How do you sort through the lifetime’s possessions of one or both parents, decide what to keep and what to get rid of, while in a state of shock and grief, and often with a time pressure?
I came to think of the whole process as an exercise in personal archaeology, working down through a number of layers until the place was empty. This is what I learnt:
1. If the house is going to be sold the first step is to ‘depersonalise’ it for viewings. In fact this is a good place to start whatever the circumstances. It’s the first ‘layer’ of clearing, and the visible difference will motivate you to keep at it.
We were advised by the estate agent not to bother with redecorating, as whoever bought the house would no doubt want to do it up anyway. But removing personal items like photographs, ornaments, and any aids used by an elderly person helps create a blank canvas for potential purchasers to project their own lives onto. And that makes it much more likely to sell, quickly, and for a decent price.
Yes, it’s an emotional process, especially if the house is your childhood home, and you might be overwhelmed with memories, both good and bad, as you unearth from cupboards things you haven’t seen for years. I was dreading going through a drawer of old photographs, and kept putting it off. But I ended up roaring with laughter at all the cut-off heads and long-forgotten clothes.
3. Find a trustworthy house clearance firm and/or auctioneer, who can value the contents and may give you a price to remove the lot. It will save a huge amount of time going to the tip and charity shops, and listing things on eBay.
I discovered that what I thought was valuable wasn’t, and what I thought was hideous junk actually had a market. The house clearance firm we used even took bedding, cleaning materials, crockery and utensils.
4. Never take bags and boxes of stuff back to your own home. It will sit there getting in your way for months while you keep putting off the job of sorting through it. If the house has to be emptied, rent a self-storage unit so it’s not under your feet and you can go somewhere neutral to decide what to do with it all.
You need to be able to seek refuge at home from this long and demanding process, and you won’t get the respite you need if the stuff comes with you.
5. Have an objective helper if you can, your partner, friend or a professional declutterer. They will keep you going if you get derailed by memories and emotions. Or if you get stuck and feel unable to make any decisions about your parent’s possessions.
Don’t feel guilty about getting rid of things. You can’t possibly clear your parent’s house by simply transferring all its contents to yours! And don’t be concerned that items you do keep will always have a painful emotional charge. I’ve found that once rehomed they lose their poignancy and depending on the item are either just absorbed into your household or become pleasant reminders of people and times that have passed.
If you’re facing this difficult task now or know you will need to clear your parent’s house in the near future, I recommend you have a look at this article I wrote about getting rid of a lifetime of stuff.
It includes useful advice from a professional declutterer who has helped people empty houses for a variety of reasons, such as divorce and children leaving home, and a case study about emptying a large four bedroom house.
This post was kindly sponsored by Big Yellow Storage (Photos by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)