Decluttering the Decades

Make a plan to ease the organization process when a parent passes away

Grief has no timeline. Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Yet, shortly after a parent dies, adult children often face a daunting task: preparing the house for sale while the surviving parent still lives there.

If you rush the process, each item tossed into the discards bag may feel like a punch in the gut to the parent already beaten down by grief. They may even accuse you of throwing away memories or wanting to forget your beloved mom or dad.

To avoid further heartbreak, instead of diving right in, create a plan that involves the surviving parent in the process and gives everyone time to reminisce about family keepsakes before deciding what to do with them. This may not always be possible, however, due to time constraints or whether it’s safe for the remaining parent to live in the house alone.

“If they are healthy and active, you have some time, though the process still should not be put off too long, as things can change in one’s 70s, 80s, and 90s,” says Christopher D’Agostino, DO, director of geriatric services and chief medical officer at Acension Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

Hold a family meeting

To avoid conflict, don’t make any assumptions. “Have conversations upfront and be frank about your feelings and desires,” says Michael Ziffra, MD, psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Put it all on the table: how everyone feels and what role they want to play.”

Acknowledge the pain inherent in such major life transitions, Ziffra adds. “But if everyone bands together and tackles it as a group, has some common goals and values in terms of how they want to approach it, it will make it easier.”

Try this simple agenda:

• Choose a leader to organize the process.
• Determine which rooms to tackle first.
• Set deadlines for clearing out each room in the home.
• Talk with your parent about how involved they want to be.

Some parents might find comfort in going through items, reminiscing, and deciding what stays and what goes, Ziffra says. Others might find the process too painful. They may choose to step aside and leave decisions up to their children.

Even when there’s a limited amount of time to declutter, you can still do it thoughtfully. Speak frankly with your parent.“You can say, ‘We have a timeframe of three months. How would you like to proceed? Do you need a month to rest and then we tackle it over a shorter period of time?’ Any degree of latitude you can give them to play a role in the process, they will likely appreciate,” Ziffra says.

Map their new place

Whether your surviving parent is moving to a studio apartment at an assisted living community, a downsized ranch, or a bedroom in your home, help them envision some of their belongings in it, says Marnie Dawson, owner of Dawson Relocation Services in Chicago.

Everyone needs a bed, chair, and dresser, but they also need comfort items. “Everybody has a routine in life,” she says. “They get up and do certain behaviors. Do what you can to recreate those experiences.”

If a parent has dementia, start by observing how they move in their space. Keep what they need, and minimize the rest as much as possible, Dawson says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a chipped coffee mug, ugly, or doesn’t match the rest of the set they have. If it’s their favorite mug, it needs to come on the move.”

Eliminate unnecessary items by asking questions like, what items do they really want to keep? People vary in how sentimental they are about material items, D’Agostino says.

Yet, while this may be helpful for some people, others — such as people who hoard things or who are overly sentimental — going through items won’t be possible. Recognize if your loved one falls into this category. “In that case, the family may have to do it for them,” D’Agostino says.

Hidden treasures

Let them decide which belongings to donate to charity, gift to a relative, or toss in the trash. Pieces they’re not ready to part with can go into storage or stay at children’s homes until a final decision later. Photographing special keepsakes and documents before letting them go is another space-saving way to hold onto memories.

Whenever D’Agostino visits assisted living communities, he says he notices that residents often display meaningful items from their original homes, such as family photos and military honors. “In my opinion, that’s what matters,” he says. “The room should reflect what that person felt about themselves in their lives. What was meaningful informs what’s kept and what isn’t, what goes into storage and to grandkids.”

Keep in mind a parent might have valuable artwork or a collection. “There might be a hidden treasure that can end up in trash,” says Social Worker Daxa Sanghvi in Hanover Park. “So do examine carefully your parents’ collection, even if it’s not your style or selection.” And check clothes pockets in the donation pile as well, for long forgotten cash or even jewelry.

You never know what may be worth a substantial amount of money. And those funds could help them out at this time in their lives, Sanghvi says.

Prioritize your parent

If all of this is too emotional a burden, consider hiring a company that specializes in estate sales to stage items you want to sell and remove belongings you don’t wish to keep. According to Karen Picchietti, owner of Moving On Estate Sales in Schaumburg, every estate sale company works differently. However, most companies are commission-based.

Homeowners can expect to pay an estate sale company an average of 40% commission and in some instances, additional charges, such as set-up fees for a large house with a lot of items or a clean-out fee if they choose to have the company remove everything from the house to prepare it for sale or for a closing. “Every situation is different,” Picchietti explains. “I try to tailor my contract to the needs of the client.”

When move day arrives, it’s also helpful to hire a move manager and a team to pack and unpack your parent’s belongings so you can focus on being with them during the move.

“That way, you’re not doing all the work and leaving them on their own,” Dawson says. “You’re able to hold their hand during that transition day. Even in transitions when someone is totally on board and ready to go, they still have moments where they stop, need to grieve and process what’s going on. Make sure you give people space to do that.”

Transitions are never easy. In this case, remember that you’re working through a lifetime of not only belongings but memories. The key to success: striking a balance between honoring memories and letting go of items that no longer serve their owner.

Article republished in the Winter/Spring 2024 print issue