How to cope when packing up a loved one's home

Sorting through the belongings of a loved one who has died is a task most of us don't like to think about, but will have ...
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Sorting through the belongings of a loved one who has died is a task most of us don't like to think about, but will have to go through at some stage.

When my grandmother had to move from her home into full-time hospice care, the task of packing up her life fell upon one unfortunate family member. I was overseas travelling at the time, something I still have pangs of guilt about to this day, though I did make it home in time to say goodbye.

Said family member, undoubtedly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff that could accumulate over 86 years, took most of her belongings to an op-shop. We were left with her jewellery, but not much else, and this increased my feelings of guilt. Though most of her possessions were not to my personal taste – think Royal Doulton porcelain ladies, dozens of handmade tapestries and a vast classical music collection – my heart ached because I knew how much she loved them, and how she would have wanted each of us to keep a portion.

Sorting through the belongings of a loved one who has died is a task most of us don't like to think about, but will have to go through at some stage. How do you decide what to keep, give away or throw out?

Kirsty Wheeler lost her sister, Katie, four years ago. Initially, returning to the house where her sister had lived most of her life was a comfort. Kirsty slept in Katie's bedroom, wrapped in her sister's blanket. But after several months, the subject of what to do with Katie's possessions was raised.

"My mum's a very practical person and I'm the opposite," Kirsty explains. "About three months after [Katie] died Mum brought it up and I wasn't ready."

It took about six months for the family to start the task, and Kirsty, her mother, and Katie's fiance Peter shared the load.

"Sometimes it was pretty emotional," Kirsty says. "You get caught up in talking about memories or getting upset. I think there's a lot of procrastination with it as well, especially if you're a sentimental type of person."

Some of Katie's clothes were given to family friends, but the majority of things were divided amongst the family. Kirsty currently has four plastic crates filled with her sister's clothes – some of which she wears – jewellery and keepsakes stored in her garage. She says her decision regarding what to keep came down to which particular objects resonated.

"When you have a personal connection to something, like a jacket that you loved her in, or a necklace that you connected to her, that's the sort of thing that you feel awkward about giving away or selling."

Psychologist Meredith Fuller says this particular task is "terribly difficult," and recommends that people take their time with it.

"Sometimes people might need the full 12-month anniversary before they can tackle these things, and that's OK . If you push it when you're not ready it's just really hard to do."

By the same token, if being surrounded by a loved one's items causes more grief and pain, then it's best to make a start on working through them. Fuller recommends breaking up the job into smaller, more manageable undertakings, such as going through the wardrobe on one day, and a dresser or desk on another.

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"Make three piles, one for giving away, and that might be to charity or things that you want to give to someone in particular, one to definitely keep, and then a 'not sure yet, will re-look at' pile," she suggests. "Then you don't feel that it's all or nothing and it helps you start the task."

"Sometimes there'll be things that really upset you, if you come across an item of clothing or a little keepsake or something and it just brings you down, and you might cry. That's good, let yourself do what you need to do."

It's also a good idea to have a trusted friend or family member with you, so that you're not going through it all alone. That way, you'll also have someone to talk to if certain memories or emotions emerge.

Keeping possessions in the family can be a way of moving them along, while still keeping them close. It might be easier to pass them along to relatives or close friends who've expressed a liking for them, rather than leaving them with an op-shop.

If you don't have enough room to keep all of the things you would like, taking photos of particular items can be another way of remembering them. And if there are things that you don't want but aren't comfortable with others having, having a memorial and burning them can be a cathartic option.

"It's really about finding the rituals that work best for you," says Fuller.

Kirsty is fine with having her collection of plastic crates for now, but expects that she may have to cut back on her mementoes in the future, when she and her husband need the extra space. It's not something she worries about, believing that the passage of time will make the job easier.

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