When people die, they often leave behind a lifetime’s worth of memories and possessions.
Usually, it falls to the person’s family and friends to clean up their homes and pack up and sort out their belongings.
Depending on the size of a person’s home, how much stuff they own and how long they’ve lived in their house, the process of cleaning and packing up can be a long one.
If you’ve been given the responsibility of handling your loved one’s possessions after they’ve passed on, here’s how to cope with death and the occasionally complicated process of packing up a house.
Break Up The Project
Whether your loved one lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment or a massive, three-story home, the process of sorting through their belongings after the funeral can seem overwhelming at first.
Splitting what looks like a larger project into smaller, more manageable pieces is part of learning how to cope with death.
For example, you can decide to focus on one room at a time or on one type of object at a time, such as the person’s paperwork or personal documents.
Focusing on a single area can also help to contain the mess that is likely to develop as you sift through someone’s belongings.
If you live in the house you are cleaning, having the project contained in a single room can help you go about with your other daily responsibilities without a constant reminder of it.
If your loved one named you the executor of their will, sorting through their possessions and cleaning out their house isn’t something you need to handle on your own.
Ask other family members to step in and help you organize and clean.
“You can divide tasks up based on people’s strengths and talents,” says Michael A. Lanotte, Executive Director & CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
“For example, if a sibling or cousin is an attorney, you can ask them to sort through the deceased’s paperwork, taking out the documents that need to be kept and getting rid of the non-essential papers. Asking a person who might not have known the deceased well to help can also be useful. They can provide an objective opinion about certain possessions that might have sentimental meaning for you.”
Decide How To Divide Up Items
People often state how they want their estate and possessions divided up after their death.
If your loved one left behind a will, then part of the process of deciding how to split up their belongings might have already been taken care of.
In some cases, people don’t specify who gets what in their will but instead ask their family members to place stickers on items in the house to claim those items.
If your loved one didn’t do any of that, it’s up to you to decide what to do with their possessions.
One option is to have close family visit the house and take items they’d like to have.
That can lead to arguments, especially if there are expensive items that more than one person wants.
In the case of valuable belongings or potential heirlooms, it might be a good idea to have the items appraised to determine their value.
If one family member really wants a piece of jewelry or a valuable piece of antique furniture, a solution might be to have them split up the cost of the item and pay the other family members their share of the item.
Cleaning out a person’s house can take longer than you expected.
Don’t feel as if you need to power through the project in a day or over the course of a weekend. Take breaks from the project, both to clear your head and to give yourself some space.
“Although it’s important to pause every so often during the clean-out project, it’s also important to remember that you might be on a deadline,” says Lanotte.
“It can be helpful to create a schedule for the clean-out that will have the project finished by the time you need to vacate or sell the house, but that won’t require you to rush through the process.”
Give Yourself Some Distance
Setting up clear boundaries between the clean-out project and the rest of your life can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the process or by grief.
If your loved one lived in their own home, don’t feel that you need to stay in the house as you sort through their belongings.
Either return home at the end of each day or, if you don’t live nearby, stay in a hotel or with a friend or relative.
If the person did live with you, keep their belongings separate from the rest of your house, so that you don’t feel the need to continue the project late into the night or so that you don’t have a constant reminder of the process that lies in front of you.
Get Professional Help
It’s likely that there will be some belongings that no one in your family or immediate circle is interested in.
You’ll most likely also find some items that are past their prime and not worth keeping. You don’t have to take responsibility for hauling items to the landfill or recycling center.
You can hire a company to take care of that job for you.
You might also want to hire someone to come and evaluate any useful items that no one in your family wants.
It might also be worthwhile to hire someone to oversee a yard sale or an estate sale or auction of your loved one’s belongings.
Although it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the process of cleaning up and packing up your loved one’s home after their death, remembering to give yourself time and space and to lean on others for support will help you get through the process.