A Million Memories – How to Sort Through a Deceased Loved One’s Possessions

When it comes to the aftermath of a loved one’s death, deciding what to do with their possessions is a painful and daunting task. One’s impulses swing from renting a dumpster to never changing a thing. Making an actual decision and following through is incredibly challenging.

What you are doing with each and every possession is grieving. To varying degrees, each item holds a memory and an emotion. A sock becomes a poem. A blanket becomes a song. A toothbrush becomes a symphony. It has taken me almost four years to work through everything and I am still not done. So be kind to yourself. Do push yourself a little but not too much. You will know when it is time. I hope that sharing my experiences and the methodology behind my process is helpful.

I came up with six categories:

Virtually everything of Roger’s has fallen into these categories. There is no set order or timeline to the process. It is circular and layered. What you are essentially doing is curating a collection of belongings that will create a narrative of that person’s life. You may want to remember the more painful elements of that person and that is just fine. You can visit the collection or share it with others to feel closer to your loved one. If you have young children, think about what you will want to share of their parent’s life when they are older.

Take Pictures
For me, one of the first steps was to take pictures. Roger had a way of arranging and settings things out that was particular to him. He was somewhat fastidious with his belongings and liked things done a certain way. I had to take a photo of his toothbrush and its exact alignment by the sink. How he did things spoke to a very dear part of who he was. I see the little boy in him who collected and coveted treasures. You can see a bit of how I approached taking photos in a previous post titled, A Life in Pieces.

There are some items that are no brainers. Examples of some of these may be photos, ribbons they won in sports as a child, jewelry, childhood schoolwork and certain clothing items. There are other items you may want to keep because they are still useful to you and you can integrate them into your everyday life. Blankets their mother crocheted, dishes, furniture etc. Also, be sure to keep any relevant paperwork. My best friend helped me sort through mountains of papers. She is an organization genius and came up with a system that I am still using. OH! And she made me buy a label maker, which has really come in handy.

I knew that my late husband’s brothers would appreciate items that came from their family to which I had no emotional attachment. Their father’s tools and mother’s cooking equipment are examples. There were also things that I was perhaps slightly attached to but knew they would be more appreciated by someone else who knew him. For example Roger had a jacket custom made with the family business logo. It went to his brother who owns the business.

Sending everything to one place wasn’t right for me. After much research and thought, the following are the three places to which I donated. It has taken several years and a numerous trips to each. In the beginning having someone with you is helpful. I was a bit of a mess after the trip to Life Long. My best friend drove and was incredibly helpful.

  1. Goodwill – Clothing that was utilitarian in nature. T-shirts, sweat pants, khaki’s, sneakers.
  2. Life Long – Some of Roger’s higher end clothing went here. Dress shirts, dress shoes, sports jackets, sweaters.   http://www.llaa.org/lifelongthrift
  3. Career Gear – Roger had a few designer business suits. I was with him when he bought them and I know how special they were to him. Knowing that they will have a new life helping someone in need get a job is exactly what he would want. https://careergear.org/

Many widows find themselves in a difficult position financially. Although it may be painful, chances are your spouse would want you to make use of their belongings in a way that best serves you. If items are hard to let go of, take a series of photos. It isn’t the same as holding the item in your hand but it will be enough to spark the memory that is attached to it.

I used eBay to sell Roger’s very expensive camera equipment. It was only going to depreciate and wasn’t something I was using. What I did need was an iPad to shoot video and write blogs. Do a little research to make certain you will actually profit. Packing up and shipping the items will likely hurt. Do your best to keep the big picture in mind. Stay on task and try not to think too much about what you are doing…. (i.e. selling your dead loved one’s stuff for profit.) Been down that road. It isn’t a thought process that is helpful. It is okay. It’s what needs to be done in exceptional circumstances.

In its highest form, death is transformation. Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs it is all around you. Opening to the possibilities of transformation can be healing and revelatory. From the scraps of your old life come new beauty and purpose. This theme can be carried through to you loved one’s possessions. I had two lap-quilts custom made out of the clothing that held the most memories. From the shirt he wore to the hospital when I was in labor to the little felt fish that his mother made him when he was a boy, the quilts contain a million memories. A cumbersome, heavy box of clothing has been transformed into works of art that my daughter and I can touch and hold. They will keep us warm on the coldest of days. I used Amy Canveness. http://amycavanessdesigns.com Her prices were reasonable and she did a beautiful job.

Is there furniture to which you can give new life? Roger’s dated, dark childhood desk will be getting a makeover soon for my daughter to use. I recently decoupaged an ugly side table that was his father’s. Now it makes me smile. A journey down the DIY website path might help spark your imagination. It may also tell you a little bit about who you are now becoming.

Anything that doesn’t fall into the above categories, you can likely toss. Even this may not be easy. Old toiletries, nose hair clippers, (yup, I actually agonized over that one!) useless papers. Consider tossing anything that reminds you directly of the act of their dying. They would not want you to hold on to these memories. All the grisly minutia of death that often goes unspoken is nothing short of bizarre but if you have been there you know of what I speak. Nobody warned me that I’d walk out of the hospital with a garbage bag filled with the last clothes he wore. It took a while to deal with that bag but what were my options, wash and keep or donate? Way too painful. They smelled of hospital. I couldn’t face it. If you have an item that is like this bag of clothes, give yourself permission to toss it.

…and lastly, I would be remiss not to mention…
Organ Donation
The decision to donate your loved one’s organs is a profound form of giving and transformation. If you can discuss this with your loved one in advance it may make the decision easier. Nobody wants to think about it and choice is deeply personal. All I can do is share are my thoughts and experiences with the hope they are useful to you.
For us, there was no discussion and all that I was able to donate were Roger’s cornea. As time passes, I wish I’d thought about a few things earlier and could have given more.

Depending on how your loved one died, their body has likely been through so much that the thought of disturbing it further is too unsettling to confront. Whether you chose burial or cremation, nature will eventually have its way with their remains. I do my best not to think of this as the years pass. I can’t tell you how comforted I am in the knowledge that there are two small pieces of Roger that are even now fresh and giving the gift of sight to two people who still walk the earth. If that extended to his heart, his lungs, his kidneys the comfort might be even greater. There is absolutely no judgment here, just a few things to possibly think about.

In Summary

  1. Take your time but you may need to push yourself a little.
  2. Enlist friends.
  3. Be kind to yourself.
  4. Take Pictures.
  5. Divide belongings in to the following categories
    1. Keep
    2. Give
    3. Donate
    4. Sell
    5. Transform
    6. Toss

I genuinely hope that this information is helpful. Please let me know if you have any other tips that were helpful to you.

Wishing you the best as you move forward.


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