Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death

Dear Barbara, I was wondering if you have a booklet that provides some guidance to family members who have lost a loved one regarding how to manage the process of cleaning out the residence of the person who passed away?  What the different options are and types of resources available to assist? 

I am not aware of anything other than my brief touch on letting go of things in my grief booklet, My Friend, I Care, BUT what you have addressed is important so I decided to write this blog about letting go and not letting go of material items.

First, if you don’t have to clean out belongings, don’t for awhile, wait even months if necessary. There can be great comfort found in putting on an unwashed sweater of the person who recently died, to feel them, to smell them. Seeing and holding something they treasured or used, their pillow, their favorite chair, wearing their favorite hat or cap, seeing the mess in their office and sitting in their chair (There are so many things I can’t list them all but you will know). All these and more, in the early days of grief, can bring comfort and will help you. So keep things as they were for awhile (in closets, drawers, a home office). 

Second, don’t make any major life decisions, like selling the house, moving in with family, spending large sums of money, or investments for at least a year. That year will give you time to think with your mind not your emotions.

Now, some people can’t wait months, even weeks, let alone a year. Decisions have to be made right away. If that is the case think of what you can keep, even if the material items aren’t needed but have sentimental memories—-keep them for awhile, you will know when you can let go of them. Err on the side of keeping.

Adult children often rush in and organize us elderly, thinking they know best. This is a reminder to you adult children to be gentle, try to put yourself in your loved one's situation and ask how you would feel and what would you want if it was you living this life challenge of releasing a lifetime of memories and often independence.

There are companies you can hire that will help you downsize, relocate, organize the “house item releasing.” These people are sensitive to the emotional needs and experience of having to part with possessions accumulated over a lifetime---or not. 

The National Association of Senior & Speciality Move Managers is the national organization and where you can find Senior Move Managers in your area. My niece has a senior move website: if you want to see what services are offered.

When moving in the time of grief, letting go of material items is like letting go of the memories those items hold. It is an added burden to an already emotional assault on our idea of living.

Something More... about Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death

For hospice agency bereavement programs, I have a one hour dvd EXPLORING THE GRIEVING PROCESS for Hospice and Palliative Care Providers. This DVD suggests ideas for visitations and funerals, addresses differences between male and female grieving patterns, and gives ideas for addressing issues left unresolved by death. Its intended audience: Hospice and palliative care employees; hospice volunteers; church groups; parish nurses; clergy. Its intended use: Employee orientation or in-services for hospice and palliative care; community education; grief training; bereavement groups.

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Mary Ellen

I waited about 6 months to clean out my brother’s personal effects and also about that long to clean out my mother’s. I am glad I waited. It made it easier. I kept things that were meaningful to me. Oddly, in both cases keeping their wallets was very important to me with their drivers licenses and membership cards etc. I still take them out and look at them today, many years later, and it gives me comfort.


I agree with this advice to wait for a while before dealing with material belongings. I moved my parents in with us and had their belongings squeezed in among our own material things. I was caring my my critically ill brother at the same time. I am naturally a tidy person and felt very out of control at the time and gave away a lot of my parents things in order to “make space”. I subsequently lost my brother and father in rapid succssion. Oh I wish I had my father’s ashtray and his lifelong matchbook collection, I actually wake up in the night with pangs of regret. It sounds absurd, but they would be cherished at this point. So yes, please don’t rush into sorting through a loved one’s personal belongings. Sit with your grief, you will have time in the future to deal with belongings. Thank you for your wise words Barbara.


I was married for 32 years to my loving wife who was fearless in all aspects. Everyday I see the recliner she used to love so much.. I still grieve and say No Fair when I look at her picture. I miss her so much

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