It's a topic no one likes to think about: the inevitable clean-out of your parents' belongings. But as with many uncomfortable subjects, the best way to approach this one is to plan and start now.
Here are some tips to help make the process easier, not only for you but also for your parents and other loved ones.
1. Talk to your parents
If your parents are still around and can communicate their wishes, involve them in the process. Do your best to balance being sensitive to their preferences with practical concerns.
Unfortunately, you may find they want to hold on to more than is advisable—in which case, you have a few options:
- Take photos of special items and scan documents to keep a digital record.
- Offer to put things they don't want to disappear in storage, so at least they know they are safe somewhere.
- If all else fails, you may choose to put off dealing with some things until after they're gone.
One potentially huge upside to talking with your parents now is that you may learn interesting stories behind certain objects. You can take advantage of this opportunity to delve into family history and deepen your connection.
If your parents have specific intentions regarding some items, encourage them to express them in writing, whether in a last will and testament or simply in a document you can keep for future reference.
2. Talk to other family members
While you may feel like this responsibility will fall directly on your shoulders, it's possible other family members would be willing to help or who even expect to do so.
Talking with other family members now and developing a plan together can make the process go more smoothly.
It can also help you avoid possible disagreements and hurt feelings down the road should say, your estranged sister suddenly decide she absolutely has to have your mother's ring.
Depending on your familial relationships, of course, you may actually prefer to do this alone. Still, if others can help even with logistics, it might be worth asking them to do so.
3. Determine qualifications for the 'stay' pile
It's important to set some rules around what stays and what goes. If you are dealing with appliances, make sure everything works.
When it comes to clothes, if they haven't worn something in a year or two, donate it. If an object has sentimental value, make sure you get the story and then determine whether it could be passed on to someone now or documented and then discarded or donated.
You could use the Marie Kondo technique, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Ask if the items bring you joy, and if they don't, encourage binning them.
4. Consider what's 'in' and what's 'out'
When deciding what to do with certain items, it's important to recognize that some things aren't as much in demand as they used to be. While antiques—especially midcentury modern—may still fetch a reasonable price when put up for sale, many of the older generation's stuff isn't wanted by the emerging minimalists of today, many of whom don't seem to have as much emotional attachment to objects.
Those who deal in antiques note that items such as crystal, silver, china, and old dark wood furniture are decidedly more difficult to move these days—literally.
Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and websites such as freecycle.org can be helpful if you have things you'd like to give away, and there may be organizations local to your area that accept such donations as well.
Still, what to keep and what should go are incredibly personal decisions, so the more time you allow to really think about this, the less likely you are to have “tosser's remorse" later.
5. Don't underestimate the time involved
Deconstructing someone's life via their possessions can easily take weeks and even months, especially if they've lived in the same place for a long time. If you know your parents will be moving, you should start planning for this as soon as possible.
Encourage your parents to do as much decluttering as they can manage—whether through the gifting of items to loved ones, donations, or trashing unnecessary items.
You can frame it as a way of spending more time together and also note how much easier this will make things once they are gone.
Moreover, if a parent passes away suddenly, you may be rushed to clean everything out because of rental agreements and the like, so having a head start is a good idea.
6. Don't underestimate the emotional toll
If your parents are still alive, getting rid of their possessions can be an extremely emotional experience for everyone involved. In the situation of an unexpected death, doing the big clean-out can be downright devastating.
Be gentle with yourself as you deal with everything. As suggested above, if you have a plan in place, that could help temper the emotions a bit, but some aspects of letting go will inevitably be challenging. Allow time and space to deal with this as well.
7. Bring in the professionals
Get appraisals for jewelry, antiques, and anything else that might be worth something. You can do your own research online, of course, but keep in mind that liquidators and estate sale companies can come in and take care of everything at once.
Remember, too, that the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) has excellent resources and can link you with professional move managers to help with both the physical and emotional issues surrounding this monumental task.