Sorting Through a Lost Loved One’s Belongings without Loosing It


Going back to your hometown can be nostalgic, stressful, or bittersweet. Often it’s all of those things. For me going back to Cleveland brings up a lot of memories because I typically stay with my sister Sarah who lives in the house we grew up in. It is a little emotional now that both of our parents are deceased.

My dad passed away when I was 11. I can’t tell you how weird it is to have lived more of your life without someone in it than with them. His death was sudden and unexpected. I lost my mom three and a half years ago after a long battle with cancer. I’d like to be able to tell you that there is a difference between losing someone slowly vs quickly, but honestly, a loss is a loss and it hurts just as much either way.  

When you lose someone one of the least fun tasks is going through their personal belongings. In my childhood home we have things that belonged to both of my parents, my mother’s mother who lived with us at one point, and from various relatives who left things to us in the past. The gut instinct is to keep everything, but you find there just isn’t room.  Every time I visit Cleveland, Sarah (my baby sister) and I tackle another box of belongings and are flooded with either memories of our childhood or excited about new things we discovered about our relatives.

At some point in life, everyone will find themselves in this position. Sarah and I categorize things into four categories:

  1. If things are damaged or unnecessary such as my grandma’s pay stub receipts from the 1950’s we toss them.
  2. Things that are in good condition but have no sentimental value such as unopened bed sheets get donated to charity.  
  3. Things that hold no special meaning for my sisters or myself, but may mean something to other relatives are saved and shared when we see them. In this most recent purge, we gave my uncle my dad’s special egg cream cup.  
  4. Things that hold particular sentimental value get split between my sisters and I. The nice thing is we don’t fight over who gets what and are usually able to find good compromises. I kept my mom’s girl scout uniforms because I was the only one that wanted them. Family recipes mean a lot to both me and Sarah so she kept mom’s recipe box and I took my grandma’s.  

Going through your parents’ or other loved ones’ belongings can be sad and a little stressful. I recommend not doing it alone. It is good if someone objective can join you if you’re afraid you’re going to hang on to too much. Just remember that the items you’re hanging on to aren’t as important as the memories of the person you love.

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