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Decluttering after a bereavement.

Whilst chatting to Paulette today at Radio Sheffield on the subject of decluttering after a bereavement, it hit me that, just as like death itself, decluttering after a bereavement is something of a taboo subject, and there’s very few obvious resources to help. So you may occasionally hear a friend or co worker complain about what a nightmare it is decluttering a house when their parent dies, but very rarely will you hear a plan of what to do, and how to do it beforehand. Elderly parents will rarely discuss their wishes for what happens with their things once they have gone. There’s been a few articles and books in the press recently about Swedish Death Cleaning but this is mainly about the living decluttering their things to assist things for who is left behind, but that seems to be more like decluttering than a plan of your wishes for your things when you are gone. For many families death is a taboo subject, and I guess just like people feel they are jinxing themselves by writing a will so put it off, the same can be said with knowing what to do with a loved ones items when they’ve passed away. 

Each persons situation and circumstances can very widely, but to make matters simple today this blog post is going to concentrate and outline how to approach decluttering a home when the remaining parent has passed away. Sometimes, rather strangely, it is easier to deal with clutter the more there is. This may sound totally ludicrous but if you consider a parent moving into a care home, a big declutter has probably already happened once already. Then you’re faced with less items but ones that have already gone through this first ‘sieve’ as it were. Every item was probably noticed each time you visited and used and therefore simply because it’s still there now means it has sentimental value. So don’t be disheartened by volume, decluttering always takes time to get the balance right between bin, keep and charity or donate. LEGALITIES The first thing to be aware of when decluttering is a harsh one but sadly, most important. Please ensure that legally you are allowed to remove items. Until the will has been read or you’ve gone through probate, do not dispose of anything. At time of great emotions and where very property or money is involved things can become awkward very quickly so ensure you do this legally and protect yourself. WHO WILL HELP? When you’re ready to declutter you will need to work out who is going to help you. It is seldom a good idea to declutter alone. It’s all too easy to get sidetracked and spend an afternoon sobbing into tissues and reminiscing than making progress. Ask siblings if you have them to meet up, and create a plan of action. Timetable when someone’s going to declutter and specify what you’re going to concentrate on, that way everyone knows what’s going to be gone through and items that hold sentimental value for people not able to attend can be kept to one side. If you don’t have any siblings then consider taking a friend along to help. Not only will they keep you focused and on track but as they won’t have sentimental attachments they can be the voice of logic in keeping things sensible. It’s also useful as decluttering can also be physically tiring, so having a hand to help out moving and carrying can be really useful. Using two cliches here, but ‘Many hands make light work’ is often the case when it comes to decluttering rubbish and moving heavy objects or using a skip, but there’s also the saying ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and making decisions can be time consuming when there are many people to consider. To help with this, consider working in pairs and whilst you make the others aware of what you’re decluttering, everyone should agree that those pairs making the decisions do so with everyone’s blessing, with the exception of sentimental items which will need everyone’s consent to decide what happens to them. DECLUTTER BY CATEGORIES Try to declutter paperwork as early on as you can. When someone dies there’s a mountain of paperwork to complete and organisations to inform. By having all the paperwork in one place this makes the task much easier. You may find you need to get advice on what paperwork needs to be kept so its important that if in doubt keep it safe and contact relevantly agencies or get professional legal advice. If time is short bundle all paperwork into archive boxes and take it home too sort in front of the TV (but keep subtitles on as if you’re using a shredder you’ve no chance of hearing what’s going on!!) Clearing by category will mean that your time is much more efficiently utilised. It also means that it is easier to sort out an exit plan for items as items that are leaving are similar. You will find it easier to see progress and keep motivated when you see a category ticked off the list. Aim for little and often when decluttering. Decluttering is a physically and mentally exhausting process and you make decision after decision. When you add in grief and emotions this can make it even more tiring so I you need to allow for frequent rest breaks, to have a cuppa, talk a quick walk or talk with a friend about something totally irrelevant to the task at hand. If you’re time limited consider moving items into a storage unit to sort to give yourself breathing space. If you do not have someone you feel comfortable asking to help, do consider hiring a Professional Organiser (PO). If you use the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers website ( you can find a PO close to you who can help you sort the items. PO’s are used to decluttering and can help keep you focused whilst still being sensitive to your needs. BEWARE OF BECOMING A FAMILY STORAGE UNIT OR KEEPER OF HISTORY. Be aware that in lots of families no one has the space or inclination to keep items that hold lots of sentimental value, yet one family member ends up having to store these items in their home as the rest of the family deem them too important to discard. It is all too easy to become the family storage unit where a decision to discard has been replaced by a decision for one family member to store instead. This does no one any favours. It may be big furniture, or a collection from the deceased. Of course these items are going to be sentimental, but unless someone actively wishes to keep them in their home rather than having to keep them because no one else will and you cant just throw them out then this is very unfair. The person doing the storage can feel resentful because they are ‘lumbered’ with them, and the other family members can feel some resentment too as they don’t have them and the other family member is ‘lucky’ to have them. In my experience it’s usually a good idea that if no one wants them to sell the items on and share the proceeds equally – maybe treat yourselves to something that everyone loves as a memento, or use the money for a family experience to get something positive out of it. If the item isn’t valuable then donate it to a charity so that something positive comes from the item. If it is sentimental then even photographing the item to remind one selves of it can help let it go, but carry on the memory. EXIT PLANS When decluttering it is vital that you have an exit plan for items you are discarding, whether it be gumtree, facebook groups, charity, the tip or other relatives or friends. Try not to have items having around, the quicker things leave the easier it is both emotionally but also for having space to carry on discarding. Discarding to a charity close to the family members heart makes things easier to remove items that verge on sentimental. Do not think that an item is too good for charity and be tempted to keep things just based on their value. If value is the only reason to keep an item then your home becomes a very expensive storage container. If an item has genuine value, check out you’re local auction house for advice, or check sold listings on eBay to check what things are going for. Sadly as you have emotional attachments to items it is all too easy to overestimate the value of an item you wish to discard. One word of warning! Please make sure you check inside pockets of everything, coats, jumpers, coats, handbags and inside places you wouldn’t automatically think of – one client when decluttering her mother’s home found lots of money stuffed in a sofa cushion, so double check everything before discarding! SENTIMENTAL Remember just because it was a passion of their doesn’t mean it has to become a passion of yours. So just because your dad had a passion for fly fishing doesn’t mean you’re obliged to keep all his fishing tackle and equipment and all the flies he created! Unless you have a very find memory of using a particular item it is ok to let this go. It was his passion when he was alive, that’s how his time was used, but that doesn’t mean it has to pass on to you. There will be other itemsTry to have on display or use the items you keep. Don’t put them in a box feathering dust for whoever has to declutter your things to deal with later. I learnt this lesson the hard way. When I was a child and I stayed at my grandparents house I used to wear an old shirt of my Grandad’s. When he died it was the one thing I wanted. I took it home and wrapped it in tissue paper and kept it in a box in the old airing cupboard. It even smelled of him. I loved this shirt! When I decluttered my home, I found the long forgotten box with the shirt inside which had been stored next to a bottle of turps. The smell of my grandad had now been replaced by turps. I was heartbroken, although I had forgotten I even had his shirt as it had been in a cupboard for years. It got washed, and I now wear this shirt when I’ve got out of the shower. I smile every time I put it on. My daughter knows it was the shirt that belonged to her great grandad and it prompts me to tell her about him. It has become a connection to him by being worn, not by being hidden and gathering dust in a box. Look at the items you chose to keep objectively. Do you have room for them in your home, and not at the detriment of items you already have? Will the item you chose enhance your life by being in it? Try to chose something you can use or display, not hide away. What are the items that most remind you off your loved one, what encompasses their essence? The most important thing to remember when decluttering a home is that they are just THINGS. Your memories of your loved ones don’t need any physical ties to keep them alive, they’re already alive in your heart. Lots of love, Heather 

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