by Susan McCarthy
When it comes to emptying your parent’s home, you may think that you’ll fit in the work when you can. However, if you don’t want this project to drag for years, start by answering this one question which can help reduce your stress.
When my father was diagnosed with Lewy-body dementia, my brother and I knew that dad wouldn’t be returning to his home. My mother had died a couple of years earlier and so the house would be empty. Also, we didn’t know when we’d need to sell the house to cover dad’s pricey care.
Although the house was packed, I figured that I’d quickly work through everything, depositing it in the Dumpster or taking it to the local donation center. (When I say packed, we had to sidle to move around the bedrooms. And once when my brother visited with his golden retriever and told the dog to lie down in the living room, the available cleared floor space was filled with dog.)
I was a mess emptying the house. I’d stop in at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. with the thought that I’d just do a few tasks and the next thing I knew it was nearly noon. I’d hadn’t eaten breakfast and I’d consumed little more than a few sips of water. My body ached from lugging things out of the house for hours without break.
And there was the emotional toll of dealing with the results of my parents’ likely hoarding disorder and my confusion about all the things in the house.
In retrospect, I can see I lacked boundaries by not establishing when I would do the work. While the work still would have needed to get done, I would have been kinder to myself and likely reduced my stress by working with a schedule.
Why would a schedule reduce stress? One, I’d know when I was working on the house. Two, I’d know when I wasn’t working on the house and focus on other tasks related to my personal and professional life. Also, I would have known that this wasn’t the endless task that it felt like…it would have an end.
How to Stay Focused when Emptying Your Parent’s Home
This one technique, determining your ‘when,’ can help to keep your stress levels down by creating boundaries between this project and the rest of your life. You’ll start off with a big ‘when’ and then work down to identifying more specific sessions for emptying your parent’s home.
Identify a Deadline
Even before you start, you can identify a deadline for emptying the estate. In some cases, a deadline may be set for you. The landlord of the apartment wants it emptied by the end of the month. The family can’t afford to pay the insurance and taxes on the house for more than a couple of months. Your boss can only give you so many days off before they expect you back at work.
While a deadline is stressful, it also brings a lot of clarity to this process. If you have eight rooms and three storage space to empty, and your deadline is in three months, you know you have approximately a week to clear through everything in a room. If three weeks in you’re still sorting through the contents of the kitchen, it’s clear you’ll need more help to finish on time.
Without a deadline, you may figure that you’ll do the work when you have a chance. But when is that? You’re life was likely busy before and now you’re dealing with the draining emotions connected to losing your parent.
Chances are that sorting through your parent’s lifetime accumulation of stuff isn’t something that you’re looking forward to doing. Without a deadline, or at the very least a schedule of when you’ll work on the house, chances are that you’ll always find something else to do.
Create a Schedule for Emptying Your Parent’s House
As I mentioned, when you have a deadline, it’s much easier to see how to break down the enormous project of clearing out a house. Without a deadline, you can set the same schedule, but it won’t seem as relevant. It will be easier for other things to take precedence.
If you have a deadline set by circumstances (the realtor wants to take pictures of the cleaned-out house by a specific date), then you can break the task of emptying the house into rooms and storage spaces. If there are rooms with less stuff in them, then you might group a couple together. On the other hand, you might want to count a storage space like the attic as a two-part project if there's a lot of stuff there.
When you’re on a tight schedule to clear the house, then you might want to plan to sort things like photographs and papers toward the end of the process as these are things you can take to your house to finish later.
With a deadline set, create a rough schedule of action – kitchen this week, a bedroom the next. This allows you to see if you have a chance for meeting your deadline.
If you finish a room ahead of your schedule, move onto the next space. But if a room has more stuff in it….or things that require greater care to sort…and runs behind schedule, be ready to adjust your plan and shift next to a room with less stuff that will help you get back on track.
Decide Exactly When You’ll Do the Work
Once you have a rough idea of what you want to accomplish each week, put onto your calendar the days and hours you’ll work in the house. One thing that I did wrong when emptying my parent’s house was never deciding when I’d finish for the day.
I’d start around 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning and then end up pushing myself for five hours. I’d be exhausted and would struggle to be productive the rest of the day. I’d tell myself that the next day I should stop after two or three hours, but I never really committed to that. The next day, I’d continue to work to overtiredness.
Writing down my schedule…and what I planned on doing after working at my parents’ house…would have likelier encouraged me to stop and segue to other areas of my life.
When you know what you need to accomplish during a week, estimate how much time you think it will take (and add on fifty percent more time as a healthy buffer). Then decide what days you'll do the work and then what part of the day you’ll sort things in the house.
If you’re thinking, “I know what needs to get done this week, I’ll find time to do it when I can,” think about how that works (or, likelier, doesn’t) with other tasks in your life.
And, as important as that start time is the end time. If you find yourself pushing past the end time, consider scheduling to do something else afterward (grocery shopping, taking a walk with a friend) that encourages you to stop.
Another benefit to setting an end time is that you know the task isn’t supposed to be endless, which will help you focus with less stress.
Choose the Specific Tasks You’ll Work On
So now you know that you’re going to put in three hours from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday to work on emptying the kitchen. You know you can’t do the entire room in three hours, so choose the specific tasks that you’ll work on. For example, identify six cabinets that you want to sort through that evening.
By narrowing in the task even more (from ‘room’ to specific areas in the room), you’ll avoid drifting around the room, sorting few a few things here and a few things there.
And, bonus, you’ll see what you’re accomplishing because you’ll be completing these smaller, more manageable tasks.
Narrow Your Schedule from a Deadline to Specific Hours
Knowing when you'll work on emptying your parent’s house can reduce some of your stress surrounding the task. Instead of telling yourself that you’ll get around to doing the work when you can, you’ll know you have an appointment with the house.
You’ll align your schedule with your siblings or the others who will help you. You won’t have questions or feel guilty when you spend time tending to your own home or career.
Moving from a deadline that may be weeks or months in the future to focusing on the tasks you’ll complete during the hours you're working today, helps you to not only stay focused and on schedule, but also gives you a sense of satisfaction that you are accomplishing the tasks.
Without a schedule, you may suddenly find the deadline on the horizon and then you won’t be able to give the care you want to give to sorting through your parent’s things. Give yourself the time and space to do this task to honor your parent’s memory while being kind to your own needs.
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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.