by Susan McCarthy
When you’re emptying a deceased parent’s house you likely feel compelled do the work the right way (although you’re not quite certain what that means). However, there are three mistakes that can make it more challenging to decide what to do with the things in the house. Here’s what to avoid so you can save the time, energy, and emotional distress of trying to do things perfectly.
If you’ve taken it upon yourself to clear out your parent’s house (and this includes with the help of friends and family), then chances are it’s important to you to honor the memory of your parents. You don’t want to heartlessly toss all their stuff, nor do you feel comfortable leaving the task to people that you know you could hire to do the work.
However, you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. Okay, more than a little overwhelmed. You want to do this the right way. The best way. But unfortunately, all that’s happening is that you feel stuck. STUCK. The idea of doing everything perfectly is too much to think of, to deal with.
And here’s the thing. You don’t have to do this perfectly because there is no perfect. There is no list out in the world that tells you that you must keep your parent’s yearbook or the red sweater they wore every Christmas.
If you love it then keep it and display it. If you don’t love it, let it go because I bet the item will find its way into the hands of someone who will love it.
Tied up with the idea of emptying your parent’s house the right way are three mistakes that can drain you of time as well as physical, mental, and emotional energy.
And just as there is no perfect way to approach your parent’s lifetime accumulation of stuff, there are no ultimate mistakes. If you read something below and think, “Nope, I don’t care what Susan says, I’m going to do that because it feels right to me, then that’s the essential information to follow.
Mistake One: Thinking This Is Worth Good Money
One mistake that people make is assuming that a lot of the stuff in the house is valuable or can command top dollar.
While you may have heard your parents talk about the “antiques” and the “things that are worth something” for years, you can’t rely on what is essentially their opinion…or a years-old appraisal.
I was offered $10 for the antique vase that my mother went on and on about for years. Yes, it was an antique, but it wasn’t the type of desirable item that people look to add to their home décor nowadays.
You can do a quick – really, limit yourself to a two-minute internet search to see what people are getting for this type of item. Yes, there will always be sellers who are asking for two or three times what others are asking for and you may be tempted to look at those asking prices and get excited.
Instead look at the items that sold. You can ask $100 but if you see one recently sold for $40, then that may be the more realistic value for the item.
If you decide to sell the item, you can do more research then.
Also, be honest about the condition of the item. I remember my mother-in-law talking about the few antique figurines she had in a cabinet. But when we took them out and looked at them, we could see that they were chipped, cracked, and in some cases glued back together.
Because they were tucked safely in a cabinet for years, she had probably forgotten that the figurines were damaged.
Ultimately when you have questions about the value of items, talk to an appraiser who specializes in these types of items and have them provide a valuation.
Mistake Two: Choosing Distracting Tasks that Don’t Have to Be Done Now
I probably wasted a month or more getting distracted by the items I was finding up in my parents’ attic. There were boxes of dishes, tea sets, flatware, serving pieces, knickknacks, trays, decorative bowls, and a whole lot of other items that I never knew my parents even had.
This was probably stuff from their parents or even their grandparents. There were no notes or stories about who had owned these things. I was baffled. Were these things important? Most of the stuff was wrapped up in a protective way so it seemed like they wanted to take care of it.
And chances are they thought the items were worth something (and that the value would only increase) so they packed these things away for me and my brother. However, the dinnerware settings for ten (plus serving trays, bowls, soup tureens) got offers of $15. And no, I didn’t forget a zero at the end of that number.
As I tried to figure out what all these things were and why they’d been important enough to keep, I would come home from the library with an armload of books on antiques. Yes, I was curious about the value, but I was also hoping for some context…were these things owned by my grandparents? Great-grandparents?
But that was a huge distraction. You know why? Learning about cold meat forks and jam spoons and celery tongs wasn’t important (and yet pulled me down a rabbit hole for a week). Sure, reading about the history of forks was interesting, but it didn’t help me with my true question, is this item important to my family?
Distracting myself with research helped me avoid what really needed to be done making a decision about items that my parents valued enough to hold onto but weren’t important enough for them to share stories about.
Tasks that commonly welcome in distractions include reading personal correspondence or looking through photos when you have an entire house to go through.
Yes, after you empty your parents’ house, you’ll have some things that will require time and a careful eye to sort through. But wouldn’t you rather set aside these things so you can give them the attention you think they deserve?
I know, you may be feeling very nostalgic right now and looking through old photographs will feel emotionally satisfying. But hours later, you’ll have gone through the equivalent of a couple of shoeboxes of stuff while ignoring the rest of the house.
I’m not trying to be heartless by pushing you to set these things aside for later. However, let’s get through more practical first. If you have the energy in the evening, you can look through pictures then.
Mistake Three: Thinking Everything Is Important
A third mistake is thinking that everything was special to your parents. As you go through the house, you’ll find things that you have no connection to even if your parents found them important. There will be things that remind you of fun times with your parents. There will the everyday items that your parents used but that neither they (nor you) have an emotional connection to.
You’ll also be faced with a whole lot of stuff that you don’t know what to think or feel about. This could be stuff that you never knew your parents had tucked away in boxes on the top shelf of the closet.
My mother had the dresses and suits she wore when she first went to work in the late 1950s/early 1960s. She’d moved these items from her parents’ home to her first apartment with my father and then to the house they bought.
Obviously, these items were important to her. I did keep a few outfits that I liked, and they hung in my closet for a few years. But each time I sorted through my closet to declutter some of my own clothing, I let go of one of the outfits. I couldn’t fit into the items, I didn’t wear vintage, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have had any places or events to wear these items.
Maybe these things were important to my mother once upon a time. But I had no memories of her wearing these things. She may have held onto them because they belonged to a time in her life when she was happier, before she became a wife and mother. (And in retrospect, I wonder if letting go of those outfits would have been better for her mindset and heart.)
As you sort through boxes and drawers and cabinets at your parents’ home, ask yourself if you really remember you parent interacting with all these things. Did they merely own the items, or did they really cherish using, seeing, or having a thing in their life?
If you know your parent had mixed emotions about an item (or collection), then you can do what you parent never managed to do and release the items. If you have mixed emotions toward items they owned, you aren’t obligated to keep them.
Remember, You Don’t Have to Do This Perfectly
Perfectionism is a limiting belief that will leave you stuck, so know that your best effort doesn’t have to be perfect.
There is no “right,” “best,” or “perfect” way to do this work. That you are concerned about this means that you will do a decent job. Will you earn every penny you can on every time you sell? Probably not.
Will you get distracted reminiscing or caught up in mystery items? Probably. Will you let go of things that were important to your parents? Likely. But if you freeze up, afraid to make any error, five, ten, twenty, thirty years will go by and the thought of sorting through your parents’ things will still cut through you.
While there is no perfect method, there may just be a wrong way. And that is doing nothing and feeling that you need to wait for someday in the future when you’ll be better prepared to make these decisions. So, when would that be exactly?
I don’t want you wasting money on a self-storage unit filled with stuff that you’re avoiding. I also don’t want you to crowd your home with boxes that are a constant reminder of what you haven’t done and aren’t doing. These incomplete tasks will hover at the back of your mind and erode your wellbeing.
Also, if you find yourself thinking, “Oh, I should be working faster or I shouldn’t be getting misty-eyed when I pull my mother’s cardigans from a drawer,” then those beliefs will slow you down.
Try to avoid:
Knowing what to do saves you from forcing yourself to work with overwhelm and instead creates a peaceful space within you.
Not certain what you should be doing? Get my free Empty the House Starter Guide and create a PLAN for clearing out your parent’s estate. My hope is that you can get this job done without it draining you physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.
When you have a PLAN you’ll know your next step and then what you’ll do after that step and so on. You’ll have the tools for figuring out where to focus your attention and efforts as you work through the house.
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.