After the death of a loved one, or a difficult break-up, you may find yourself having to deal with the other person’s leftover STUFF. Not just emotional stuff, but tangible stuff as well. People can accumulate quite a bit over the course of a long-term relationship. Even more so, after a lifetime of living in the same space.
The items that are left behind may hold significant monetary value or represent a strong sentimental attachment. A sense of obligation, guilt or fear of getting rid of certain things can leave you trapped under the weight of an overcrowded space. It’s not unusual to become overwhelmed while grieving a loss. This makes it that much more difficult to clear things out and get organized. Taking concrete steps to reclaim your living space will help you to make progress and bring clarity to your everyday life. When done the right way, decluttering offers the opportunity to honor special memories, while also gaining a sense of freedom and peace during the process.
Having another person step in to assist you with sorting through a loved one’s belongings can be a game-changer. The accountability and support that comes along with a helping hand is often needed for real change to occur. It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’re going to go through a pile of clothes or a box of photos over the weekend. It’s another thing to have an appointment with someone else who is coming over to guide and encourage you through it. Accountability makes all the difference.
Who you choose to ask is an important consideration. Someone who has biased opinions or strong feelings about the person may not be the best choice. Ask someone you trust but be wary of asking someone who is overly invested or vocal about the previous relationship you had. A relative or close friend could be the right choice if they are able to be objective, caring and patient. If their judgement is clouded by grief as well, or feelings of bitterness, anger etc. they might be more harmful than helpful.
Consider hiring a professional organizer if you aren’t sure who else to ask. A trained professional can help you tackle a big decluttering job, bit by bit. They can come up with a clear plan and schedule for getting it all done. A professional should also know the right ways to be supportive, by being practical and encouraging, but never pushy or demeaning.
Grief requires tremendous energy. Finding the motivation to sort through sentimental clutter can be physically and mentally exhausting. Try breaking it down into smaller areas to work on or specific increments of time to avoid getting burnt out. This way you can fit the process into your schedule rather than letting it take over your life.
Whether it’s 15 minutes or two hours, setting clear limits on how long you will work on dealing with certain items will give you a clear objective and goal. If you decide to donate items or purge, you could plan to fill 1 bag or 1 box every day, or every week. Spend 30 minutes organizing documents. Mark your stopping point and come back next time to where you left off. Don’t feel like everything needs to be done immediately. Slow and steady wins the race—that is, if you are consistently working on it and don’t give up.
Your home is not a museum. You are not obligated to keep every item that reminds you of the past. It’s not your job to hold on to everything that someone else has left behind. If something sparks happy memories and you choose to keep it, that choice is one you should make based on your personal potential benefit. Decide how to display or store items of meaning so they can be cherished and serve the purpose of bringing you joy.
If something reminds you of a negative experience or bad relationship, don’t hold on to it. There is no reason to surround yourself with items that perpetuate negative energy in your life. Take control by choosing to let it go. Protect your home environment and keep it organized and open for new things to enter. Make your home your sanctuary.
Items of value can be especially difficult to deal with after a loss. If you inherit a family heirloom or an expensive collector’s set, you might be keeping it simply because you don’t know what else to do with it. If you know it’s not something you want to have for yourself, figure out how to get value from it so you can use the money towards something productive. Set a deadline for yourself, and don’t wait forever to take care of it.
Often times, procrastination is our biggest barrier to addressing clutter, especially when that clutter is potentially worth money. The tendency to procrastinate can be further exacerbated during grief. Grief causes anxiety, stress and a host of mixed emotions that can amplify stubbornness or reluctance to act. Making clear cut decisions is often more difficult while grieving. To get unstuck, try going through the motions one step at a time, and see where it leads you.
For items of potential value, start by asking around to see if anyone might be interested in purchasing it. If you’re willing to give it away for free or donate it to someone or something you care about, that may work out well for you. It will save you the time and effort of finding a way to sell it. If not, figure out what steps you need to take to unload the item. Call a jewelry appraiser, a musical instrument shop or an antiques dealer to obtain the true value of your item and get some advice. Once you know how much something is worth, you could try listing it online for sale. Rather than keeping something because you don’t feel like dealing with it right now, stay motivated by using its value as leverage to buy something new, help someone out or fund a vacation.
It’s important to realize that sometimes we have a false sense of value for things that are already in our possession. While something may have sentimental value to you, that doesn’t mean that you can expect a high return on it when you go to sell it. This is called the Endowment Effect, a term coined by Richard Thaler in 1980. It refers to the tendency to overvalue the items we already own. It’s the reason that homeowners have trouble agreeing on a lower selling price when they feel an emotional attachment to their home. The endowment effect can be particularly problematic if you are trying to unload items that were once important to you or your loved ones. Your perception of the price might very well be off.
When you want to sell something, the reality is that it’s only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. Don’t let this stop you from letting go of items that you don’t need, use or cherish in your space. If getting rid of something helps you to accept and deal with the loss or painful emotions, then it’s worth accepting the perceived financial loss. Take reasonable steps to get a fair deal, but if you don’t, move forward anyway. You have nothing to gain by staying attached to items that belong to someone from your past or that don’t serve you in your life today.
We all have a limited amount of physical and emotional energy and space. Our capacity should not be filled by things that remind us too heavily of the past, especially those associated with negative emotions. If your home has become overfilled, or you feel overwhelmed with going through a loved one’s storage unit or estate, it’s worth the effort to do something about it. Pairing down to keep only what is truly important or useful to us improves our ability to function in the real world. We can think more clearly when we aren’t distracted or weighed down with clutter.
It’s not easy to get rid of things that are linked to meaningful relationships from our past. Although we may associate items with the emotions that they represent, that is not always the whole truth. Sometimes things are just that….things. They cannot bring back the past. They cannot change what has already happened. The memories we hold in our hearts are ours to keep, regardless of whether we are surrounded by clutter or not. Ask for help so you can create open space for the life you have today and the future that’s yet to come. Make room for more. Once you do so, a sense of lightness, flexibility and hope is likely to follow.
Our mission is to walk with you, hand in hand, through the necessary action steps to actually “recover” from your grieving experience. We offer grief coaching and support services for individuals, groups, and organizations from all walks of life. We specialize in helping grievers and their families, and we strive to consult with, educate, and support the community at large including companies, organizations, schools, and religious institutions. Even though you’ve endured painful changes in the circumstances of your life, we extend our hand of support to you, and invite you to embark on your journey of healing.