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Domestic Violence

What Do I Do With My Loved One’s Belongings?

Sorting through a life.

Source: Photographee/Shutterstock

Whether a death was sudden and unexpected or from a terminal illness, there is one task that falls to all of us after a close loved one dies. We still have to decide what to do with their belongings.

Fortunately, there are no rules or time frame in which this has to be done. Some people will discard everything within the first few days or weeks, while others are reluctant to part with any of their loved one’s belongings. Perhaps the greatest example of this was Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Prince Albert. She not only continued wearing black and actively mourning him for 40 years but also had the servants continue to lay out his clothes every day and bring fresh hot water for shaving. The Queen also had mementos of him placed around the palace ensuring his presence continued to be felt.

I have found parents who have had a child die are more likely to leave their room untouched. One woman told me that when she was feeling particularly grieved that she would go into her son’s room to feel closer to him. A young woman, whose mother died, held on to her robe because it was soft and smelled like her. When she was sad and needed comforting, she would wrap herself in it.

Parting with a loved one’s possessions is a highly emotional experience. Each item seems to only punctuate our loss. It can feel as though you are giving away a part of them. You can find yourself being overwhelmed with memories of what they did or where they were when they wore a particular piece of clothing.

Going through their possessions becomes a life review of the times you spent together, both good and not so good. Should I let this go or hold onto it for a while? Would they have wanted a certain person to have their books or jewelry? What one person might treasure, another may want to give away. If these distributions have not been made clear before the death, it can sometimes lead to intense family disagreements and may leave people with angry and resentful feelings toward one another.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you go through this process.

  1. Remember there is no set time that you have to begin or finish. You don’t have to start as soon as you return home from the funeral.
  2. Know that this will be an emotional experience and that it is OK to express your feelings.
  3. You may want to start with boxes of things in the attic or basement that have not seen the light of day in years and you do not even remember what was in them. It is usually something that you can dispose of easily. You might next want to begin with only one room or one closet at a time.
  4. It does not have to be an all-day project. If you get tired after an hour, then take a break or return to it the next day
  5. Have a supply of boxes, plastic bins, or bags available. You can label them: Keep, Not sure, Donate, or with the names of individuals if you know the specific person you want to have particular items.
  6. Decide if you want anyone’s help or if you prefer to do this alone. If you want someone to help you, be sure they are helpful and supportive and not challenging your decisions. Sometimes people have different opinions that create problems. Remember, the ultimate decision is yours.
  7. Do give family members an opportunity to ask for what they want.

All the above are just suggestions as there is no right or wrong way to do this. Once you have made decisions about the belongings that you will keep or give to others, you may still be left with the things you want to donate. The following are some national agencies that accept donations:

  • Goodwill
  • The American Red Cross
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Vietnam Veterans of America

Locally there are places of worship, homeless shelters, thrift stores, community outreach centers, residential treatment programs, hospice, charities, and places for the homeless and victims of domestic violence that would welcome your donations. There certainly is no shortage of places where your loved one’s possessions can help others.

Today, more people are having discussions about planning for their death, the extent of their medical care, and plans for their burial. These decisions help to give the dying some degree of control over the remainder of their life. It is also beneficial for families to know your wishes. Another area for pre-planning is letting others know how you would like your belongings to be handled. It would not only ensure that your wishes are carried out but would be a final gift for the bereaved who would not have to struggle with those decisions.

More from Marilyn A. Mendoza Ph.D.
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