Sorting through the stuff of someone you love who passed away

Recently I participated in the event every anti-cluttering expert gives specific but kind advice about: the sorting through stuff of the deceased. This is the first time I've had to do this. When my grandfather passed, my grandmother still lived in their house. She actually spent almost a year leading up to her passing carefully distributing specific items to the people she wanted to have them. I got dishes, a doll collection and jewelry over the course of a year. 

But then she passed away and while she cleared out a ton off stuff and therefore no one needed to be concerned about her wishes for specific items (thank you, Grandma!), my grandmother had a bit of Depression-era stockpiling in her and so there was still a lot more to go through. 

I showed up with my mother on the designated day, prepared to take only what I could use or what I felt was very dear to me. It worked well -- for a while. But I found old stuff I stored there (okay, that's my responsibility), stuff my own mother had made for me (okay, I guess that's mine to figure out what to do with), stuff that struck an oddly resonant tone with me (her vanity, her perfume bottle, her blush brush, her pasta maker), stuff I wanted (vintage servingware, cake decorations, vintage Lefton mermaid and resin seashorses)...and then after several hours of sorting, it just all came crashing down. Well, obviously I need at least a few pieces of her everyday Corelle dishes so I have that pattern in my house. Well, my family really is pushing for someone to bring this serving plate home so I guess I can take it. Well, I guess I can use a bunch of jars, even if they have water-soluable frog transfers on them. 

^ vintage Lefton mermaid ^

My living room ended up filled with boxes and boxes in addition to a vanity that I still need to put somewhere. Our kitchen table and counter was filled with dishes, serving platters, jars.

^ double-decker serving dish & dessert decorations ^

I'm still sorting through everything. Some of it is more precious than the rest. Some of it is mine to get rid of (my rock collection!) but it is all in my home. It is all scattered around my apartment. 

^ her perfume and compact blush brush ^

Considering the advice that clutter coaches give, I'm not sure I did the right thing. I feel like the sheer amount of stuff in my place is overwhelming. I am trying to incorporate some of it into daily life, and that feels good. I want it to be like an expert card dealer when they shuffle - one side of the deck just seamlessly fits into the other to form a complete deck. She is me and I am her to an extent and sure, why doesn't our stuff just feel that way, too? Having some of it in our home feels like always being able to wear my grandmother's ring or jacket -- just some way she seamlessly is with me and I've very purposely placed her memory upon me. But on the other hand, I am overwhelmed. 

^ her pasta maker ^

I know I won't keep all of it and I've given some of the stuff foisted on me away already. (And I did so even when I was getting stuff directly from her when it was costume jewelry or the like -- I'd already received dozens of rounds of stuff and sometimes I think she was just giving to move it or to show she was thinking about us.) I know I won't keep it all. And an interesting side effect is that I don't want one more thing to pass through our front door threshold and into our apartment. I feel like one new item in our apartment and it will implode. There's a benefit to that, I guess, and I wish I felt it more often and not just now. 

I think maybe holding this stuff a while will let me see what we can reasonably use, what we need to keep. It will help with the attachment issues. It will not be me making decisions with family members who desperately wanted someone who knew her and loved her to take her stuff. It will just be me and her memory and what feels right.

I am sure I didn't follow any of the clutter coach advice correctly. I thought I would. I really did. I've been known to ask my mother if she wants gifts she gave me back before I cull them because I know she liked them enough to buy them vs just having it disappear from my apartment (I know, horrible). I thought I'd be better about not taking too much. But when I was faced with her empty -- and emptying -- house, and pleading family looks, it just fell apart. And that's okay. For now.


  1. Touching and kind of heartbreaking post. Thank you for sharing what this kind of experience can feel like. Haven't yet had to help clear out a loved one's home, but I know it's only a matter of time.

    1. Thank you, Kate. I thought it would feel so different than it actually did.

  2. I think the clutter coaches can stuff it. My grandmas' treasures are my treasures, and so are the treasures of other people's grandmas, too. I think you found some gorgeous things. When we cleaned out my grandparent's apartment, I was living in New Orleans, and they were in North Miami, and it was upsetting to leave the larger things behind.


    1. Even more upsetting was bringing carloads of my gran's thngs to the thriftstore. I'm glad you took what you wanted, because now you can take the time to decide what to do with, instead of having to make a decision on the spot that you might regret later.


    2. Oh my god, Kittee. This kills me. I am grateful I got to do what I did. xo Hugs to you for that memory.

    3. Couldn't agree with Kittee more. My grandparents all passed away while I was still young enough to let my parents decide which items I should have and what should be let go (I did not go through the homes with them). A few things were marked specifically for me, but there are so many things I can conjure from my childhood memories that I wish I had voiced my sentimentality for instead of just letting them be gone with the wind- as big as furniture and as little as a Jean Nate bottle. I do find much solace in what I do have- including my coffee table and dining room table, that help to incorporate them into my daily life. You did the absolute right thing.

  3. Oh, this post is so tender. I didn't really get many objects when my grandparents died. I guess that's okay, but i also kinda wish that I had a few more tangible items to remember them buy, especially after reading your post. How odd. I guess there must be a fine line between just the right amount of mementos and not enough. I know I have a tshirt that belonged to my grandpa, and I wear it sometimes and think of him. Reading this makes me want to go and put it on.

  4. This was beautiful and thoughtful. Objects have meaning and hold memories, and that's ok. You'll find a way to let them go when it's time.


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