After They Die: Sorting Through Their “Stuff”

After They Die: Sorting Through Their “Stuff”

Getting rid of someone’s stuff after they die is tough.

It is an admission. For some people, it is the ultimate act of reconciling the permanence of a loss.

A lot of “stuff” – baseball cards, the shirt from the family portrait, a picture they painted or a lucky sock – it all gets left behind when someone dies. For many people the thought of “getting rid” of these items they touched, wore and loved is nauseating, inconceivable. When there is a loss of life there is a creation of meaning that soaks into places, symbols, objects; and immediately after a death anything associated with that person can feel like the most precious object in your world.

Over time the truly important symbols of a life separate from the general ones. You discover where your treasure lies – the striped shirt that made you fall in love all over again, the recipe book with their writing in it, the present they bought just for you – treasures. You keep those forever and to acknowledge their great importance, you begin to feel you can let some lesser things go.

One person facing the task of sorting through the “stuff” told me about a friend who felt able to begin sifting through the stuff about 2 years after their loss. Having this time frame in mind seemed to help her, as the 2 year anniversary approached she began to ramp up the courage to make the climb into the attic and did.

I want to say very clearly that 2 years is not a magic number – there are no magic numbers or formulas when it comes to grief. I mention the 2 years because I think, in general, that is more time than most people feel they can give themselves. Our culture likes the idea of “moving on” and there is discomfort when people are perceived to be “standing still,” especially when we don’t know how to help. My advice when considering a time frame – if a time frame is comforting to you – is to do what you can when you feel that you can. For some people the structure is comforting and for others it’s a trap. Take on or strip away whatever you need to, just have the courage to face your grief and talk to it. Ask it what it needs and then give it.

A couple of conversations with friends brought up this idea of “tidying” and giving away. I’ve been in a bit of a spring-cleaning kick and have noticed how there are times when I approach the items in my closet with a resentment, I want to get rid of them but something they represent manipulates me into keeping.

Marie Kondo’s new book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has led to some fascinating discussions and personal breakthroughs for me in the past few weeks. While I am not in the painful place of getting rid of a loved one’s stuff, I feel like the last few weeks have given me much more empathy for those facing this daunting task. This KonMari Method of tidying and purging actually works and is very freeing.

Kondo uses this simple question when deciding to keep or purge an item:

 Does this spark joy?

That’s it. Think of your closet, and how many shirts in there are burdens that you haven’t worn in years. Why are you bearing those burdens? Why are you subjecting yourself to them? They are just shirts! Get rid of them. Keep the ones that spark joy.

Easier said when it’s your own closet you’re looking at but I think this same method can be used when sorting through the stuff that our loved ones leave us with. Does that item spark joy for you? Maybe it’s something you never even expected – a hat that looked crazy or an old holey shirt – that suddenly, now, sparks joy for you. Keep it and feel no guilt. It brings you joy and shouldn’t we work a little harder to surround ourselves with items that do that?

If the item was beloved by you but you feel you can let it go, it’s just guilt holding you back, Marie Kondo says to say “thank you” to the object for what it has given and meant to you. Then, let it go.

So beautiful. Freeing. Joy-filled. Sharing. En-joy-ing.

|| so, what do you think?

– At what point did you feel you were able to begin sorting through your loved one’s stuff?

– Was it an emotional marker or an anniversary?

– What has been the hardest and/or best part about this process for you?

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.


  1. Shasta Cola says:

    Molly, I enjoyed this blog. I can relate to it greatly! When my brother died, I immediately went into his room and held on to a few things, in fear they would somehow disappear or be thrown away. I think it felt like I was holding onto the memory of him as soon as I could before it got away. The room is still almost exactly the same 2 1/2 years later, and I find myself going in there every once in awhile, it is almost like time travel. I definitely think it is super hard to think of giving away his things, I probably wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t hold on to all of them. There are certain things that spark joy, such as a self portrait he drew in probably 1st grade of him as an Aquabat, because we were both really into the Aquabats when we were younger. My own things, however, I am finding easier to sort through and get rid of that I do not need. They all hold memories, but some better than others, and not all are worth keeping.

  2. Becky Finch Lomaka says:

    Molly, this is such a meaningful topic. Just the thought of “sorting through” can be such an anguishing experience. For me, I held on to every sympathy card that was given to me after my brother died for an entire year. They sat in a neat little pile on by dresser. I didn’t feel the need to read them, but somehow just knowing they were there brought me comfort. A few weeks after the 1st year anniversary of his death I took some quiet time to read each card with tear-filled eyes and then gently allowed myself to get rid of them. I will always keep and treasure a couple of special mementos of my brother’s that remind me of his love of life. Over time the sharp edges of grief have softened and have allowed sweet memories to emerge.

    Thank you, again, for such a wonderful blog!

  3. Anne says:

    I see I inspired you! Beautiful blog! I hope it helps a lot of people. She helped me, that’s for sure!

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