” cookbook. It’s actually new, but there is room for me to write all of our families favorite recipes and include photos and stories. 🙂

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