A four-step guide to cleaning out your parents’ house after they die
The first item on any list, my mom always said, should be to make a list. That way, you can cross something off immediately.
When my mother died last year, she left her affairs well-organized — unsurprising, for someone with her talent for list-making. But after many months of declining health, her death came so suddenly that my sister and I never got to have that all-important conversation about her wishes for her memorial, her bequests, and what she might want done with her things.
Her things. That summer, after my mother’s death, it fell to my sister and me as her beneficiaries to imagine a thoughtful answer to the last question either of us wanted to consider: What should we do with your things, Mom?
My mother had always worked hard, building her career and putting her two girls through college on her own, and she built a home that was warm and lovely. By the time she died at age 68, she had amassed an impressive collection of art prints and a house full of interesting objects. Among friends, a weekend at her house was known as a stay at “Hotel Connie.” On her dresser were a few dozen decorative glass bottles she’d picked up over the years, each one lovely and delicate as a ballerina.
She drove a fancy red sports car to go with her blonde hair and her cheetah-print coat. Things she never ran out of: Red lipstick, tailored suits, wine, high-quality chocolate, volume-boosting hair products, shoes, jokes.
Other than the car and a few art pieces she really loved, however, nothing my mother owned was super valuable. It wasn’t like there was a safe full of jewels or a bag of cash in the closet. Everything in her house was a treasure, but only because it was well chosen and well-loved. Her home was a museum to her tastes, her good humor, her personality. It was not a house that anyone could imagine pulling a truck up to and emptying out for charity.
In case this emotionally difficult work of “liquidating an estate” ever falls to you (and sadly, the odds are high that it someday will), it may help you to know what process was like for my sister and me, and how we got through it.
To start with, I moved into my mother’s house for about two weeks the summer after she died. My sister came over every day, and we got to work. Make a list. In the end, lists were what helped us break down this tremendous task into doable pieces. We made dozens of lists. Lists within lists. Mom would have loved it.
The first list
What would the two of us want for our own homes, to remember our mother by? I wanted my childhood desk, my mother’s dresser, a few dozen of her beautiful art prints. My sister had her own list, just as long. We encouraged each other — take it, please take it. I spent hours in my mother’s closet, pressing my face into the sleeves of her carefully hung blouses.
So much of her was in her possessions, and there was so much that I couldn’t bear to let go of. So I didn’t. I have her cheetah-print coat, and I wear it on big nights out even though it doesn’t fit me.
The second list
What would her family and friends want to have? My sister and I agreed that the things that brought our mother so much pleasure should now do the same for others. But we hit a wall when considering what to give to whom. Which of her things should we give to her childhood best friend, or her much-loved sister and brothers?
So just as our mother would have directed, we broke the wall down into bricks. Make a list. We started with a list of lists: Who we should contact, what we could offer, who could help. We took photos of art, objects, furnishings, and organized them into categories, creating a series of open-access photo folders online — basically, visual lists. And then I wrote an email with links to these photos, begging our family and friends to believe us when we said, We know she would want you to have something, and we do, too. Please take it. There’s so much.
A teacher cousin who wore mom’s shoe size got her collection of flats. A young cousin moving into her first apartment got her silverware. Dear friends got pieces of art that she loved. People came to pick things up and walk through her house one last time. My sister and I sent an armada of bulky packages sailing across the country.
While the process was logistically complex at times, it was immensely satisfying to know that the people who loved her best would get to hang Mom’s pictures on their walls, find a place on their shelves for the chunky little earthenware pots she loved, wear her clothes and her unused red lipsticks. It was like scattering ashes, but instead of ashes, it was beauty, pleasure, memories.
The third list
Which things could we donate or consign, so that someone else could give them another life? My sister found a charitable organization that took our mother’s medical supplies — the wheelchair, the IV stand. We set aside old towels and sheets for the ASPCA. We donated our mother’s professional wardrobe to an organization that supports women re-entering the workforce. We took books and music and clothes and furniture to places where they could be resold to someone who would appreciate and use them.
It was work. It was honorable, joyful work. It was heartbreaking, backbreaking, exhausting work. After that first intense period of list-making at Mom’s house, finishing all this work took several more return trips. We were trying to do it well. We were trying to give the house back to her landlord by October. We were trying to be thoughtful. I drank a lot.
Lists of storage facilities. Lists of pictures and knickknacks. Lists of charities and shipping addresses. Bit by bit, we broke this Everest-like task down into manageable pieces.
The final list
In the last month of our mother’s lease, we had to decide: What did we need to put into storage because we just couldn’t stand to face it yet, or because we didn’t know what else to do? We’d gotten some excellent advice from an aunt: Don’t try to decide everything now. Put some things away for a year, and return to them when you feel like you can. Christmas ornaments. The mementos she had kept of our father after his death. Her yellowed, fabulously 70s wedding dress.
After the movers finished putting the last of these things into the storage space we rented, I drove back to my mother’s empty house for one last walk-through. I was shaking so much that when I tried to lock the door behind me, I couldn’t get the key in.
We’re done for now. It’s a relief to have those hard months behind us. But to be honest, I still have anxiety dreams about my mother’s things. I dream that we accidentally gave away something important, or that the storage space has made a mistake and sold off everything we’ve been keeping there, or that her angry ghost is at my shoulder demanding to know what happened to her house.
My mother would never really be angry at me, I know. More likely, she was with us all along, guiding us as we made all those lists that got us through the process. The ghost in that dream is really just my own anger that someone so irreplaceable is gone.
The work of thoughtfully, carefully putting to rest someone you loved is never really done. It probably never should be. But when you are faced with this inevitable and heartbreaking task of distributing their things, here’s what I can offer you:
I am so, so sorry for your loss.
You can get through this. Start small. Make a list.
And at the top of it, write make a list.