by Susan McCarthy
You need to clear out your parent’s home after their death, but you feel that you should be waiting until you feel “ready.” Learn how waiting can cause more stress and why you may want to start now.
A while ago, I was scrolling through a decluttering group on Facebook and paused to read the post connected to a picture of a couple of plastic tubs. Since most people tend to post pictures of messy rooms, I was curious why the individual found two boxes overwhelming.
The person explained that these were sentimental items from their own life as well as things that they’d kept from their parents’ lives. Just the thought of opening these boxes made the person’s stomach clench with anxiety.
They felt that this was a task they should do since they’d decluttered and organized the rest of their possessions. They concluded that perhaps they needed more time to process their emotions. That it was still too soon.
And then, in the final line, they expressed their bafflement that they would still need time to process their emotions since over 25 years had passed since they’d put these things into storage.
Your Emotions Don’t Have to Control Your Actions (or Lack Thereof)
If you find your emotions so overwhelming that you can’t imagine touching your parent’s things, let alone donating or selling them, then you don’t need more time, you need to talk to a professional…or at the very least a compassionate friends. Too often, we think that time is the magic formula that will make a difference.
And, yes, your feelings will change over time, but this isn’t a neat process guaranteed to take x number of days (or months or years). In the meantime, you not only feel all the emotions associated with the loss of a parent, you’ll also be subjected to the guilt-driven voice in the back of your head telling you should be doing something.
Are you still paying taxes, insurance, and utilities on your parent’s house while you wait to feel ready to take on the task of emptying that house? If you had to move things into a storage unit, are you dealing with the stress of this monthly expense and the fear that if you miss a payment, the contents will get sold to strangers without you ever looking through everything?
When you avoid starting the process of cleaning out a deceased parent’s house because of the emotions that you’re afraid you’ll be faced with, you’re ignoring something. You’re already experiencing some pretty stressful emotions.
You’re feeling emotions about not wanting to feel other emotions.
I’m not suggesting that you should ignore your emotions or push yourself to make major decisions shortly after a death.
However, if you’re feeling bad about trying to avoid feeling bad, then consider finding someone to talk to and/or getting support while going through the contents of your parent’s home.
How to Start Before You’re Ready
Maybe you’ve been trying to sort through your parent’s things but at the end of several hours of work you realize that you’ve really just rearranged a lot of stuff. Maybe you even put everything back where you found it because you didn’t know how to make decisions about these things.
Look at what is holding you back. It’s probably not the stuff, but your thoughts about the stuff. When you work at changing your mindset, you can start before you’re ready emotionally.
Mindset to Shift #1: If Everything Is Important, Then Nothing Is
Some people may avoid emptying their parent’s house out of the fear of doing it wrong. They worry about missing something important and so linger over minutia like old to-do lists and spare change and end up exhausting themselves with decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is just what it sounds like – the more decision you are forced to make, the sooner you drain your ability to make effective decisions.
The solution to shift your mindset. Take some time (preferably away from the house) to identify what is important to you. Make a list and add everything that you can think of in 30 minutes. Try to be specific about what matters most to you.
For example, are all your mother’s clothes important to you or is it the cardigan she wore every Christmas eve and day that stands out in your memories. Are the cereal bowls as important as the serving bowl set on the table every Sunday dinner in your memory?
This list, even if it goes on for pages, helps you see that not everything is equally important to you.
You can also go back down the list and write a few lines that explain why the item has made your list. What is special about it? If you had 30 minutes to pack up the most important items, which would you grab? (In that scenario, indecision means that you’d be leaving more behind.)
Mindset to Shift #2: Planning Isn’t the Same as Acting
Maybe you feel that you need a clear plan of action to tackle the huge project of emptying your parent’s home. You may start off reading a few books or watching some YouTube videos about decluttering. You might go a step further and list all the rooms that need to be cleaned out and try to organize them into a logical order in which to do the work.
I had someone explain to me that she felt that before she could start decluttering her own home, she wanted to see someone else go through the process in detail. I pointed out that everyone and their situation was different and so she’d likely still be dissatisfied with the videos she’d find. But she still craved a defined solution.
I understood the sentiment, that feeling of not wanting to do something wrong. Of being afraid that after doing something, you’d learn that there was a right (or at least better) way to do it. Of not wanting to be seen as foolish.
However, despite what you may have learned back in school, you don’t learn from books and videos, you learn from experience. Learning and planning can give you a false sense of momentum. “I’m doing something! I’m deciding what to do!” At some point, we realize that we’re tired from our actions but that nothing’s accomplished. We feel frustrated and we may even feel as if we’d failed…even though we haven’t done anything beyond making plans.
The solution to shift your mindset. That means that instead of delving into learning mode and then getting stuck there, start before you’re ready and do the work. Then, when you are faced with a specific question about how to handle something, then you can go in search of an answer.
Learning is useful (I was a teacher for 30 years before making a career switch to professional organizing…and I’m still teaching people how to sort through stuff). However, doing the work helps you connect what you’re learning into the real world.
But here’s the thing, you need to start before you’re ready. Get some facts (if you need them) and then get going. You’ll learn more by doing than by planning. Clearing out a single drawer or cabinet will teach you more than all the books and videos out there.
Action Will Shift Your Mindset
Sometimes, it’s simply thinking about a project that makes it so overwhelming. Thinking that everything your parent owned during their life is so important that you must keep it or scrutinize it before letting it go will leave you will decision fatigue.
The solution, take some time to list what comes to your mind as important. Tell yourself the story of the item and how it better connects you to your memories of your parent.
And if you’re caught in planning mode, trying to decide what to do before you do anything, then do something small – clear a shelf or drawer and notice what you learn from the experience.
Remember, there is no set number of days that need to pass before you’ll feel ready to empty a parent’s home. Acknowledge your emotions. But remember, if you feel bad trying to avoid feeling bad by taking on a difficult task, you aren’t making things easier for yourself.
Take a small action. And then another one. Journal. Talk to a compassionate friend. Talk to a professional. Each action, even if you don’t feel ready, will help you do this difficult task with confidence.
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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.