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If you have lost a loved one, you may find yourself dreading the day when you have to dispose of your loved one’s favorite shirt or the books on the shelf that he or she would read and re-read until the pages wore down. Possessions are tied to events, and when you come across an item that was a part of a loved one’s identity, you find yourself in a lose-lose situation: it hurts to keep it and it hurts to part with it.

Lighten the Burden

But there are ways to make the cleaning process more bearable. Sorting through a lost loved one’s belongings is never easy, but by developing a strategy, you can make it much more tolerable. Here are some tips that might provide you with some peace as you begin to face this daunting task:

1. Develop a Game Plan

Give yourself some structure. Diving in without a full understanding of the scope of the project will probably leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Make a list of what needs to be done and organize your goals. Separate the items that you need to clean into groups, and move from group to group. You might want to designate each room as a separate job, and have an individual strategy for each room.

2. Set Small Goals

After the loss of a loved one, cleaning can be physically and emotionally draining. For this reason, it’s important to pace yourself. Completing any task, big or small, provides you with a sense of satisfaction, so break one task into five and have five moments of victory! Be sure to take plenty of breaks between tasks. Develop a reward system for yourself. Maybe you’ll decide to grab a coffee after finishing a certain closet, or take a TV break after finishing a room.

3. Sort as You Go

You’ll cut down on a lot of excess time and energy if you sort the items into piles as you go. You may want to designate areas or boxes labeled “Keep,” “Donate,” “Give to a family member,” and “Throw away.” Label your boxes or bags and place things in the appropriate areas. Sorting items on the front end will help you decide on a clear goal for each item you come across and will make the project more manageable.

4. Set a Quantity Limit

As you look over all of your loved one’s possessions, you are probably going to be tempted to keep too much. So, in addition to setting goals for the completion of your project, set goals for your ability to let go. There is no way you can keep everything. The best way to decide what to keep is to write a short list of items ahead of time that you can’t imagine parting with and set specific limitations for each type of item you will keep.

5. Assess Each Item for Future Worth

Which items are the most meaningful? When you first begin to look at the loved one’s possessions, everything seems important. And when you decide which items are most important, how do you know if keeping it is what the loved one would really want? The process of determining what to keep and what to part with can be extremely difficult. There are no fixed criteria to help you decide to hold on to item A and let go of item B. It’s ultimately up to you to decide. Remember the loved one’s connection to the possession and try to decide if there is any real value in keeping the object. If not, consider donating it.

6. Invite Friends to Help

You might want to invite close friends to help out. It’s important to surround yourself with people that can provide emotional support. If you decide that this is a personal project that you’d rather complete on your own, that’s fine too, but you may want to consider planning time to be with others during breaks, or right before or after working. Falling back on a support network can be extremely helpful when facing tasks that are emotionally difficult.

7. Find Peace with the Decisions that you Make

Sorting through your loved one’s belongings can put you in an emotionally vulnerable place and can lead to self-doubt. Remember: there is nothing to feel guilty about. Letting some things go is not an act of betrayal. On the contrary, it is a gift to your loved one, a tribute. Maintaining a healthy attitude is key. Know that what you are doing is necessary, and view it as one more way to honor the person that you love.


Cleaning out a loved one’s home or possessions after a loss can be a stressful task, so go easy on yourself. Remind yourself of the importance of what you are doing, and keep a positive mindset. Don’t rush through the project, and above all, leave no room for guilt. Love yourself just as you loved the person that you lost. Know that this is a challenging project, and that your best effort is good enough.


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