Packing a Loved One's Belongings After Their Death

Packing a Loved One's Belongings After Their Death

, by Maeve Reidy, 11 min reading time

Coping with the death of a Loved One is a rollercoaster of grief. But there comes a day when leaving their belongings where they were is harming you more than helping you. And perhaps it's time to pack up their belongings. So what do you do? Where do you start? Each person and family is a little different, but here are some considerations and ideas on getting started when the time has come to sort through a loved one’s belongings after a death.

It's almost inconceivable to think about. But, especially since Covid raised its ugly head, there are, sadly, a lot more households with empty spaces at the dinner table these days.

Coping with the death of a Loved One is a rollercoaster of grief. But there comes a day when leaving their belongings where they were is harming you more than helping you. And perhaps it's time to pack up their belongings.

So what do you do? Where do you start? Each person and family is a little different, but here are some considerations and ideas on getting started when the time has come to sort through a loved one’s belongings after a death.

Everyday Reminders

When you lose someone who lives in your home, their belongings surround you.  From their toothbrush in the bathroom, to their laundry in the hamper, to their books on their bedside table ... everywhere you turn there is a reminder of that person.  Though some of these items may be comforting, many are just small and painful reminders of their absence in the house.  Yet often, the only thing more painful than seeing these items every day may be the idea of seeing them in the bin.

If you can’t bring yourself to throw away those half-empty shampoo bottles, to-do lists, and medications, find someone who can.  Friends and extended family are often desperate to help but just don’t know how (everybody's experienced the totally unhelpful "Sorry for your Loss" comments at funerals, but that's because people care. About you. About the deceased person. And. Don't. Know. What. To. Do. Or. Say.) Think of this as one way you can ask them to help you. Tell them what you want to get rid of and ask them to throw it out and take it with them when they go, so you aren’t left staring at the bin bag.

While your friend is there, consider the “everyday reminders” that are especially distressing for you. These may be things that are particularly hard to see every day, but that you do not want to give or throw away. Grab a box or pick a room you don’t use often to put them in (or ask your friend to do it for you). These items could be anything – the scarf your wife was in the middle of knitting, your husband’s coffee mug in the cupboard, that dirty laundry basket in the laundry room, your daughter’s wellies on the porch – whatever.  Put them somewhere out-of-the-way until you are ready to face sorting through their belongings.

Getting Started

Like so many things in grief, there is no right way or wrong way to approach sorting through a Loved One’s belongings after their death. But one thing that is almost always helpful is to make a plan.

Bagging everything up and throwing it out without thinking it through? Not a good idea.

Avoiding going through items for years because you just don’t want to face it? Also not a good idea!

Whenever you decide you are ready to start planning, consider the following questions:

  • Participants: Do you want to do it alone or with support from others? If you plan to sort with others, who? Think of close family members, but also consider your Loved One's friends who may be helpful. Do you have a friend who is a good organiser? Or one who is good at helping you make decisions? If you are putting it off, tell a friend a goal date to get started so they can help you face the task.
  • People: If there are people who can't be there (for example, they now live abroad) what items would they like you to keep for them? Make sure to ask well in advance and be very specific. Throwing or giving away items that were of value to other family members can become a huge source of conflict. Often one item that has little meaning to one family member can have significant sentimental value to another family member. Never assume that you know what might be important to other members of the family.
  • Prioritise and Plan: What order do you want to go through things? Sometimes the hardest part of sorting through a Loved One’s belongings after their death is just knowing where to begin. Try your best to think through a rough order for approaching things, depending on priority. For example, if your spouse owned a small business or took care of all the household bills, then going through the office first will likely be a priority. Room-by-room often makes sense, but decide what will work best for you. Although there will be practical things that may have deadlines and consequences if not quickly addressed, equally as important is to prioritize those tasks which will help maintain your sanity. This will vary from person to person. Some people are going to feel like they are losing it if they can’t bag up everything immediately and start getting rid of it. Other people are going to want to keep everything in its place for as long as possible.
  • Pace Yourself: How much time do you want to spend at a time going through items? Sorting through a loved one’s belongings after a death can be an overwhelming process. Keep in mind that you will probably stumble upon objects you haven’t seen in a long time, and continuous reminders of the person you’ve lost. It may be tempting to want to do it all at once, but taking breaks is important so it doesn't get too overwhelming for you.

Categorise Things

Now that you are ready to start, you'll need to keep in mind a few categories for everything:

  • Keep for Me
  • Keep for Others
  • Sell
  • Donate
  • Throw Away
  • Not Sure Yet

You may want to get color-coded Post-It notes to place on larger items reflecting these categories and start boxes with the categories for the smaller items. Almost any item should fit in one of these categories. Focus on being realistic. Though it was dad’s favorite suit, if no one in your family is going to wear it, it probably does not belong in a Keep box. Although your grandmother may have cleaned and kept every yoghurt and margarine tub she every used, they probably are going to need to be recycled.

There is another category that is hugely important, and that is for items you are not sure about. It can be easy to hit a block if you get stuck on an item you really don’t know what to do with. If this happens, put it in the Not Sure Yet box and keep going. Set a limit to your “Not sure” Box so it doesn’t become out of control. For example, your limit is 10 items, Since there are 10 in the box you will need to revisit something and make a decision on it before you can add something new.

Possible Stumbling Blocks

  • The Keep Pile: You will find several challenges arise when these boxes start to fill. First, the Keep Piles become huge. It is so hard to part with belongings after a death. Especially when it feels like they’re all we have left. When the keep-pile has gotten out of control, consider the following:
    • Do you have space for it?
    • Is there multiples? Was you Loved One an avid collector? Whether it's shoes, postcards or ceramic cats, it may be impossible to imagine parting with that collection. Consider keeping just a few favorites, sharing others with friends and family, and selling or donating those that remain.
    • Can you take a photograph of the item? Some items will be extremely painful to part with, no matter how much the rational part of your brain tells you that you need to. Consider taking photos of items that are hard to part with, so you can create a memory book of photos. For especially meaningful items, such as the family childhood home your family may need to sell, consider bringing in a professional photographer to ensure that you get high quality images for your family to share.
  • Emotions: There is no getting away from it - it is going to be an emotional time. Go easy on yourself during what is surely going to be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you come across old love letters or photographs. Or it may be old newspapers your mother kept from the day you were born. Whatever it is, it can be overwhelming. Be ready to take breaks. Be ready to put things into a Keep box and sort them later – but during the sorting process is not the time to fall through the rabbit hole of memories, no matter how much we want to! Instead, consider organising a family get-together over a takeaway, where you can remember, laugh or cry over individual things and, most importantly, support each other during your grieving period.
  • Family Feelings: Just as your brother is the go-to person for anything DIY-related, your eldest sister is brilliant at sorting any legal or official issues, and your youngest sister is always there with tea & sympathy, ready to listen to your latest romantic woes, every person in your family will be affected differently by your Loved One's passing. It would be shortsighted not to acknowledge that making such emotionally charged decisions with others can cause tension in even the most cohesive and closest of families. Be accepting of comments like "I don't know where to begin. There's so much stuff" or "I feel like we're going to forget about them" or "We can't throw these things away" or "I'm not ready". You wouldn't be human if you didn't have some concern, worry, or apprehension about the process! Talking about these well ahead of time will allow participants to be heard and better understand each other. The better you understand each other, the easier it will be to work together.
  • Be Gentle with Yourself: Our best advice is to approach the experience of sorting through a Loved One’s belongings after a death with patience and flexibility. If you're doing it with others, surround yourself with people who love and support you. Even though this can be an overwhelming task, it can also be healing. Although there may be tears, there will likely be just as much memory-sharing and laughter.

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