Decluttering a Loved One’s Posessions


Mary said, "I am so bogged down with stuff. I need help deciding what to keep and what to purge. I have 14 boxes of photos and things from my parents house and am having a hard time deciding how to get rid of things and what things are important to keep."

vintage photo

First of all, no one, not decluttering gurus, best friends or anyone else can tell you what to get rid of and what is important to keep. Only you know the stories behind your possessions and how they affect you.

There is no "should." You don’t have to get rid of anything.

But, if you feel you need more space for your current life, you’ll feel better is something goes.

Here are some guidelines you can use:

  • If you have things you’ve deemed important, but they are getting scrunched in boxes somewhere it may be time to do something about them. Put the pictures in archival photo albums or have them scanned into a digital format so they won’t fade away. Other family members may cherish pictures. Display a china plate you love.
  • Pictures that are duplicates, out of focus, of something you don’t even recognize or don’t bring up any fond memories you may consider letting go of.
  • You can ask yourself if something fits into your current lifestyle and goals. People can hang onto only so much of their past before it impedes on their present.
  • If there are collections you enjoy, they can be in a curio cabinet instead of in a box. Or on shelves on the walls. See what of your parents can be incorporated into what you already have. 
  • Things you won’t use, don’t like, or bring up bad memories are good candidates for being decluttered.
  • Work on not feeling guilty about letting go of someone else’s possessions. They bought them because they like them. That doesn’t mean you have to like them as well.
  • Old magazines are usually archived so you might want to sell or let go of them.
  • Is the stuff bringing you closer to the life you want or further from it?

You don’t have to let go of clutter all at once. Be gentle with yourself. You may start by making one pass through of things that don’t have much emotional attachment. Maybe put them in self storage. Then the next time through you realize you don’t need or want a few more things. Each time you declutter, you let go of more because you enjoy the freeing affect of having more space to live your life.

You find throughout your life and different transitions you will want to declutter. It isn’t a one time event. You continue to bring in and let go as you grow and create a life you want.

Vintage photo posted by ozfan


  • Absolutely fantastic things to think about when decluttering sentimental items. Thank you!

  • Meme says:

    this is excellent timing for me as I now need to go through dear hubby’s things and things that were ours but I just need to let go-I cannot live in someone else’s memories- I will bookmark this so that when I get bogged down in the grief of disposal I will have something to reach out too
    hugs from Meme

  • Regina says:

    I was really drawn to this article. My husband passed away in June 2006 and I’m STILL not able to let alot of his things go. On top of that my mother passed away in June 2008 and now I have to ‘clean out’ her house so I can sell it. She had alot of her parents’ things which I also treasure. Needless to say I’ve only taken a few small things out of her house since her death. There’s just SO much ‘stuff’ between the two of them it might be easier to just abandon it all and take off for St Thomas!! But of course I can’t do that…or can I?!

  • Regina, you don’t have to go to St. Thomas. But you can take your favorite things from your mother’s house and hire someone to sell the rest.

    My mother died in 2004. My father wanted to keep us to keep everything. I took a lot of things, and am still de-accessioning (as they say in the museum business) as I see what things fit in my life.

  • Lynn says:

    When you actually go through this stuff – you often find out it is falling apart(stuff degrades), smells (evn in a clean house), or had developed spots and stains. I am going through my possessions because I plan a major move overseas – so can’t afford to store much or to move it. I take pictures of things to have a reference point to look at latter. Then destroy it or sell it or give it away. It is hard – I am still working on it. And some things I do miss. But if I don’t do it – I can’t move on to my dream life. And someone else will one day have to do it for me – so I better just go ahead and do it myself.

  • Beth says:

    That’s so true Lynn. Wishing you well on your trip!

  • Michaela Stephens says:

    When getting rid of a deceased loved one’s things, emotion is very strong and memories come up again and again. The memories are important and deserve to be preserved. Emotions are important and deserve to be validated. In order to validate and preserve emotions and memories, a good way is to use a diary or a journal and record the memories and emotions that are associated with the things. “I remember when he wore this bathing suite when we went on a cruise together. That was very fun. He got terribly sunburned and I spent an evening slathering aloe vera gel on his back and shoulders.” It is good to record memories that are specific as possible.

    Some objects may evoke few memories, so little can be said. Other objects may require a lot of writing. For the objects that evoke lots of memories, it is also helpful to describe the object carefully so that a mental image will be formed from reading about it. Writing helps to release the pent-up feelings.

  • Sue says:

    My father passed in 1986, we were very close. My brother passed 2 years later at the age of 35, he was 12 years older than me. In 2005 I lost my mom, leaving me the sole heir of my family’s possessions, including the home my parents owned for 40 years. I currently live on the East coast and the house was on the West. Cleaning out 40 years of memories was agonizing the first couple of days and it was a huge job that took 2 weeks and lots of manpower. I finally had a huge cry and a good talk with my girlfriend and here is what I did. I gave the 4 family members that came to help, anything they wanted, other than my mother’s jewelry. I also took a grandfather clock that my dad built by hand, a book case that I loved, pictures, and paperwork. Anything that wasn’t taken was sent off to Salvation Army. There are many, many times that I think of and remember items that we packed, but to this day I am still so glad that I let everything go rather than bringing it all with me. All that “stuff” would have just been packed away somewhere else, costing space and money.

    Now as I contemplate moving back to the West coast, I am again faced with de-cluttering and I’m looking at that clock, which has been in storage since the day I brought it back with me, 5 years ago. It’s nothing I could ever see in my own home, not my style. I think it’s time to let the clock go. Maybe the book cabinet too, and the pictures will definitely go to another family member after I put some on CD.

    As hard as it seems to let “things” and “stuff” go, you will find that it’s usually always stuff you never use anyway. These days we tend to store things, which can cost money. It’s better to let the items go now rather than have to deal with it later. After all, usually our “stuff” goes out of sight and out of mind… the second you pack it away, you never look at it again until the day you clean or move. No need to hang on to “things”, you have the beautiful, wonderful memories, which never spoil nor get old or mildewed. 🙂

  • Joyce Luzier says:

    Thank you so much for this article. My husband also had an old clock that had been built by hand and he decided to get rid of it. At first I thought, how could you, but now I realize we are so much better off without it in our home!! Thank you for your input!!! I feel so much better now about it.

  • Maggie says:

    My husband’s mother just passed away on Thursday. She went into the hospital/ then Hospice, and never went back to her home. We now have to clean out her home to sell it. My husband wants to go through the house and give away all her clothes without looking at anything. I think this is a mistake since some items could be damaged or stained and no one would want them. I think he just wants to get this over with and move on. He is an only child and this is overwhelming to him. We will work on this together and make the best decisions we can. I found this particular info today and it was a blessing. I especially liked the point that just because the family member loved something and kept it, doesn’t mean we have to. This really frees up some mental space to focus on the things we do like and want to keep.
    Thank you for all your practical advice.

  • Beth says:

    I am sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. I am glad this is helping you.

  • Heartbroken Daughter says:

    After my Mom passed I realized I had inherited her horrible cluttering too. It became so hard to let go of these ‘things’ because of all the memories attached. Finally I decided to take digital photos of the items. That way I will always have reference to those memories all in a palm size storage.

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