by Susan McCarthy
After your final parent dies, your emotions are raw and yet you’ll still have things to do to close the estate. One of the most time-consuming and energy-draining tasks will be clearing out their home. Assessing your options when emptying mom and dad’s house can help give you a sense of control. When you realize that there is more than one option out there, you’ll do what’s right for the time, energy, and attention you can give to this difficult task.
You’ve experienced that moment of walking into your parent’s house and thinking, “they aren’t returning.” When I had that thought, my mother had died a couple of years earlier and now my father had been diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia. He wouldn’t be returning to his home of 37 years.
I had a lot to do and so many phone calls I was dragging myself through the days on sugar and caffeine. In some cases, I knew what I needed to do (make doctor appointment); in other cases, I was assaulted by a to-do list of tasks all demanding my attention at once. (Yeah, that doesn’t work very well…as you may have experienced.)
One problem I had was feeling as if I was being driven from task to task with no wiggle room. And while that may have been the case for some tasks, clearing out the house and deciding what to do with all these things was within my control.
And, I’m thinking, that it’s within your control as well.
With tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of items to sort through this task may feel out of control. (If you’re freaking out imagining all those zeros, indicating how much stuff your parents have in the house, I’m pretty certain that the researcher who were trying to figure out how many things people owned were counting things like pens and toothbrushes as single items.)
One way to gain some control is to assess your options. Instead of feeling as if you have to, should, or must do anything, noticing that you have options can help you feel that you have say in your actions and what you do.
When you’re faced with family, friends, and well-meaning individuals (yours truly included) telling you what you should do, stepping back and seeing these as options instead of things you are locked into doing, creates a small space of power for you where you learn to trust your own intuition and actions.
Instead of looking for the one, best way to handle the things in your parent's house, you'll see possibilities that don't feel so limiting.
Identify What You Can Do with Your Parent’s Possessions
Everyone will offer their opinions. Sell everything you can and make money to pay your parent’s bills or to divide among family. Or perhaps the advice will be to give away and donate everything because you’ll clean out the house faster.
Another option is to keep everything. Put it into storage…either a rented unit or your own home. You could also choose to do a combination of these actions or discover and alternative that I haven’t mentioned.
Assessing your options for your parent’s possessions means that you can stop staring at everything while the thought, “what am I supposed to do with all of this” runs through your head on a constant loop.
Make a few decisions, even if you change them or fine tune them as you get more information. Consider if your parent donated to a particular group. Did that group accept money or items? If items, what from the house would benefit this organization?
Do you have the help to prepare and run a yard sale? Are you comfortable (and perhaps eager) to release control and hire an estate agent to pull together a sale?
As you seek out advice (and receive unsolicited opinions), consider if these options align with the time, energy, and attention you have to give. Listen for “must,” “should,” and “have to.” Really? Ask yourself, is there another option?
If you don’t know what you’ll do with the things in the house then you’ll have a difficult time sorting through things. You’ll look for the things that you want to keep, but that won’t answer what to do with everything else.
So, before you go any further, question what you’d like to do with the things in the house. There’s no wrong answer. If you have a week to empty the house and you don’t want to pay to move everything and then pay to store it, then you may look to donating the items. If the local donation center can’t take more than a carload of items, then you might haul everything outside with a big FREE sign on it and then pay to have the remaining items hauled away.
When you consider your options, you’re also staying flexible in your actions. If you’re locked into what you must do but that isn’t a viable possibility in the moment, then you’ll end up stuck and overwhelmed.
My guide, Rehome Mom & Dad’s Stuff: What to Do with What You Inherit, goes into specific options for selling items and offers links to options for donating and giving away items. It doesn’t list every option in the U.S., but it can help you get things to the people and places where they’ll be useful and appreciated.
Avoid Getting Bogged Down in Trying to Make The ‘Best’ Decision
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you may decide that it would be best to wait until you’re in a better place emotionally to make decisions. And, yes, right now you may not only be dealing with your own emotions but that of your children, siblings, and others who were close to your parent.
Putting things into boxes and setting them aside until you are ready may feel like the right thing to do. But keep in mind that you’ll always feel emotional about the loss of your parent. In six months, you won’t be thinking, “I’m so glad all those emotions are settled and resolved.”
Waiting to sort through everything could mean that you’re not only dealing with your emotions about the loss of your parent, but you’ll be experiencing the feelings of not wanting to deal with the feelings that will arise when you go through your parent’s stuff.
Yes, your feelings will center on your dread of feeling your feelings.
Know there is no best decision. You may have some things that you don’t know what to do with right now. That’s fine. But be honest with yourself if your thought is to box up everything so you can deal with it when things are easier, question how you think you’ll feel in six months, a year, five years, and so on.
The way I see it, making the decision to not put things into storage (be it your basement or rented storage), is the final loving act you can do for your parents. Moving their stuff on to new homes builds a legacy for your parents.
Their stuff shouldn’t languish in boxes. Instead, their dishes can get used by someone setting up their first home. A couple can showcase a newly acquired collection of vintage barware at the parities they host. A crafter ecstatically sorts through a bin of yarn, imagining the projects they’ll create and gift to others. Someone new to town gets a great deal on everything they need to work in their garden.
Your parents’ stuff can benefit so many people. However, trying to make thousands of ‘best’ decisions will wear you out. When you burn out your decision making you may end up throwing everything in a dumpster, just to be done with all the work or you may put things into storage where items will never get used and may ultimately get thrown out by an overwhelmed and frustrated future generation.
You can only do what you can do right now.
Consider How Much Time You Can Devote to The Process of Getting Things to New Homes
The Internet will do so much more than link you the websites of charities and sites that sell items. You can look online for reviews of sites you aren’t familiar with to see if people are pleased with the results that they get interacting with these different organizations.
If you will be selling many items online, look for tips from bloggers who can guide you to getting the best results on specific sites. On one site, you may do better including more photos while items on another site get more attention when you use a longer title with more descriptive words.
However, don’t get bogged down in this research. Remember, there is no ‘best’ way to disperse items to new homes.
Perhaps your biggest consideration is how much time you’ll have to devote to getting items to new homes. Emptying your parent’s estate shouldn’t take you years (unless, perhaps, if they had multiple houses, storage sheds, and acres that were filled with years of accumulation).
Remember, every weekend you spend sorting through your parents’ bookshelves, craft room, closets, and basement is a weekend you won’t have for making memories for your own life.
I emptied my parents’ attic and sections of the garage and basement, along with the main part of the house over a couple of months, leading up to a yard sale. I probably put in close to 200 hours on this project – yes, it took over my life. But there were still tools and equipment in the basement and garage that my brother (who knew more about this type of stuff) had to go through.
Selling things takes time – taking pictures, writing descriptions, keeping track of the items that are up for sale as well as when the sales will end. You may have to drive to consignment stores or to the post office when things need to be shipped.
Only you and your family can decide what avenues to take and if the time is worth the potential results.
Steps You Can Take when Rehoming Mom and Dad’s Stuff
If boxes are piling up in a room because you don’t know where they are headed, it’s time to make some decisions. Schedule a pickup date for that the pile of boxes set aside for a charity. Set a date for a yard sale.
Release the idea that you have to find the best new home for each of your parent’s possessions. This isn’t being disrespectful. It’s helping to get things into the hands of the people who can use and appreciate the items while they are still current and in good condition.
And don't forget to get a copy of the guide, Rehome Mom & Dad's Stuff: What to Do with What You Inherit.
Other Helpful Resources:
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.