After a loved one
dies and the funeral is over, you may think the worst is at an end. Then come
the many practical matters: settling the estate, filing for life insurance
benefits, transferring deeds and titles, and the often dreaded, and sometimes
lengthy, task of sorting through a loved one’s personal possessions.

Sometimes this
entails no more than cleaning out a closet –
other times an entire home needs to be emptied. But whether it’s a small or
huge physical task, it is an enormous emotional task.

Clearing out a
loved one’s belongings may make us feel disloyal, dredge up memories both good
and bad, and confirm the permanence of the loss.

My Own Experience

I’ve had to do this
myself. After the sudden death of my best friend, Peter, it fell to me to clear
out his apartment and find homes for his belongings. As I sorted through his
things, each item took on new meaning, from his ever-present coffee mug and
favorite sweater to the last Christmas gift I gave him.

I sat frozen on his
couch, the very couch we’d sat on hundreds of times talking over everything
under the sun, overwhelmed by the task and not feeling very charitable. I could
think of nothing to give away because I wanted everything to remain as it was
before his death.

For almost two
months, I went through each and every item, stopping time and again to
reminisce and savor the memories. Peter had been an artist, so there were a
number of paintings to be dealt with as well. And I was reluctant to part with
any of them.

Giving Away Memories

With the end of the
lease looming, I rented a storage unit to hold his paintings until the day came
when I was ready to part with them. In time I realized that by keeping Peter’s
artwork in storage they were not being seen, and I was not honoring his memory.

I began giving
paintings to people who had known him and appreciated his work. I gave his
favorite painting of a horse and rider to a friend’s grandson, who had a
passion for horses.

I also donated a
portrait he had done of President Richard M. Nixon (one in a series of
Presidential portraits) to the Nixon library and received a letter in reply
indicating that it would be added to the Nixon collection of memorabilia. The
fact that it was in a repository of presidential materials is something that
Peter would have loved.

And, of course, I
kept some paintings for myself. They hang on my walls and are a daily reminder
of a long and cherished friendship.

While no personal
possessions can take the place of a lost loved one, special mementos keep the
memories near.

Here are some suggestions to help make a difficult, and stressful,
ordeal less daunting.

Don’t Act in Haste

Unless there are
pressing time constraints such as the impending sale of a home, or an apartment
lease soon to expire, tackle the project in your own good time. Don’t let
anyone rush you; everyone’s timetable is different.

Some may be quick
to get rid of reminders of their loved one believing that “out of sight, out of
mind” will help with healing, but down the line you may wish you
had held onto certain things.

Maureen Casey, a social worker in Queens, believes
there are two different approaches people take to donating items after a
person’s death.

One approach is to get rid of things in
haste because they see that process as closure. Other people, she says, “go
through the stages of grief and may not want to contemplate doing anything for
a year.”

Check to See Items Are Covered by the Will

Before giving away any possessions, check to see if they’ve already been
bequeathed to someone. This applies not only to valuables such as jewelry,
electronics, and furniture, but to sentimental things, too.

A will can also be the last word in deciding who gets what when more
than one person wants a particular item.

Start with the Obvious

Toss items that are
broken, stained, missing parts, or obsolete and lacking in emotional
attachment. Magazines, newspapers, cosmetics, toiletries (except perhaps for the
favorite cologne) can go, too. With common household items out of the way the
path forward becomes clearer.

Act Strategically

After the
non-essentials are out of the way, tackle one room at a time. Basic organizing
tips of “keep, discard, or donate” work well here. When the deceased has had an
extensive collection of items such as books or curios, putting limits on what
to keep may make things easier.

My beloved uncle
collected Lionel trains. When he died two years ago, his children and
grandchildren each kept one, with the remainder being sold to avid collectors.

Donate to Where It Will Do the Most Good

Consider donating
to an organization near and dear to your loved one. Veterans groups can use
clothing, as can Dress for Success.
Blankets, towels, and sheets are always needed by animal shelters, and books
can go to used book stores or library book sales.

In my case, I
eventually happened upon the idea of donating Peter’s prized easel (a birthday
gift from me), art books, and supplies to an art school. I knew he would

Casey, who met the man who would eventually become her
husband when he inquired about donating his late wife’s dresses, advises doing
“something that can live on in someone else’s life.”

She remembers one patient in particular who benefited
from the donation. The woman was undergoing dialysis and had neither the
strength nor the extra funds to buy a new dress for her daughter’s wedding.
Casey showed her the dresses that had been donated and one of them fit

“It looked like it had been made for her,” said Casey.
The woman was so thrilled that she sent Casey a thank you card, which she
shared with the donor, and that became a step on their path to courting and

Storage Facility

While sorting
through a loved one’s belongings may be therapeutic for some, it is agony for
others. If you simply cannot bear to tackle the
task immediately, consider storing items in your basement or attic.

If you live in an
apartment, and finances allow, think about renting a storage unit for the short
term as I did.

Memory Keepers

Meaningful and
favorite possessions of the deceased can be kept within a keepsake box. Mine,
for example, contains Peter’s prized portrait camera, a half-used tube of oil
paint, one of his paint brushes, and favorite greeting cards we exchanged
throughout the years.

Shadow boxes also
can serve a similar function and can be displayed on walls. Scrapbooks, too,
showcase memorabilia. In addition, some have suggested weaving articles of
clothing into a quilt.

Photograph Items Before You Give Them Away

Making a photo file of the items you give away ensures that precious
memories will not be lost forever. You can keep the file folder on your
computer and for added security back it up to an online photo sharing site or

There are a number of scanners on the market that allow you to preserve
important documents and receipts in an electronic form. Be sure to keep
important original documents in a safety deposit box at the bank or in a home

How do you handle
the belongings of deceased friends and family? Have you ever had to clear out
someone else’s house? How did you do it? What tips have remained that you’d
like to share with our community? Please use the comment box below.