by Susan McCarthy
The common question people ask when faced with cleaning out a parent’s house is, “where do I start?” However, there’s a more important question to ask because it’s one that will keep you moving throughout the entire project.
When I first stepped into my parents’ house and realized that I could start cleaning out the contents, I had a moment of overwhelm, “where do I start?” Every room needed to be emptied, so I could have started anywhere.
And all those option were as overwhelming as all the stuff that I knew I’d be sorting through.
I wandered from room to room thinking,” Where do I start? Where do I start?” And I started…in the bathroom. Yep, job one was tossing the hand-me-down jars of rose-shaped soaps that were turning white and crumbling, the ancient creams and lotions that were brown and smelled ‘off,’ and the container of smushed cotton balls.
This was an easy task, and it was oddly satisfying to toss this stuff in a trash bag. Completing this space didn’t make a significant dent in the work that I had to do in the house; however, if made a difference in my mindset.
I broke free from “where do I start?” and a new question came up…one that I asked again and again. It turns out this question is the more important one to ask.
The Question You Should be Asking when Cleaning Out a Deceased Parent’s House
In my free Empty the House Starter Guide, I outline a four-step PLAN that will help you figure what to do when you’re clearing out a deceased parent’s home. This isn’t a big, detailed plan with SMART goals and milestones.
It’s much simpler and focused on the activities of that day. PLAN stands for:
And it’s with that last element, Next Action, where the question you want to ask comes from, “What is my next action?” (If you’re curious about the rest of the PLAN, get your free guide.)
How to Guide Your Actions throughout Emptying the House
Asking the question, “What is my next action?” moves you forward. Starting may be difficult, but that’s a single step. You want to take step after step.
And keep those steps small by focusing on little space…a drawer, a shelf, a small box. You know it’s a little space if you can empty the space (and know what to do with the contents) in approximately 15-to-30-minutes.
If you’re working in little spaces, then two or three times an hour, you’ll be deciding what you want to work on next.
If you’re sorting through a dresser, then your next action will be another drawer…until you’ve emptied all the drawers and cleared off the top of the furniture. After that, the decision of what to work on may be a bit more challenging.
After you’ve worked throughout an entire room, you may then have a few options: Will you go to another room? Will you distribute the items from the room, posting them for sale or donating them, so to truly clear the space?
Deciding on your next action means that you’ll be less likely to drift around from room to room.
When Your Next Action Isn’t at Your Parent’s House
Step back and check-in with your own wellbeing. Are you eating healthy foods and staying hydrated? How is your sleep? What is your level of stress? Are you communicating with your family and friends (particularly if you are out of state)?
What are the expectations for your return at work?
Is your next action to take a day off? Is it time to return to your day-to-day life? To schedule a day next week or next month to return to clearing the house?
It can be very easy to allow clearing out your parent’s home and wrapping up the other estate duties to take over your life.
Take a step back and check in with yourself so you don’t end up falling apart mentally or physically because you’ve pushed yourself too hard.
How To Keep Going When You Feel Discouraged That There Is Still So Much to Do
If you don’t have a large family, or if no one is able or interested in devoting multiple weekends to emptying the house, then it may come down to making harsher choices. Call the junk haulers. Hire an estate cleanout service. Hire a professional organizer who has staff that handles going through everything.
Now that you’ve done some of the work, you have a better sense of how much this work hurts your body and drains your mental energy.
You can better estimate the time necessary to empty some of the other rooms and storage spaces in the house and decide if you can take that time from your life to devote to emptying your parent’s estate.
There’s no shame in hiring help if you need it. You can check with an accountant, but expenses related to the estate should be covered by the sale of the property.
What’s Your Next Action?
Are you going to set the date when you’ll next go back to the house? (It could be tomorrow, next week, or next month.)
Is your next action to identify what you need personally?
Is your next action to have a discussion with family about the work that needs to be done?
My hope for you is that you now feel more confident making decisions about the things in your parent’s house. You prioritize what needs to get done when you step into a room. You work in little spaces that allow you to successfully create momentum.
And after each small task, you ask yourself, “What is my next action?” so you can move forward without getting stuck.
You may feel confident about what this next action is, or you may have some questions. Whatever the case, take a moment (or several) to figure out your next action. If you won’t be doing the work tomorrow, make certain to write it down so you don’t forget it.
Remember, your next action is a small step such as, making a PLAN to start emptying the next room, calling a consignment shop to ask if they’ll take your mom’s vintage dresses, or going online and looking up the guidelines for hosting a yard sale in your parents’ town.
By doing this work, you can honor your parent’s memory by rehoming their things with people who can use and appreciate them. And you reduce your stress of wondering where to focus your attention.
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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.