Cleaning Out When a Loved One Has Died

Recently I had the experience of helping a family not only clean out their basement but deal with the death of their mother. The message I want to convey here is that although the task seems overwhelming, it can be done! (probably quicker than you think.) There are a few key steps to take though if you want it done without drama, tension and chaos. I believe this family had the right combination.

First of all, the daughter contacted me last year, shortly after her mother passed away. She was one of seven children in a combined family from a couple marriages. Her main goal was to help her step-father deal with his loss by removing many of her mother’s things so that he wasn’t “living with a ghost.” We walked through the house and assessed each room and what needed to be done.  I came back for a couple visits with the step-father and we did some sorting and purging in the basement, which was the worst room at that point. The daughter lives out of town so it wasn’t until recently that she was able to get back for a weekend. But in the meantime she had time to grieve and was more emotionally ready when the time came. She was smart to bring her husband, mother-in-law and brother with her for a planned weekend of “cleaning out.” In the meantime a storage unit had been emptied and many boxes were dumped in the basement. With grown children there always seems to be a revolving door so needless to say the basement was worst than I last saw it.

We planned a full day on Thursday and a half day on Friday of me working with the family to sort and purge. We knew there would be trash, donations, consignment items and also some boxes that other members of the family would have to deal with. Sam, the daughter had a plan of attack before I even arrived. We tackled the basement again but this time quite thoroughly. It took 5 of us working 6 hours to complete the room. When we finished we had a driveway full of trash, two corners piled with donations and one corner of consignment items. I set up two pick-ups: Phillyjunk.com came on Saturday morning to take the donations and trash and Consign & Design from Broomall, PA came on Tuesday to pick up the consignment items. The second day, we took care of her mother’s personal items. Again we had donations, consignment items and two boxes for the daughters. After Day 1, Sam’s step-father was amazed at the transformation. After Day 2, Sam herself felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Every family has one child who feels responsible for pulling the family together and she’s it in hers. Her brother graciously let her put her name on all the consignments. It’s quite possible she’ll recoup the cost of my services for those days.

I have to say working with her family was a joy. No one fought over what they wanted, everyone kept the goal in mind and kept moving. We even had fun laughing at some funny things that were saved. Sam and her brother, Jeremy reminisced about crazy Halloween costumes that their mom had made. And yes, some tears were shed as they inevitably are at these times. But we let Sam have her moment, take the mementos that meant something to her, and the rest of us kept working.  I know they were exhausted by the end of the weekend but everyone was happy that they could go home feeling some closure and knowing that their step father did not have to face this daunting task alone. We will all be there someday and I think there is a lesson in this for all of us:

Key Steps

  1. Give yourself time to grieve first.
  2. Set a date and recruit helpers, don’t let it drag out or do it little by little.
  3. Have a plan of which rooms to do first, second, etc.
  4. Give all family members an opportunity to take what they want within a deadline.
  5. Use pick-up services whenever possible.

(For before & after pictures of this project, go to my Facebook)

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