They say the only thing certain in life is death. And let me tell ya, after coping with the losses of three of my loved ones this year, that realization hit me like a ton of bricks.
Anyone who’s had to go through the pain of losing a loved one – and figure out how to sort through their belongings after they pass – knows that it comes with a buttload of challenges. Things like:
- not knowing where to even start in sorting the clutter
- powerful waves of grief that interrupt the decluttering process
- the reminders of your loved one around every corner
- the guilt of parting with items that you know you won’t use, but were important to your loved one
- and sometimes even tension with family members over specific sentimental pieces (especially since old family dynamics can resurface when emotions are high – helloooo middle child syndrome!)
Frankly, nothing can make this situation less sucky. Because in my opinion, grief is pretty much the suckiest of all the emotions. But there are certain things that can keep the situation from feeling even worse. In this post, I share some of my strategies for decluttering after a death, from practical tips you can implement right away to deeper emotional work that may take more time.
If you’re also looking for general strategies on how to cope during a personal crisis, here’s a post where I asked 21 experts to share their best tips of how to live intentionally in times of stress.
Please let me say that if you’re needing to read this, I’m so sorry for your loss. My thoughts really are with you, friend. And even though decluttering after a death is never easy, I hope these strategies can help in some small way.
1. THE STUFF IS NOT THE LEGACY
Want to know one of the biggest game changers for my own decluttering after a loss? Here it is. Legacies do not live in our stuff.
In my experience, the stuff is merely a symbol – a placeholder – of a quality you admired about them. A baking tray is less about the tray itself, and more about the recipes they taught you. It’s about the quality time spent in the kitchen together – the sharing of experience through food.
In the same way, a souvenir from their travels is less about the object itself. Or even the specific memory it evokes. Instead, i’s a reflection of their adventurous spirit.
Here’s the thing. If you’ll use the object regularly and think of your loved one fondly every time you do, then by all means keep it. But it can be freeing to realize that you don’t need to keep it in order to honour their legacy. You can declutter the baking tray and honour and remember them by baking their signature cookie recipe every holiday season. Or let go of the souvenir and celebrate them by taking an impromptu trip to somewhere new.
2. START EARLY
I think the natural tendency is to put off going through someone’s belongings until you feel ready. But the thing is, you’ll never really feel ready, you know?
It can be so tempting to just chuck everything into storage (or hide it away at home) to deal with at a later date – but by trying to avoid the negative emotions, we rob ourselves of the ability to feel, process, and start moving past them.
Obviously I’m not saying you need to declutter right away, or even in the same week or month. But it’s important to realize that it’s going to be emotionally taxing regardless of when you start, and postponing it won’t actually make it any easier – and it can actually be super useful in helping you work through your grief.
3. START SMALL
Begin by decluttering a category of things that might be less emotionally charged, especially at the beginning when the waves of grief are the most powerful and close together. Maybe it’s their thumbtacks. Or their charging cables. Or their Tupperware. If you come across anything particularly sentimental in the process, set it aside and come back to it at a later date.
If you’re new to decluttering, I also recommend grabbing my free guide. It’ll help you through the basics of how to start, what mistakes to avoid, and how to develop a clear vision of your decluttering goals:
4. RIDE THE WAVE, BABY
You know what’s funny? According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, a wave of sadness only takes 90 seconds from start to finish… but only if you allow yourself to really notice it and feel it. That means that the negative emotions that we spend days (and even months or years?) trying to avoid and distract ourselves from could actually be felt and released in a matter of seconds!
Honestly, it works. For example, I’ve started letting myself cry – like, UGLY cry – when I need to. I’ll feel the grief in all its glory, and then starts to fade within a minute or two. Now, at the start of the grieving process, I might have a bajillion of those little waves in a day… but gradually, they get further apart.
The key is to let yourself feel it fully. So if you’re decluttering and you feel the urge to cry, don’t hold back. Stop everything you’re doing, cry as hard as you need to, stop once it passes, and carry on. Also maybe grab a snack and some water, because crying all the time is dehydrating AF. And maybe practice a little mindfulness while you’re at it?
5. LET GO OF THE GUILT
6. TAKE LOTS OF BREAKS
Self-care is always important, but it’s even more so when you’re grieving. All of these are non-negotiables in my mind. So if you can, opt for slow and steady rather than powering through, so that you can rest up and not burn out.
7. NORMAL DECLUTTERING METHODS MIGHT NOT WORK
I’m a sucker for Gilmore Girls. Now, the revival was disappointing in a number of ways (but let’s save that discussion for our next round of patio beers, shall we?). That said, one of the most compelling aspects of it for me was watching Emily Gilmore navigate the grief surrounding her late husband.
There’s this one scene, for example, when she’s cavalierly getting rid of all her possessions – her furniture, her clothes, practically everything in sight, because it doesn’t “spark joy.”
And look, I’ve got nothing against Marie Kondo’s methodology, because I know it works for plenty of folks! My point is that grief can really fuck with the joy-detecting process. It’s like our ability to determine what sparks joy becomes unreliable: either we feel no joy about any of our stuff, like Emily, or we confuse joy with our love for the person and end up keeping everything.
Honestly, the same goes for many decluttering strategies I’ve seen. Like you know how people say you should declutter something if you haven’t used it in six months? Yeah, that doesn’t work so well in this situation.
When you’re decluttering in bereavement, remember that no two people’s grief is the same. So a method that works well for someone else may not be right for you, and that’s absolutely okay.
8. BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF
I’m going to say something kind of obvious, but stick with me here.
There’s no such thing as an A+ in grieving.
Everyone feels things at their own pace. That means you’re no better or worse of a person based on how deeply you feel. Or even how quickly this process goes. The key is to find self-compassion, because you’re coping with a lot right now – and in this moment, you’re doing the best you can.
As much as you probably wish it could be, progress likely won’t be consistent or linear. You’re going to find things that trigger grief, so give yourself lots of space for that. And while it’s totally fine to have general goals (like, I want to spend this week going through the living room), try not to stick too heavily to a pre-determined schedule. After all, grief just doesn’t work like that.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON DECLUTTERING AFTER A DEATH
Decluttering ain’t easy at the best of times, but when you throw grief into the mix – well, it’s a lot to deal with. It can be overwhelming and guilt-inducing and stressful, and can leave us feeling helpless, confused, and wanting to scream into a pillow. (Or is that just me?!)
While we never really “get over” a loss, learning how to declutter after a death can be an important step in finding more peace. And by pacing ourselves, working through our guilt, and strengthening our self compassion, the process becomes more straightforward.
I hope the tips above on how to declutter while grieving will help you feel a little more in control, and will be the first step for healing through the process of letting go. (And for more decluttering help, you know where to look.)