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Decluttering after the Loss of a Loved One [Episode 24]

Decluttering after the loss of a loved one offers its own set of challenges. In this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show, I share my personal experience with grief and cutter, along with my top tips for letting go.

In This Episode:

  • the relationship between grief and decluttering
  • a reframe that helped me let go after the death of my brother
  • helpful resources for managing emotional clutter

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

Decluttering After the Loss of a Loved One

Hello, everyone, it’s Jennifer here and welcome back to the Simply and Fiercely show.

In today’s episode, I’m going to be answering a listener’s question, which is about how to declutter after the loss of a loved one

But first, I thought this would be a good opportunity to mention that if you have a question or if you have a topic that you want covered on the podcast, please feel free to look me up on Instagram. My username is @simplyfiercely

I love creating content, as you all know, between the blog and the podcast, but I always find it a bit more fun when I’m answering a listener’s question because it’s nice to interact with the community on a new level. 

My door is always open so feel free to find me on Instagram. I’m also on Facebook, but I tend to not read my messages there as much.

Storytelling for healing and part of the grieving process

Okay, let’s move on to today’s question. As I said, we are talking about how to declutter after the loss of a loved one.

I cannot even begin to cover this topic without first making one very important point when it comes to grief. Yes, I absolutely think that decluttering after the loss of a loved one is very much part of the grieving process, no matter how much time has passed. 

And to go with that, I think it’s important to remember that there is no one right way to grieve.

That might sound like a bit of an odd thing to point out but as someone who has experienced a lot of grief quite early in life, both my father and my brother passed away within six months of each other back in 2004. I’ve always been hyper aware of how grief is different for everyone and that there’s nothing that’s normal, if that makes sense.

For example, for me, when my brother died, I found myself being even more introverted than normal. Looking back, it was actually very interesting, because that’s where I can see the first signs of the way that I use storytelling for healing.

That’s part of why I have the blog and the podcast, I love sharing stories and my regular listeners will know that. I do it because it helps other people learn, but it’s also very healing for me. 

When my brother passed away, I spent a week just sort of locked up in my room and I created a very basic blog that is now private, you can’t go look it up or anything. But that was my way of healing. 

My mother at the same time was going through the unimaginable grief of losing a child. What was healing for her was to be surrounded by community. We had everyone in our extended network showing up at our doorstep with food and comfort and my mom was talking the entire time, which was the opposite of what I needed. I needed to be alone in my own space, but it was what she needed when she was going through that.

When it comes to decluttering, there is no right way, especially after the loss of a loved one.

The reason I’m sharing that is because I think that that same kind of ‘base concept’ applies to your decluttering as well. 

Some people will find it very healing to get rid of more things than others. Some people will need time. Some people need to talk it through. There’s never one right way for decluttering. And I want to point out how especially true that is when it comes to grieving and decluttering after a loss. 

You’re going to hear lots of different things, and you might feel pressure from certain people, but I believe that self compassion is such a huge part of decluttering. If you are going through a difficult time and the thought of getting rid of items right now is like a stab in the heart, give yourself that grace and allow yourself to declutter on your own schedule.

Having said that, I know that a lot of people do not have that luxury. Often people who are decluttering, after a loss have a timeframe. 

For example, let’s say your parents have passed away and now you have to sell their house. There’s a lot of pressure about how to declutter in a really short period of time. That’s why I want to offer the tips that I’m going to offer in this episode.

But it’s important to me that you always remember that there’s that baseline of compassion you always need to include in your decluttering.

Ready to declutter, how do I start?

So now that you’ve decided that you’re ready to start decluttering and while you may feel attached to these items, you’ve made an informed decision that you would like to create that space in your home. What should you do? 

Well, to get started, my first bit of advice with decluttering is to start with a bit of self-reflection. 

I know that might sound like a bit of wishy-washy advice, but let me explain. When most people declutter, their mindset might be, ‘Oh, hey, this is the day I’m going to do some decluttering today’ and they dump everything out and start going through it piece by piece.

But the problem that you’re going to have is that anytime you’re decluttering, and especially when you’re dealing with deeply sentimental items, is that once you start dealing with them, all of your logic is going to go out the window.

You can come in with the best of intentions and have this big plan for decluttering, but then you pick up your grandmother’s sweater and it smells like her. The next thing you know you’re in tears, or you’re grabbing an old photo book and going through it, and all of your intentions with decluttering have gone out the window. 

And again, if we go back to the whole concept of self-compassion and kindness, allow yourself that sometimes. But when you’re ready to take action, we need to take a slightly different approach. 

So what I recommend is that before you are flooded with those emotions by being surrounded by the stuff and the memories, is that you take a step back and begin with the end in mind.

So if this was your closet you were decluttering, switching gears for a minute might be thinking about things like: What is my personal style? What do I like to wear? What is my lifestyle? What kind of clothes do I need? Creating a vision for your closet, before you start diving in. 

We can do the same thing when we are decluttering items that once belonged to a loved one, it’s just a little bit different.

The concept of remembering a loved one’s legacy

What I recommend is this concept of thinking about their legacy. How do you want to remember them? 

For example, if I was thinking about my brother. My brother had his flaws. His good and his bad side, he’s a complicated human, just like we all are. 

But if I think about how I remember my brother, what is the legacy I want for him? The strongest thing that comes to mind is his generosity. He was a very caring person who was always looking out for me, my mum and my sister. 

He was in the military before he passed away so he traveled quite a lot and while we didn’t necessarily see each other often, I really believe in my bones that he was often thinking about us. 

He’d buy me lots of gifts from his travels, he was only 21 when he passed away so he wasn’t exactly the best shopper. He would always bring these little trinkets back. It was his way of letting us know that he was always thinking about us. That kind of spirit, his generosity is what I thought about a lot when I eventually got around to decluttering his items. 

You can do the same kind of thing when you think about your loved ones. How do you want them to be remembered? You’re not necessarily going to get a clear answer right away, but I genuinely believe that sitting down and at least thinking about that a little bit before you start decluttering is going to help you make decisions.

So for example, I had a pretty large box of things to declutter after my brother passed away because I moved to Australia not long after he passed away. I couldn’t bring much with me due to the nature of an international move. But I had this one big box that had some childhood toys and clothes and gifts that he’d given me. It was quite a big heavy box to move around throughout the years. 

There were a few items in there that he gave me that brought me a lot of joy and they are on my nightstand right now. Even though they don’t serve a lot of practical purposes, they’re just little knickknacks, they bring me a lot of joy when I see them. I enjoy them and when I see them, I’m reminded of that care, that generosity, and the love that he felt for me. 

Whereas the emotions around the other items that were in these boxes were complicated. It kind of felt like a burden, but at the same time, it felt like I couldn’t let go. 

If we go back to this idea of legacy and what my brother would want for me, he wouldn’t want me to be dealing with this box of heavy things, both literally physically heavy and emotionally heavy. He would want me to be cared for, to feel light, and to feel happy. Thinking about what he would want for me helped me let go of the items in that box.

That’s something that I advise you to think about for yourself. Think about the legacy that your loved ones would want to leave. 

It’s not going to make it easy, I want to make that clear. 

I don’t think that it’s ever easy to declutter after the loss of a loved one. But this mindset definitely made it easier for me.

Decluttering can be very healing

I want to mention, for those of you who have listened to the podcast, or read my work in the past, I do believe that decluttering can also be very healing when we take the time to do this kind of emotional work. 

When we really think about why we’re decluttering and all the kinds of emotional threads that are intertwined with our stuff. It can be heavy.

It might be a bit slow at first. The whole idea of sitting down to do a bit of emotional planning or just self-reflection before you declutter might have you wondering ‘Why am I wasting my time doing this?’

But the benefit is that in the end, not only do you get rid of stuff, but that act of decluttering becomes part of the healing process.

Put names to your emotions while you’re decluttering

My third really important tip for when you are decluttering after the loss of a loved one ties back to what I’m saying about these emotions.

You have all these heavy emotions and memories attached to your items. And if you have read about decluttering, or perhaps you’re in the minimalist community, you’ve probably heard the advice that goes along the lines of, ‘Your memories live in your heart not your stuff’.

Yes, of course, there is an element of truth to that but I personally don’t find it very helpful when it comes to decluttering, especially after the loss of the loved one.

I actually find it to be a little bit condescending. ‘Yes, I get it. I know my memories aren’t living in this box of stuff. I am not stupid, but I don’t really know how to manage those emotions.’

What I recommend to anyone with any kind of decluttering, is that instead of trying to pretend that those heavy feelings don’t exist, switch gears and put a name to the emotions. 

So everyone always says with decluttering sentimental items, it’s sentimental. But take it a step further. What is that sentiment? 

For example, in my case, after my brother died, yes, of course, I’m sad, I’m sentimental. But later when I took the time to really think about it, and think about the stuff that I was decluttering, what those emotions really were, were more than just sadness. There was also a lot of guilt and regret. 

As I mentioned before, he was in the military and he was traveling a lot in the last few years of his life so we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together. I felt quite guilty that I hadn’t spent more time trying to write letters or emails or make phone calls. I was in my early 20s as well and I was off living my life. So there was this level of shame that I carried with me for quite a few years. 

Getting to the root of those emotions and putting a name to them so I could work through them took a lot of practicing self compassion, and most importantly, forgiveness. That was an essential part of the decluttering process for me.

What I didn’t realize until I started doing the work was that in many ways, I was only holding on to so much stuff as a way of punishing myself, like a form of penance. So if you think about it, if that’s where my mindset was while I was decluttering, it’s no wonder it was so hard to do. 

I really recommend that you give it a try and I’ll give you a quick resource for this idea of putting names to your emotions while you’re decluttering. 

The decluttering concept is my interpretation but I followed the work of Dr. Susan David, she has an incredible book called ‘Emotional Agility’. I also follow Brene Brown. Both of them talk a lot about shame and emotions and they’re the ones who introduced me to this concept of naming your emotions. 

I cannot stress how helpful that has been with decluttering. 

If this is something that you’re going through yourself. If you need to do this really emotional work of decluttering, check them out. 

Brene Brown wrote a book that I have called ‘Atlas of the Heart’, which basically breaks down all the different emotions, and helps you to put an end to your motions. 

Give it a try, I think that you might find that helpful with your decluttering.

Recap of the three tips

There are things that can help some people, things like taking photos of sentimental items before you declutter them, or you might want to repurpose items like turning old T-shirts into a blanket or quilt, for example. Definitely give those a try if that kind of practical approach appeals to you.

But if you are stuck in the deep emotional work of decluttering, whether it’s after a loss, or dealing with any kind of really heavy, sentimental stuff, there are my three key tips. 

One, allowing yourself to work at your own pace.

Perhaps even think about the way that you grieve. 

So as I said, for me personally, my grief was very private and I enjoyed storytelling. That was helpful. So I don’t think it’s any kind of surprise that I find storytelling helpful when I’m decluttering. 

So think about the way that you grieve and that might give you some clues as to the way that you will best declutter. But again, work at your own pace, there is no rush. 

When I talk about decluttering my brother’s stuff, it took me well over a decade, probably closer to 15 years and I don’t beat myself up about that. And neither should you.

Tip number two is to think about their legacy. 

I really think it’s so important. Your vision for decluttering, when you’re decluttering after losing a loved one is switching to that more abundant mindset. 

We’re not forcing ourselves to get rid of things. I mean, I know we are but think of it less as a painful, throwing away my loved ones’ things, which, let’s face it, is not a very appealing way to think about decluttering. 

But instead, think of it in a more positive abundant light where you’re curating their legacy. Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? 

It feels much more empowering and beautiful. Like a tribute to them, as opposed to throwing away their stuff. So give that a try.

Third, and finally, when you are decluttering after a loss, or doing any kind of deep emotional decluttering, challenge yourself to put a name to your emotions.

Because when you get clear on what it is that you’re feeling, it gives you clues. Those are clues as to the emotional kind of work. As I said, right, I felt guilt and regret so those were clues that I needed to practice forgiveness.

It was a bit of a heavy episode, but I hope if you are going through a hard time with decluttering or just dealing with some kind of loss, there are some things here that you can take away. I wish you all the very best with the decluttering and until next week.

Books recommended by Jen Burger:

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown

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