I’m working with a client who has a house to sell. Her mother died three years ago. In the meantime, her son has been renting the home, which gave her the space she needed before having to face the work of cleaning out and preparing the home for sale. He’s now ready to move out and she’s ready to move on with her life.

During our initial consultation, she confessed that she had attempted once or twice to clear out rooms in the house before, but hadn’t been able to get very far. She said she felt as though she was only making more piles, which deflated her momentum and caused her to slam the brakes on all efforts.

I’ve found that this is nearly always the case when it comes to clearing family homes. There are memories that replay in our minds like vivid, beautiful movies. These memories can make for difficult decisions. When we find some unexpected family treasure amid a literal lifetime of other worthless stuff, it can trigger a flickering hope that the whole house is riddled with other hidden, precious goodies, right?

We might find a box of random papers, filled with old bills and coupons, only to find Mom’s calendar from the year we got married. As we flip through the months, pause at the way the penmanship was so characteristically hers, we remember the magic of that time in our life. But, in that same box might be a myriad of other mundane things like receipts for purchased items, or a stack of old tax returns, or something our parents couldn’t part with, such as a six inch package of greeting cards they purchased that same year.

When we find the first treasure, we are filled with wonder, “Is everything in this box important? What if there’s a legal document or some other important valuable in here?” By the end of the search – after we’ve sifted through a hodgepodge of things – we’re worn out and discouraged. The expanse of the mountain of boxes left in front of us seems way too out of reach.

Then you have what I call “the guilt goods.” The stuff that has memories attached to it which bring on overwhelming feelings of indecisiveness and unease. “What do I do?” “I don’t want or even like this, but my dad loved it and it reminds me of him.” “I can’t use this, but shouldn’t I save this for our kids?” “The technology on this appliance is useless, but maybe I could make an end table out of it.”

We’ll find any reason to keep these items because we can’t face being that person who throws it out, donates it or sells it. We can’t handle the shame of letting go of a keepsake. We’re mortified every time we think about it.

During my consultation with this client, she mentioned that she is horrible at making decisions, which is why she called Lighten Up. She also said that she had three things she wanted to tell me so I would know what to expect. She told me, first of all, that her mom had run a business creating beautiful decorations for clients and craft shows and that the surplus stock filled the entire basement. Secondly, she said there were several large storage closets built on the upper floor of the home, all of which were jam packed with exceptional Christmas, Halloween and Easter decorations. Lastly, I learned that her mom thought everything she owned was vintage and valuable, and therefore, kept it. All.

She wasn’t kidding. The sheer volume of items in the house was staggering. The ratio of valuable articles to unusable articles was about equal; about half of her possessions were either vintage, quite lovely and, therefore, eligible for resale. To her great delight, however, my client discovered that she is actually a very good decision-maker, once armed with a modest degree of coaching and redirection.

At the time of this writing, we are now halfway through preparing her mother’s home to be put on the market. Together we’ve had some revelations. If your house has accumulated a lot of stuff, let our experience serve as a moment to pause and re-think your situation. Or, if you are a relative or beneficiary of the collector, may these tips help keep the chaos to a minimum.

  1. Don’t stuff all the stuff in front of other stuff. My client was saddened when she uncovered duplicates and unopened boxes. Her mom kept buying the same things simply because she didn’t remember what was behind the first three rows of boxes, or couldn’t physically get to them. Make sure you revisit your valuables at least yearly. If you can’t physically or emotionally do it, enlist a friend or hire a professional like Lighten Up. 
  2. Label everything correctly… and re-label and re-box if it you pack something new into an already labeled box. The mislabeled containers frustrated my client more than anything else. She would open a container with a certain description only to find something different. There were times when we had to change course to look for the missing items and this depleted her energy. It is hard for your loved ones to make decisions about the stuff you are thinking of leaving behind. Don’t make it harder on them by leaving your valuables in disarray. 
  3. Use plastic containers, not cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes discolor when exposed to heat, dampness and age. They bleed into whatever is stored in them. Some of her mom’s vintage stuff was ruined. It was disheartening. 
  4. Don’t use newspaper to wrap your belongings. Newspaper today doesn’t use the ink of old. It’s oily and will leave oily stains on everything. 
  5. Think about the kids. I know this is hard, and you are a packrat for a reason, but please think of your kids before filling your house with things you, yourself, can’t kiss goodbye. I’ve seen the results of this scenario far too many times. It’s heartbreaking. It’s exhausting. It’s life-sucking. Your family deserves better. 
  6. Be gentle. If you’re helping your packrat, ask if you can help them go through everything to keep from making mistakes when you’re grieving their loss. Remind them that after they’ve passed on, you will need to bring these heirlooms to your home. Let them know you understand the value of the stuff, and that’s why you don’t want to be searching through it all when you are heavy-hearted. You will also want to check to see if anything needs to be rewrapped to avoid breakage. You also want to make sure the containers are sturdy enough to house everything and or be stacked. 
  7. Make a list. Help your relative make a list of relatives and friends to whom they want to hand down their heirlooms and treasures. 
  8. Change the name of the game. Finally, and this is perhaps the most important piece of advice: If you know that your relative will not let you help them declutter, refuses to let you help them throw out what you consider junk, don’t actually use that word: junk… or trash, clutter, debris or any other derogatory name when initially talking to them. They won’t trust you, they won’t value your opinion, and they won’t let you within a thousand yards of their stuff.

My client and I are still going room by room, closet by closet, clearing out the house. I admire her determination and stamina. But, it ain’t easy folks, and it’s definitely not for the feint of heart.

If you know your parent or other relative has an iron will when it comes to discussing their collections, be gentle and helpful. If you are the collector, don’t do it willy nilly with no thought or regard for the relative who will ultimately inherit and be burdened by your disorganization. This will create the scenario you’d rather avoid: a resentful relative and a dumpster in your driveway.

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