Dealing with the emotions of clearing out the house

5 min read

Things to consider when clearing belongings

  • Unexpected feelings of sadness, anger, or even guilt may arise throughout the process.

  • The longer you worry about where or how to get started, the harder the task might seem.

  • Giving yourself time, space, and compassion as you go through objects can help alleviate stress.

  • Donating practical objects to people who could use them can assuage guilt.

  • You can always “save” objects by capturing them in a photograph.

After a loved one has passed away, you might find yourself in charge of clearing out their home or a part of it. It’s a daunting task to sort through all the mundane, everyday items, and it can be an emotional experience to encounter and make decisions about sentimental items, particularly while you are still in the early stages of your grief.

No matter the size of the house or how much is in it, you’ll most likely experience a range of emotions during the process. You might feel overwhelmed, lost, sad, angry, or even guilty, or several of those in tandem. 

Expecting the unexpected is one key to getting through this tough work—try not to presume to know how it will affect you, and give yourself plenty of time to feel your emotions and take breaks. 

Just dive into the sorting

The longer you worry about where or how to get started, the harder the task might seem. Having a strategy in mind can help you tackle things systematically and help you stay on track throughout. For example, you could decide to sort through items room by room, or make a list of sentimental items and recover those first. A plan is particularly useful if you’re going to have help, so you’ll all be on the same page from the outset. 

Even though it’s potentially tempting to power through and “just get it done,” build in some time to reflect and feel those moments that are emotional. Maybe you can sit down to lunch at a certain time and share with your family what you experienced (or anything interesting you might have found), or you can plan to go on a walk after you tackle each particularly large task. Give yourself as much time as you can allow to get this done, so that you aren’t adding stress to your emotional rollercoaster. 

Try not to make the stuff a shrine

People often report feeling guilty about taking apart their loved one’s house, especially if it was also their own childhood home. This is, after all, where the person built the life they lived, often surrounded by stuff that held meaningful memories. It can be hard to repress the instinct to preserve everything as they left it in order to avoid the idea that they are gone. 

However, it’s important to get past this feeling, and remember that for the most part this is just, well, stuff. Of course there are things you’ll personally find sentimental value in (more on that later) and items that other people might cherish, but that spatula? Probably not. That stack of mail? Your loved one would’ve gone through it and thrown most of it away.

You don’t want to wallow in the guilt you might feel because ultimately, this is one of the tasks on a long list of things that must happen parallel to processing your grief. 

Donate to those in need

One way to assuage difficult emotions during this work is to give practical objects (like kitchen utensils and appliances, books, and even clothing) to people who could use them. Chances are that everyone in your immediate family already has a can opener, so why not donate your loved one’s to the local women’s shelter to help someone stock their new home? In donating, you’re honoring your loved one’s memory by giving those everyday items a new purpose.

In donating, you’re honoring your loved one’s memory by giving those everyday items a new purpose.

As you go through the objects, ask yourself if an item is in good enough condition to serve someone else for a significant amount of time. If the answer is yes, place it in a box for donations. If the answer is no, give yourself permission to toss it. 

Remember that every item your loved one owned is part of their estate, and by the letter of the law it will all need to be divided up among their heirs or beneficiaries. If you intend to donate any items, make sure that everyone who has a say in the division of the property agrees to this, under the supervision of the executor.

Hold onto a few items 

While you don’t want to bring a bunch of stuff home with you that will wind up cluttering up your own home, you also should feel perfectly OK with adopting some items. Again, make sure that all beneficiaries agree to a fair division of any items that you decide to keep.

Choose a few things that will remind you of your loved one and help you honor the time you spent together. It might be a piece of artwork that you always admired or a blanket you shared movie nights under, but try to tie the things you want to keep to specific memories. By applying this emotional lens to objects, you’ll be able to decide what truly matters to your relationship with your loved one. 

For everything else that gives you nostalgic feelings, or stuff you might want to keep simply because it reminds you of the person you love, remember that you can always take a photo of these objects and look at the photos whenever you want. Then you can feel good about giving away or throwing away this stuff and holding onto the images.

One important thing to keep in mind throughout the whole process of clearing out your loved one’s home is that we, as humans, often collect things that do not provide us with any meaningful joy. Think about your own home: Would you want someone to keep all those empty glass jars you’ve collected over the years? Not really. You’d be totally OK with those getting thrown away. Your loved one would most likely feel similarly about the stuff in their home—it’s just stuff. What really matters is the memories you have with them, and how you’ll carry those forward into the future.

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.