by Susan McCarthy
After a parent dies and you realize that you’ll be cleaning out their home, you may find yourself wandering through the house, wondering where to start. Let go of these six things from your parent’s estate and you’ll clear space to delve into more meaningful items.
When you’re clearing through your parent’s lifetime accumulation of stuff, chances are that you feel overwhelmed by how sentimental you feel toward so many things in the house. However, you can end up a nervous wreck if you start treating everything as equally important because you won’t feel comfortable letting go of anything.
And this may sound harsh, but if everything is important, nothing is.
If you treat everything as equally important, then that diminishes the things that are truly special. Instead of some things standing out as meaningful keepsakes that you put on display so you can see them all the time, you cram everything into boxes because you have no clue what to do will all this stuff.
So below I’m going to list six types of things in your parent’s house that you can let go of. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that you’ll feel no emotions whatsoever while you sort these items into keep, give away, trash, or donate boxes.
However, I want you to know that when you can take a deep breath and acknowledge that these gadgets, tchotchkes, and knickknacks aren’t meaningful then you create space for the things that truly express your love for your parent and desire to honor your parent’s memory.
What this means is that you can feel less overwhelmed by cleaning away things that can provide a visual distraction. In other words, you’re looking at all this stuff and you’re worried over making decisions about it all. However, there will be a lot of items in the house that don’t deserve that deeper level of attention. When you get rid of these things, you can focus on the items that require more thought.
What Do You Want to Keep?
Knowing what you want to keep is handy information to have in mind before thinking about cleaning out your parent’s house. This means, what sentimental keepsakes, useful items, and family heirlooms are the most important things that you want to take from the house?
Instead of figuring out what you want to keep while you’re sorting through the contents of the house, you take some time beforehand to recall meaningful memories and then connect items to those memories.
Starting with your memories helps you link those stories to items as opposed to putting all the emphasis on things. And if you’re afraid that you’re going to miss something, don’t make this technique a limiting rule. If you find something and you’re wondering how you could have possibly forgotten it, then hold onto it. (Also, if you find things that you want to keep just because you like them, well keep those too.)
You can use this technique with everyone in the family who’ll be receiving things from the house. Have them list what they want before they start going through the contents of the house. This isn’t about hunting down things with financial value.
For example, someone may want the wooden spoon your mother used all the time when cooking. Someone else may have fond memories of using the stapler on your father’s desk. Others may look at these items and see stuff that can get tossed. But it’s the memories connected to the items that are the draw.
Also, keep in mind that it’s difficult to love a lot of stuff. I’ll say it again if everything is important then nothing is important. Choosing what is special to you as opposed to thinking that everything must be important since your parent owned it, allows you to highlight those items by putting them on display. If you keep too much stuff, then chances are it will stay packed in boxes.
Is something that important to you if you don’t need to see it, use it, or interact with it?
Six Things to Declutter from Your Parent’s Estate
Duplicate Items. Have you ever forgotten where you stored something and then went out and bought a replacement screwdriver or meat thermometer? Chances are that your parents did too. This means that you’ll find duplicates of these functional items.
If the items are in good condition, then sell them, give them away, or donate them. Don’t worry about trying to figure out which was your mother or father’s favorite. Even things like duplicate photos have a purely functional element to them. Your parents probably figured that they’d give the duplicates to someone else, but no one ever looked for their own copy of those photographs.
There may be a few duplicate items that you feel sentimental over, but chances are that keeping one item, will provide you the clutter-free emotional connection that you desire.
Things with Excessive Quantities. Mugs, towels, cans of soup, and so on. Some of the items may have been gifts or hand me downs while other things were on sale. Or maybe your parents were like mine and held onto every sheet and towel they ever received or bought no matter how worn out it became.
You aren’t obligated to keep some of the items; it’s okay to let go of everything, either giving it to someone who can use the items or donating the things to an organization.
I’ll say from experience, don’t waste a lot of time trying to get into your parent’s head and figure out why they have forty-plus cans of tuna. Yup, they had 72 towels, 43 mugs, 107 whatevers. If you and your siblings are up to it, roll your eyes and have a laugh at your parent’s quirks. (And then make a note to clear through that drawer in your own house that’s so filled with socks that it not longer shuts.)
Favors and Freebies. Your parents may have felt obligated to keep party favors from events they attended because they saw these items as gifts. They may have felt that it would have been disrespectful to get rid of these trinkets since the giver of the party had given so much thought to selecting these mementos.
They may have also treated the invitations to these events as keepsakes of their attendance. While the individuals connected to that birthday party, baby shower, or wedding, may want to hold onto keepsakes of their special day, is this really an important item to save if your parent merely attended the event?
Favors are meant to be a thank you for sharing someone’s special day. Offering that favor completes that task.
Other giveaway items are freebies usually acquired at events, conferences, and even as thank you gifts from businesses.
Again, it’s easy to slide into the mindset that these are things to keep because they were received as a gift. Chances are that your parents had this mindset and have pens, mugs, keychains, water bottles, tee shirts, and other items emblazoned with business logos.
If you don’t want to toss these items, give them away.
Broken, Stained, Worn Out Items. We want to be frugal and environmentally conscious, so we think we should get a bit more use from an item before getting rid of it. Your parents came from that era where they downgrade a tee shirt that got stained to something that they wore when gardening. When the shirt got a few holes in it, then it may have been kept as a cleaning rag.
Your parents may have held onto broken, stained, and worn-out items because they figured they’d get around to rewiring that lamp or replacing the buttons on a shirt. You may be thinking that you could do these tasks.
Again, throwing things in the trash can seem wasteful but there are times when that is the appropriate option for items. You already have so much to do in relation to your parent’s estate, the last thing you need to add to your plate is the tasks that never left your parent’s to-do list.
Outdated Entertainment. When Disney started releasing its movies on VHS oh so many years ago, my aunt would buy a copy for her daughters to watch and she also bought two more copies, one for each daughter to use when they had children.
I’m thinking you can guess what happened with all these VHS tapes. If you’re thinking, well, they were all replaced by DVDs, in duplicate, you are correct. And now, with streaming, how many people want to hold onto those space-consuming DVDs?
The same goes for audio cassettes, 8-track tapes, and CDs. Your parents may have kept upgrading their technology because they felt this was the thing to do (and they didn’t want to be accused of being old when they asked about getting a cassette player in the last car they bought).
If the technology can still be used, donate it. If it’s out of date, find out if it can go in the trash or if you need to pay for an item’s proper disposal.
I’d even add books to this category. Unless you have excellent condition first editions, chances are that most of the books your parents owned can be donated to your local Friends of the Library group and sold at a book sale.
It doesn’t matter whether your parents read these books or not. Pass them along so they can find new owners. Out of date encyclopedias and textbooks may find takers in makers who’ll use the items in a variety of art and craft projects.
Supplies and Tools from Hobbies and Interests. In your parent’s home, you may also find items connected to a hobby they engaged in near the time or their death or things from interests long ago. These items may be difficult to give up because you know they devoted time and energy to using these things.
However, if you don’t participate in this hobby, then what will you do with boxes of these items stored in your attic? Instead, find someone who can use and appreciate the tools and supplies of this art. If you want a memento of your parent’s interest, you could create a shadowbox that incorporates photos of your parent engaging in their hobby or of their completed projects. Maybe you could incorporate some of the materials of their craft in this box or a small sample of an unfinished project.
As someone who’s been thrilled to received bins and bags of yarn from friends and acquaintances cleaning out parent’s homes, know that you can best honor your parent’s memory by passing along the hobby supplies they can no longer use.
Let Go of these Things from Your Parent’s Estate
Just because I listed types of items that I think will be simple to let go of doesn’t mean that you’ll find it easy to get rid of these things. You may remember watching those VHS tapes or DVDs with your parents and you’re having an emotional experience going through them while your spouse or daughter are rolling their eyes at your indecision.
Even your siblings have their own experiences of different events you all shared with your parents. Some activity treasured by one person may be considered a minor event by another’s life. All of this comes down to “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” So, if my categories of items don’t work for you, create your own.
Let go of these things and give them away, donate them, sell them, or toss them, as appropriate to the specific items.
If you’re struggling with where to start the process of cleaning out a deceased parent’s home, get your free Empty the House Starter Guide and learn how to create a flexible PLAN to do what you need to do.
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Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.