Lickity Splickity or Little by Little?

Did you ever listen to a speaker or read an article and think: “I never thought about it like that before”?

Well, that’s what happened when I read the Barbara Karnes article about cleaning out the belongings of a deceased family member. 

BK Books | Something to Think About
Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death

Why?  Because her advice is the anthesis of what I would do—and actually have done.  It’s against my nature.  I’m a minimalist—the kind of person who is always paring down, cleaning out, and organizing. 

I used to teach in a prison and there was a video I would show to my class with the coolest down-to earth counselor who had a way of explaining things in a way that just “hit it on the head”.  The video featured this little girl who was like a “little mother”—always cleaning up.  The counselor explained the child’s behavior by pointing out this was her way of trying to exert some control in her life.  It was a coping mechanism to counter the uncontrollable situations in her environment.   

For me, this counselor’s explanation was an “AHA” moment. It brought some light to my own behaviors. 

Barbara Karnes received a letter asking for “guidance to family members who have lost a loved one regarding how to manage the process of cleaning out the residence of the person who passed away.” 

The approach I have personally taken—one which I have often recommended—is to do it ahead of time.  I have addressed this issue in my book, What to Do about Mama? by saying “I will not leave my children the burden of my messes.” (p. 332).

As my mother-in-law would say: “There’s always mañana.” She left the daunting task of downsizing and distributing her belongings to her children—a process that happened several times as her circumstances changed.” 

As with everything, I suppose, there are different ways to look at the chore of having to allocate and dispose of your parents’ belongings. Depending on how they confronted that task, you will most likely have to deal with it, at least to some degree. That process can be formidable to be sure, but it can also be meaningful and healing from a nostalgic point of view.
In light of my own caregiving experience, I am determined not to leave my children the remnants of my life in a state of disarray. I have always appreciated that my mother did not do that to my brother and me, and I was never happy about the fact that my mother-in-law did exactly that.
So, downsizing became the first project on the top of my list. David and I went through all our storage areas and closets, paring our belongings down to whatever we truly needed or wanted.
Next, I made a detailed inventory of our belongings. An appraiser came over one evening and gave us a verbal appraisal of many items on the list. Then, I distributed the inventory to our children so they could express what they were interested in having someday. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do it. I found it impossible to make hard-and-fast decisions but did manage to come up with a system that I think will make it easier for our children to distribute, donate, and dispose of our belongings. “

What to Do about Mama? pp. 221, 303-304

 I have also blogged about the topic, previously: 



Processing the Pictures

Barbara Karnes recommendations, are quite different:

  1. First, if you don’t have to clean out belongings, don’t for awhile, wait even months if necessary. There can be great comfort seeing and holding something they treasured or used.  In the early days of grief, their belongings can bring comfort and will help you.
  2. Second, don’t make any major life decisions, like selling the house, moving in with family, spending large sums of money, or investments for at least a year. That year will give you time to think with your mind not your emotions.
  3. Now, some people can’t wait months, even weeks, let alone a year. Decisions have to be made right away. If that is the case think of what you can keep, even if the material items aren’t needed but have sentimental memories—-keep them for awhile, you will know when you can let go of them. Err on the side of keeping.
  4. Adult children often rush in and organize us elderly, thinking they know best. This is a reminder to you adult children to be gentle, try to put yourself in your loved one’s situation and ask how you would feel and what would you want if it was you living this life challenge of releasing a lifetime of memories and often independence.
  5. There are companies you can hire that will help you downsize, relocate, organize the “house item releasing.” These people are sensitive to the emotional needs and experience of having to part with possessions accumulated over a lifetime–or not. 
  6. When moving in the time of grief, letting go of material items is like letting go of the memories those items hold. It is an added burden to an already emotional assault on our idea of living.

I live in a condominium community which—though not specifically a 55+ community—is largely a 55+ community.  In the year of the pandemic, our neighborhood has found itself in a state of transition, with some of the residents leaving to progress up the ladder of senior living options, and others passing away.  One gentleman sold his home, downsized, and moved to a nearby assisted living facility—a difficult relocation during the coronavirus.  Though admittedly of advanced age, I was still surprised when I saw his obituary in the paper only a few weeks later. 
Now I wonder: 

What treasures were left? 

Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death – BK Books


The Advocate for Mom & Dad September 29, 2020 article “Tips To Help Your Elder De-Clutter, Downsize and Move On” addresses the task of downsizing, and has a number of helpful suggestions to help seniors through the process. 

I must confess that I am a hopeless organizer.  I guess the process gives me a sense of control, so I have been organizing for just about as long as I can remember.  I even recall an incident in 1st grade when I was reprimanded for cleaning out my desk during a classroom lesson. 

I have gone through the process of decluttering my home several times over the years:  twice when moving, a third time when my caregiving years ended, and a fourth when we again sold a home, one that we built and loved, to move into a condo near my youngest daughter.  That was three years ago.  We don’t have enough room in our condo to collect any more “things” and I expect this to be the last time we will downsize.    

So, during the summer of 2019, when my brother and sister-in-law (SIL) faced unexpected medical circumstances requiring a quick move to a CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community), I raised my hand and said, “I’m your gal.  I may not be a ‘professional’ organizer, but I sure as heck could be!” 

SIL was now faced with having to deal with a multitude of responsibilities, many of which my brother would have handled previously.  Since I had so recently been through the process of downsizing, remodeling, and reorganizing a smaller home, I figured I could tap my skills and be a real asset to the program-at-hand.  And as a matter of fact, I ran into the same challenges and adopted the same solutions as recommended in this article. BUT . . .

Did you ever notice that “How To Do _____ (fill in the chore) in _____ (fill in the number) steps makes it sound as if success is easy-peasy if you just follow the plan?  NOT!  I mean, sure—the tips are helpful—but in general, there are unavoidable undermining circumstances.

In my mind, I visualized the tasks at hand:

  • Downsize belongings currently in a 3,000 square foot home to fit into a 900 square foot apartment (a 70% reduction).
  • Help identify furnishings to keep and choose furnishings to purchase to make the new environs “cozy and comfortable” as well as functional.

I even “fantasized” sending the couple on getaway only to return to an HGTV-style reveal.  I mean—I knew this was impossible, but it was fun to think about! 

As recommended in the article, the first step is to begin whittling down by sorting and discarding.  Cool!  That was my first step, too.  Professional organizers ask their clients to sort items into five piles:  keep, sell, trash, donate, and unsure. Obviously, I couldn’t make these decisions independently; this is how the process played out:

  • I tackled one area at a time
  • I enlisted my brother’s help
  • He insisted that all decisions be finalized by SIL
  • I sorted items into three piles:  keep, distribute (family, donations), trash
  • When SIL came home from work she surveyed the piles returning 75% of the “distribute” pile to “keep”
  • I reorganized everything neatly back into the cupboards and closets
  • I returned home with the plan to come back in order to help them move into their new apartment in the CCRC

After six weeks, what had I accomplished?  Belongings were downsized about 25% and I had made everything neater so that DOWNSIZING ROUND 2 would be easier for my niece to accomplish.

Clearly, I had underestimated how much emotional value SIL assigned to her belongings. Just about the only way she could part with an item was if she could pass the “heirloom” down to her children. But as noted in the article, seniors often find their children don’t want the stuff.  Fortunately, my dear niece was exceptionally sensitive to her mother’s needs and managed to assimilate many “heirlooms” into her home, albeit much of it in storage. 

I would like to get rid of most of my “stuff,” so my kids don’t need to deal with it, but that hasn’t happened, yet. I’m hoping to move to a smaller housing unit before that point so that I can make things easier for them. Although, I am relying on my children to do what is right. They already told us they are not putting up with any “stuff,” and will get us set up in a “home” situation where we will be safe.

What to Do about Mama?  Patricia’s Update p. 295

I went home shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday with the intention of returning to help with the eventual move, which was not to occur until the CCRC had undergone remodeling.  Can you guess what happened then?  COVID-19 applied the brakes.  Stay at home orders resulted in affording much more time for my brother and SIL to get the job done, and the move has now taken place.  It certainly hasn’t been the best time to move into a CCRC, with all the lifestyles restrictions, but hey, you do what you’ve got to do.

My biggest regret is that I spent those six weeks on a mission to accomplish what could not be accomplished, once again squandering an opportunity to just relax and enjoy my brother’s company. 

How to Get Help

Different Minds Work Differently

Processing the Pictures

As I said in my previous post “Belongings” (3-31-2014), “Dispensing with belongs collected over a lifetime is generally not an easy task.”  Becky Monroe documents the emotionally wrenching process in her blog “An Only Child’s Journey into Parent Care.”  (beginning with Finding Out Who Your Friends Are, 3-24-14).

Check out Susan Diamond’s perspective about downsizing on link below, and then note my comment about photographs.

Aging Parents: Selling Parents’ Home.Photo Album

My comment:  Thankfully, my brother and I shared the task of going through my mother’s things. There wasn’t much family history left in her physical belongings. Our father died when we were teens; Mom had moved and downsized a number of times since then. She had her remaining things completely organized, something I think we both appreciated.

This is not to say we did not relive, regret, and grieve—mostly for what could have been, but never was. I took home the box of pictures, which remained packed away for another thirteen years.

When my mother-in-law passed away (after living with us for four years) my husband “inherited” another box of pictures. He divvied them up into five big piles—one for himself, one for his brother, one each for his two sisters, one for the trash.

I agree with what you said: “The most frustrating part was looking at photos of people with no names to identify them.” And also, as you did, I wondered: “What will children of today find in the way of photos when their parents are gone?” (since all the pictures seem to be saved by the gazillions on their various devices).

In the light of my caregiving experience, and with the hope that my children will not have to face avoidable stress, I have pledged that I will not leave my children the burden of my messes (such as boxes of pictures). Therefore, I spent a number of months making picture books to document the history of both sides of our family.

Barbara Matthews


Becky Monroe discusses the issue of what to do with belongings in her March 24, 2014, blog entry:  Finding Out Who Your Friends Are.  Dispensing with belongings collected over a lifetime is generally not an easy task. As I stated in my book, “What to Do about Mama?”

  • If your parents have been hunkered down in a home for decades, there’s a good chance they have collected a substantial number of “things”—some valuable, some sentimental, and some probably worthless from a financial point of view.
  • If your parents thought ahead and downsized their households or designated who was to get what—lucky you!
  • Another likelihood is that the task was just too overwhelming to tackle, particularly if it was not done before your parent’s or parents’ health began to fail.
  • You can count on the fact that allocating and disposing of belongings will probably be just as overwhelming for you as it was your parents.

So as hard as it is for your parents to go through an auction, Becky, you can be thankful that your father is taking a proactive approach and not leaving the job solely to you to handle when settling the estate.

Our family has had experiences on both ends of the spectrum.

My mother passed away suddenly, and ironically, less than 24 hours before her first great grandchild was born. My brother was at the hospital for the baby’s birth, but a short while later he was on a plane to Florida (talk about an emotional swing!).  As executor, he had to deal with the immediate concerns of her death and to arrange for the cremation of our mother’s remains. It was not until several weeks later that my brother and I went to Florida to shut down Mom’s double-wide. In the period of a week, we were able to dispose of her belongings, hold an informal get together with her friends, fly to Ohio (our childhood home) and have a service with family and a different group of friends. We were able to accomplish all of this because our mother had everything planned and organized ahead of time. As executor, my brother “just followed the dotted lines.”

My in-laws, who also retired to Florida, had an extensive amount of collectibles from living all over the world during their nearly 50-year marriage.  My father-in-law also died suddenly, and my mother-in-law just couldn’t face the getting-rid-of-things task by herself. She lived by the mantra, “There’s always mañana,” and left her children the daunting task of downsizing and distributing her belongings. After being widowed for ten years, health conditions made it unsafe for her to live in Florida alone. When my husband made the trip down to help her prepare to move to our hometown (and eventually into our home), he became so frustrated with the task at hand that he had everything shipped North and put in storage.

After my mother-in-law passed away, and my caregiving responsibilities ended, I pledged that I would not leave my children the burden of my messes. My husband and I have disposed of everything we don’t need or use. What is left is organized and labeled. Pictures have been mounted into books. An inventory of our belongings has been sent to the children so that they can indicate what they would like to have. The kids have decided that I’m preparing to die—which could not be further from the truth. I’m “only 65” and have 9 wonderful grandchildren that I want to see grow to adulthood. After I sent the inventory to them a second time, and they ignored it again, I just told them they’d have to fight over who gets what. Someday they will understand.

Barbara Matthews


An Only Childs Journey into Parent Care

Every time I think we are starting to get everything in order, something happens.    Over Thanksgiving (yes, almost 4 months ago); I stayed at Mom and Dad’s house.   I sorted.   I packed things for auction.   I took things to charity.   I carried stuff down the treacherous stair that were clearly built before there were standards and building codes.

We were in the house one day, and my dad said, “you better call your friend the auctioneer, otherwise you won’t ever get done with this.”     I asked him a couple of times, are you sure?     mom didn’t want an auction.     He said, there just isn’t a choice.    You need help.    So I spent two weeks around Thanksgiving in that house, sorting and boxing, moving things down the stairs to where we could deal with them.    I met…

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