Cleaning Out a Deceased Loved One’s Closet

The death of a loved one is among the hardest things any of us will ever face. Deciding what to do with a special person's belongings can add to the heartbreak.

Cleaning out their closets, sorting through their drawers and figuring out what to do with the papers and treasures they've collected through the years can be physically and emotionally exhausting. And as with all aspects of grief, there is no single answer. You must do what feels right for you.

How to get started decluttering

When you're ready to tackle the task, here a few tips.

  • Make a plan. Set boundaries around what you need to do, so as not to get overwhelmed. Decide where to start—and know it's OK to start small. The bathroom may be easier than a closet, so give yourself permission to work up to something that seems harder.

  • Ask for help. If you're ready to sort through a parent’s belongings, ask a sibling or a family friend to help. Likewise, if you're planning to sort through a spouse's belongings, ask your children, your spouse's siblings or a good friend to help. When dealing with a child's belongings, your spouse, other children or parents will likely want to help. Having someone to lean on if you feel overcome with sadness is important, and another person can help motivate you to keep going.

  • Use a keep/toss/sell/donate system. Some items will fall into a clear category, but others will be harder. Come back to those that seem too challenging to categorize at first. Understand that many items will have sentimental value, but you can't hold onto everything. If you're undecided about something, sleep on it. Don’t dispose of things in haste; you won’t be able to get them back later.

  • Pace yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to sort through things, understanding that the intense emotions that may come up can make the task last longer than it otherwise would. Allow yourself the space you need to move through those emotions and take breaks when you need them.

What to keep after a loved one dies

Deciding what to keep may present some obvious choices. You will likely want to hold onto some important documents, such as tax returns, bank statements and medical records, at least for a while. You should also keep documents such as a birth certificate, passport and diplomas. Photos, too, seem like a given. But what about the rest?

  • Clothing. Most clothes can be donated to a local thrift store or charity shop, but you may want to keep a few favorite shirts or dresses for yourself or to give to others. There's something to be said about pulling on Pop's favorite cardigan when the weather turns chilly.

  • Art and antiques. From sofas to paintings to knickknacks, heirloom furniture and decor can be passed down for generations. Don't underestimate the power of a lovely little oak table in the corner of a room to serves as a reminder of a beloved grandparent.

  • Jewelry. You'll likely want to keep Dad's watch, your wife's wedding and engagement rings, as well as anything else made of precious metals and gemstones. But many people also keep costume jewelry or pass it on to children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and the deceased's friends.

  • Dishes. Pottery, china and glassware are also items that are passed down after a death. Not to be overlooked: cast-iron pans and quality stainless steel cookware. A simple cereal breakfast takes on new meaning when it's in a bowl that Nana ate from hundreds of mornings.

  • Blankets and quilts. Not all linens are worth keeping, but blankets—especially those that were handmade by the deceased—are. It's easy to see how they might represent the warmth and comfort of the person who has passed.

  • Journals and correspondence. The writings of a family member are both historical records and windows into the unique lives of those we love. If you're so lucky as to uncover a trove of diaries or letters, hold them close forever.

Sorting through a loved one’s belongings can be a real hurdle, but it can also be a very healing act.

As you work through your grief, we are here to help. For up to 13 months after planning a Dignity Memorial® service, you will have access to our toll-free 24-hour Compassion Helpline®. This service allows you and your family to speak with professionals trained in grief counseling at any time, for any reason. Our online grief library is also available to you and your family.