by Susan McCarthy
How do you decide to keep, give away, donate, or sell what you’ve inherited from mom and dad? The following decluttering questions can help you mull through some of your stickiest, trickiest thoughts about all their stuff.
When you’re sorting through your parents’ house, you’ll encounter far more stuff than you probably imagined. Emptying an estate isn’t like decluttering a house since the goal is to get everything in your parents’ house to a new home…without the default being your very own house.
But how do you make decisions that you feel are the best ones? The one’s that honor your parent’s memory while respecting your own space and mental wellbeing?
How to Use Decluttering Questions when Emptying Your Parent’s Estate
In my guide Rehome Mom & Dad’s Stuff: What to Do with What You Inherit, I list questions that you can ask yourself about some of the items that you get stuck on. An important point here is that you should limit this type of questioning to the items that you really can’t decide what to do with. Why?
This in-depth investigation is a bit exhausting. There’s this thing called decision fatigue. Basically, you start with a full cup at the beginning of the day. Each time you make a decision (even about simple things like what to wear or eat for breakfast), you pour out a bit of that water. The more decision you make, the faster the water drains.
And emptying your parents’ house is all about making decision after decision after decision. If you’ve done even an afternoon of sorting through some of your parents’ things and you were feeling very emotional about this stuff, then chances are you were exhausted by those hours of decision making.
The moral of the story? Don’t waste your attention and energy making decisions about the “best” thing to do with every item in the house. Some days it may be easier to leave stuff at the end of the driveway with a big FREE sign on it than to try and sell or donate the items. This is how you’ll balance caring for your wellbeing with being respectful of your parents’ things.
Decluttering Questions that Will Help You Decide What to Do with Items
Do you know of someone who could use this item now? I remember someone telling the story of a relative, let’s call her Mary, who’d filled her home with things she’d taken out of her parent’s house.
Months later, someone went to Mary and asked her for the sewing machine she’d inherited from her mother. This was the perfect opportunity to rehome an item (particularly since Mary already owned two sewing machines), but even the offer of money couldn’t lose Mary’s hold on something that had belonged to her mother. The individual pointed out that Mary knew that a sewing machine that didn’t get used would fall into disrepair, but still Mary sent the individual on their way.
You may be thinking that you can’t get rid of your mother’s wedding china because the memory of her death is still raw. However, if your daughter says that she’d love to use it during the upcoming holidays that she’s hosting at her house, wouldn’t you rather know the item is getting used.
Sure, the dishes aren’t going to wear out if you hold onto them for another five years, but by then your daughter will have found a replacement and will no longer be interested in them. Then what will happen to those dishes?
Would another collector love this item?
If your parent collected something, are there others out there that would love these things? I’ve heard several people bemoan that no one wants Precious Moments figurines or plates from The Bradford Exchange.
Maybe these things aren’t items that you’d gladly display in your own home. In fact, if you were able to put these items in boxes and pack the boxes in some dark corner of your home, then perhaps you’re really holding onto these things out of a sense of obligation.
Perhaps another collector would be the best new owner of these items. Even if you get little or no money for them, they will be appreciated in a way that won’t happen if they stay in a packing box.
Do you want to handle this item again in the future?
Are you willing to dust this item if you set it on a shelf or tabletop? Would you want to find this item in a keepsake box? Would you look forward to sorting through the contents of that keepsake box at least once a year?
If this item is associated with negative events and emotions, question why you want that type of energy in your home?
When you realize that you aren’t thrilled with the idea of interacting with the item again, that is a good sign that you are okay with letting it go.
Could you take a photo of this, or do you need the original?
Would you be okay with scanning photos or old letters? Do you need the actual items…be it a teapot or a figurine…or could a photo allow you to look back on these things that your parents once owned?
If you aren’t certain, consider what you will do with the original item. Will it stay wrapped up in a box? Will it be a perpetual item on your to do list (do something with the items from mom’s house)? If you don’t see yourself displaying this item, consider the appeal the item has for you.
Would a new owner better use and appreciate it?
Would you truly miss this item if you or a family member didn’t own it?
If no one in the family is thrilled with the idea of owning the vast postcard collection that your father inherited from his father, then why should someone squeeze it into their home…likely to be dealt with by a future generation?
If you (and your siblings) wouldn’t miss the item, then it may be time to look for a way to get it to a new owner, collector, or even a museum. You may be appalled by the idea of letting go of a family heirloom, but again, if it’s just going to get squeezed into someone’s attic, then the item isn’t going to be cared for.
Something that could be appreciated now could deteriorate with time and them become something destined for the trash.
Would this object further deteriorate in storage?
Check the current condition of the item. Was it stored in a way that protected it from time, sunlight, temperature extremes, insects, mold and mildew, and other factors that may harm the item? Even if the item fit into family heirloom status, if its condition is depreciating, it’s time to make a decision.
Is this a beloved item that deserves the investment in time and funds to find a professional who can restore the item? If no one gives a second thought to your parents’ old yearbooks that were stored in the basement, would it truly be worth the effort of eliminating the mildew and mustiness?
Do you have no memories connected with this item?
Your parents may have had items that were special to them but have little meaning for you. These things can be challenging to make decision about. You may want to hold onto these things because they meant something to your parent.
If you’re talking about a few trinkets that you could group together in a shadowbox with a picture of your parent, then this may be a compromise that honors their memory without allow things that aren’t special to you to take over your space.
However, that bulky bedroom set that lived in the guest bedroom (and that you remember your mother mentioning was from her teenage bedroom) might be nothing more to you than stuff that was in the house. Your mother may have kept the set out of fond memories of afternoon homework sessions and sleepovers with friends.
But those aren’t your memories. Keeping the furniture won’t give you those memories. Those memories are gone.
Instead, give a space in your heart and home to items that connect you to special, meaningful memories you have of your parents.
Do you feel obligated to keep this item out of guilt?
Don’t hold onto obligations. Those are the furthest thing from loving memories…they are resentful ones. If you feel that you must hold onto something because your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, etc. etc. once owned that thing, consider why you feel that obligation.
Instead of an obligation to the dead, you may feel that you have to keep an item or a collection because other members of the family insist that you can’t get rid of this piece of family history.
However, you may note, they want nothing to do with keeping the item themselves. No, they’ll insist, you’re the one who should keep it.
Before getting rid of something with a family connection, you do want to find out if someone else wants to become custodian of that item. If no one does, research what could be done with the item (given to an art school, donated to a museum in another state, sold) and present these options.
You may get a lot of angry pushback. People don’t like change. Instead, discuss how the item has lived in an attic for as long as anyone can remember and that maybe this isn’t the best way to honor someone’s memory.
I know that I found a lot of stuff in my parents’ attic that I didn’t even know that they owned…stuff that had likely belonged to their grandparents. I was baffled by this stuff and torn by what to do. But in the end, I realized that I had no memories of these items, and I couldn’t even guess as to my parents’ connection to these objects.
I even had a woman at the yard sale come up to me with brass candleholders and insisted that I should keep them since my grandmother’s parents likely brought the items with them from the old country. Although this caused me some extra thought, they were still just things neither I nor my brother had a connection to.
Would you gladly display this item in your home?
You’ve encountered this idea throughout this article. Would you display this item as opposed to keeping it stored in boxes in your spare room or attic? All those things that my parents had stored in the attic were so disconnected from my life, I couldn’t imagine displaying these things in my home.
I chose a few items, basically things that I would have been drawn to in an antique shop. And they are in places where I can see every day (except for jewelry that’s in a drawer). I realized that things my parents had in boxes for thirty-plus years would just end up in boxes in my home for thirty or forty years…what was the purpose.
(Actually, after going through all those boxes in my parents’ house, I decided that except for seasonal items nothing would get stored in boxes. I figured that if it could stay in a box, untouched, for a year or more, then it wasn’t something I needed.)
The exception to displaying items are those small or private items that you put in a keepsake box, so they don’t get lost or damaged. And you make a point to look through that box yearly because these items are important to you.
Does this item feel like it could be yours?
I think the answer to this question ties in with displaying items. If you can show off an item, you are incorporating it into your home. Even though you know it belonged to a parent or grandparent, you’ve found a way to make it “yours” by giving it space.
You know it belonged to your mother or father and you think of them when you see this or these things. Over time, you’ll no longer feel like you’re borrowing your parents’ things. If you’d encountered these items in a store, you would have been drawn to them. The fact that your parent owned the thing that you now own makes it all the more special. That you have memories of your parent interacting with the item, well then that’s a meaningful item.
Decluttering Questions to Help You Decide What to Do with What You’ve Inherited
Inheriting your parents’ lifetime accumulation of stuff can be overwhelming. You want to honor their memory while paying attention to your own wellbeing and space. While not every item will require an in-depth series of questions to help you determine what to do with it, if you find that you want to hold onto more stuff than you can fit comfortably into your home, then pausing to question if your home is the best place for your parents’ things will be worth your time (and sanity).
It isn’t easy to let go of things that your parents owned or that remind you of them but stop to consider if you would expect someone to take the contents of your home and put it all into their own. Chances are you will have an easier time appreciating the items you’re keeping if you can display them as opposed to keeping them hidden in boxes.
And to help you sort through the contents of your parent's estate, remember to get a copy of my free Empty the House Starter Guide and create a PLAN for handling everything in the house.
Hi, I'm Susan
While cleaning out my parents' house, I kept rolling my eyes at all the crazy stuff they kept. Then I looked at my own stuff!