Cleaning out a very cluttered home

4 min read

If your loved one who died was a hoarder

  • If you are cleaning out a hoarder’s home, an ordinarily emotionally and physically taxing job is even harder.

  • You may have felt strong emotions about their clutter for a long time—and they’re likely to resurface while you are there.

  • It can be tempting to throw away clutter in huge piles, but important documents and mementos can be hidden anywhere, even in the trash.

  • Keep in mind there are professionals who can help with everything from sorting to hauling to cleaning.

Cleaning out a house after a family member or other loved one has passed away can be a huge project. Not only is it a lot of work, but sometimes memories or strong emotions can surprise you as you sort through belongings.

If your loved one was a hoarder, or they just had a home that is massively cluttered, your task is even bigger, and your feelings may be correspondingly more complicated. Having managed your relationship with this person—and their tendency to gather too much stuff—during their lifetime, it is now up too you to decide how to tackle this job while protecting your well-being and reducing your anxiety about the past.

Assessing the situation

To clean out a hoarder’s home, you’ll follow the same process as any home cleanup, which starts with sorting everything into categories: what to keep, donate, or throw away.

However, the sheer volume of belongings—and possibly the condition that they are in—can bring tricky feelings to the surface about the person, their relationship to their stuff, and how that dependence on stuff affected you. Don’t try to minimize how much time or mental energy it will take. You have a big job ahead, and you are tackling it while grieving.

Even if you’re the one tasked with this cleanup, you do not necessarily need to handle every aspect of the cleaning, sanitizing, heavy lifting, and junk disposal yourself. You’ll need to take a good look at the status of the stuff and what each room needs. Then, it is a good idea to bring in family members, friends, or even an outside service to help with the job.

Knowing what you’re looking for

You might feel motivated to get rid of large piles of stuff without going through every item, especially if there are papers that are stuck together, musty, moldy or decayed.

With the amount of physical and emotional energy a project like this requires, that is understandable. But you run the risk of inadvertently disposing of key documents, currency, or other valuable items hidden within plastic bins or piles of clothes—or even mixed with trash.  

Don’t try to minimize how much time or mental energy it will take. You have a big job ahead, and you are tackling it while grieving.

Before you decide who will be cleaning, it is important to do your best to identify and secure significant documents. Sometimes you know where important documents are stored, but even if you do, the ones you know about may not be the only ones you will need.

As you sort through each pile, it’s also important to go through everything thoroughly to find and secure personal mementos that may have sentimental value to family and friends, such as photographs and souvenirs.

Remember, if you start to feel overwhelmed, think about bringing in more support, whether from another family member, a trusted friend, or a cleaning specialist.

Throwing things away

In any home cleanup, there are items of no real value that clearly should be tossed. If your loved one was hoarding, you may have a mental list of items you have wanted to dispose of for a long time.

It is OK to have strong feelings as you go through the house with the power to make these choices. Remember that this is a job that needs to be done, no matter what feelings your loved one attached to these items.

You can save some, of course, but only do so if they will be significant and valuable to you or someone else in the family. Everything else can be marked for disposal. The process of identifying the things that can clearly be trashed will also give you a good idea of whether you will need to rent a dumpster or hire a service.

Choosing a cleaning service

A professional cleanup company can help you make the best decisions when your emotions are tender. The type of company you need depends on the issues you are facing.

If you have already secured important documents and any valuables, and you just need to clear out what’s left, search for junk removal companies. They take large and small items and debris and often provide basic cleaning services.

If you need more help sorting through everything, clutter cleanup companies help you organize all the belongings. This can be especially useful if there are a lot of new or valuable items mixed with older, deteriorated items.

If you are unsure whether there is any biohazardous material, such as bodily fluids, mold, or medical waste, in the house, getting an estimate from a hoarder cleanup company can provide you with peace of mind. They can save you the mistake of spreading stains and contamination or overlooking unpleasant materials that could later be found in unexpected places.

Taking the steps to clean out a loved one’s cluttered home may feel bittersweet because you can only make the choice of what to keep or throw away now that they are gone. But just as you choose which of their possessions to keep, you can also choose how you want them to live on in your memory.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.