Decluttering a Loved One’s Possessions


I am updating this post. When I first wrote this post, I only had ideas from what other family members had done and research I did. After the loss of my 18 year old son last year, this subject has become more personal. So I have added what I have learned.

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 if you can let go of things.

Here are some guidelines you can use:

  • There is no timeline for decluttering a loved one’s possessions. It took us 9 months to go through my son’s room. Declutter in bite sized chunks since it can be emotionally draining.
  • It is helpful to go through the objects with someone else – another family member or close friend. You will need support.
  • Think about what you will do with the space. Knowing that we were going to create a hang out space for my daughter and her friends made it easier to get the energy to declutter.
  • 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. Or put some on the wall. Other family members may cherish having some of the pictures. Display a china plate you love. Use a piece of furniture instead of storing it.
  • We were worried about a fire ruining memorabilia so we had some of the pictures and documents copied to put on the wall and put the originals in a fire proof safe.
  • 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. If you have older relatives have them tell you the stories.
  • 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 or loved ones 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.  They are not in these possessions; the memories are in your heart.
  • Junk is junk whether it’s yours or theirs. My son had so many little metal pieces, parts to I don’t know what, and broken toys. I didn’t need to keep any of that.
  • 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. 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 effect 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


  • Love you, Beth!

    The thought of Jon still makes me cry 🙁

    You are so brave and handling it all with such grace!

  • Candace says:

    Thank you for this repost. I lost my husband July 2010 and my 21 year old son in Nov. 2010 – both to suicide. My 27 year old son moved home and consequently everything of his father’s and brother’s got moved into his brother’s room. I have not been able to declutter yet, though it has been on my mind. Thank you for the advice, it will help me to get started.

  • Mary Owens says:

    If you aren’t ready to get rid of your loved ones things, just shut the door to the room and don’t worry about it until you feel you are ready. There is no time requirement on this process.
    When you are ready it may be easier to have a friend or other relative (not your son) help you get started. If you know of persons who need the items you have, then give them the items. Otherwise select a place that helps people who are victims of disaster, etc. it may be easier to give the items to them. I found it easier to give some of my husband’s clothes to persons who were victims of forest/wild fires.
    There may be items that some friends or family members would like. Ask them. If the answer is “no” then do as I said in the paragraph above. Don’t think of any of this as giving away part of a loved one.

  • Lynn says:

    I have not lost a loved one only myself. It’s hard to let go of the past no matter what. However your calendar and blog has given me new inspiration to clear out the clutter and not only find my home, but myself again.
    In 14 days I have decluttered more than I have in years. I feel like I can take on the world, but always remind myself babysteps, so I don’t get overwhelmed and give up. Thanks I think I needed to find your site!!! :o)

  • Beth says:

    Thanks so much Lynn! These are tips are so helpful Mary.

    Thank you Marcia, dear.

  • Beth says:

    What a tough time for you Candace. Blessings on you this year.

  • Maggie says:

    We lost my husband’s mom in July and his dad in August of 2011. We had to clean out his mom’s condo quickly so we could sell it and with our children, took about 4 months to do it. A lot of the furniture we donated to the Goodwill as well as many household items. It was not as hard as we thought but still very sad to say goodbye, since a lot of her things were old and pretty used up. She was a good cook so the kids and I took her pots and pans, cookbooks and kitchen items to use. Everytime we use her pots we think of the spaghetti sauce or swiss steak she made in them. Good memories. My husband kept a few pieces of her furniture to finish decorating our basement. It looks so much like her den downstairs, I am sure it is comforting to him. His dad had remarried so we didn’t have to do anything with his household and having just lost his mom, we were glad that we didn’t have to do that. My mom has been gone for 20 years and I still have photo albums and personal things of hers that I cannot discard. It is tough to say goodbye to things because they hold such dear memories.

  • Deitra says:

    Loosing a child is absolutely the worst loss any parent can suffer. Truly sorry to hear about your son.
    One thing I wish you would add to your readers is: Don’t hurry doing this. My 15 yr old son died 6 yrs ago. After he died my husband decided it best that we move back to CO (we were living in TX at the time)to be near family. I had two months to pack up a house, including his bedroom. Friends came and packed up the rest of the house while I struggled with Zach’s room. I remember having to make hasty decisions in such a grief-filled time that I look back and wish I could go back and have a re-do. Take time to mourn your loved one before attempting this task and then think carefully about your choices.

  • Lynette says:

    Your post couldn’t have come at a better time. I lost my mum 5 years ago. No doubt about it but she was a bowerbird and I have boxes and boxes of nicknacks and furniture and paperwork etc, that I find so hard to go through. Not only because I have lots of other projects I want to concentrate on but because it can get really upsetting.
    Only last weekend did I refind your website, print out the calendar for January and begin the job of decluttering the house which was becoming overbearing and claustrophobic. A friend who lost her mum 4 years ago, has joined me in working through the objects, one per day. Making huge inroads already.
    Thank you and many, many good thoughts sent your way. It’s hard to lose anyone, let alone a child.

  • Beth says:

    Wishing you well as you declutter your Mum’s possessions, Lynette. I am so glad you have someone supporting you along the way as you support her.

  • Linda M. Stacy says:

    Thank you so much, I have been crying today after a year of keeping it together and am at my wits end. I made a good start when my husband died a year ago but haven’t even scratched the surface of what needs to be gone. He was a shopper and a collector. We raised our grandchildren and so he had lots of time to shop for all of us since he enjoyed looking at everything. Fortunately early last summer we needed to clear out a bedroom for our expected Great-Granddaughter so he went through many, many boxes and just donated things. Unfortunately there is much left to do and I’m so stuck.

    Thank you for sharing your ideas, I hope I can begin finding my life again.

  • Jen says:

    A friend of mine shared with me this idea to help let go of things (that was a good, practical solution for me – a nostalgic history buff from a family of collectors and sometimes impractical recyclers): create a memory book.

    Purchase a really nice notebook (or decorate one yourself) that you really love the look and feel of. Take photos of all the possessions that have meaning or memories attached that you know you are physically unable to keep, or will be giving away to other friends/family members. Print the photos and stick them into the notebook (one to a page) and write a little (or a lot) about what the item is, where it came from, what your memories of it are and why it is imporant to you. If you’re crafty and into scrapbooking you can go all out, but a photo and a brief caption is also enough sometimes.

    You don’t have to do this all at once – in fact it’s nice to be able to site down and write about the items one at a time as I find that once I start writing about them a whole lot of extra memories re-surface that I want to capture. Sitting out in the garden is one of my favourite places to do this. But, if you do need to physically dispose of possessions – even just to put into storage), taking the photos immediately is a good way to create an instant record.

    Then, whenever you are feeling sad or nostalgic you can spend time with your memory book. You don’t have to store, maintain and worry about that physical stuff and t’s also helpful for being able to let go of things.

    Most importantly though you can do this at your own pace and enjoy the process of remembering.

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