Grief Cleaning: How to Separate Memories from Things While Decluttering

Grief cleaning, also known as grief decluttering, is the process of letting go of physical possessions tied to a deceased loved one. It can be a challenging and emotional project, but is an important opportunity to both honor memories and create space for new beginnings.

Getting started with grief cleaning usually feels overwhelming, but it can actually aid in healing as it allows you to let go of items that no longer serve a purpose, while finding special ways to connect with your loved one’s memory. 

To help you get started, here are some tips on how to navigate grief decluttering, and what to do with items and belongings after the loss of a loved one.

1. Start With a Plan & Take Your Time

Before you begin the decluttering process, take some time to create a plan. Start by identifying which areas of the home you want to tackle first. You might want to start with areas that are causing you the most stress, or areas that have the most—or least—emotional attachment.

Remember to be patient and gentle with yourself. There’s no set timeline for when you should start decluttering after a loss. Grieving is a non-linear process, and it’s different for everyone. 

Take your time and focus on the memories rather than the physical possessions.

As you go through the decluttering process, you can ask yourself questions about each item in order to determine which to keep and which to part with. 

  • Does it serve a practical purpose?
  • Does it bring joy?
  • Is it something you can let go of without losing the memory (or find an alternate way to preserve in your memory, such as with a photo)? 

Grief cleaning can be a triggering process, and that’s ok. You might find it helpful to work on decluttering for short periods of time, rather than trying to tackle everything at once. Break the process down into manageable chunks, get help from friends and family when appropriate, and take breaks as needed. 

To avoid being overwhelmed, start with one physical area, or one category of items, such as clothing or books. 

From there it can also be helpful to sort items into categories of what do with them:

  • Keep items that have sentimental value or that you use regularly. 
  • Donate items that are in good condition but no longer serve a purpose for you. 
  • Sell items that have value, such as antiques or collectibles. 
  • Discard items that are damaged, broken or no longer functional. Note: Remember to dispose of these items responsibly such as through recycling or a hazardous waste removal service.
  • Store items that you’re not ready to part with yet, but don’t have space to keep, or having trouble deciding on altogether. Consider renting a storage unit or storing them in an otherwise safe and secure location. This can be a temporary solution that gives you much-needed time to process your emotions and decide on at a later date.

Take photos of any particularly sentimental items you’re letting go of, so you can remember them without having to keep the physical object.

Grief cleaning is an important opportunity to both honor memories and create space for new beginnings.

2. Memorialize the Past 

As you declutter, you will inevitably come across items that have deep sentimental value. It’s important to acknowledge these items and the emotions they evoke, but it’s also important to know that you can hold onto the memory of your loved one without holding onto all of their physical items. Conversely, you should also give yourself permission to hold onto items that can seem completely idiosyncratic to others, simply because they have emotional significance for you. 

Having a singular, designated place for sentimental items can be especially helpful. Consider the following creative options for healing and renewal:

  • Create a special memory box or scrapbook to keep items that remind you of your loved one, such as photographs, letters, or small keepsakes
  • Frame a group of small objects to make a one-of-a-kind piece of wall art. The possibilities are endless: a handwritten recipe, a copy of your loved ones signature, official documents (passport, driver’s license, military papers, business cards, etc), a piece of lace from a wedding dress, a piece of jewelry, or dried flowers are example of items you might include.
  • “Upcycle” your loved one’s favorite sweaters, t-shirts, jeans, or household fabrics (table linens, scarves, curtains) to create an item such as a patchwork quilt, throw pillow, apron, or other item to enjoy going forward.

The added bonus of creative reuse and publicly displaying the results is that it can provide new opportunities to talk about your loved one with others. 

3. Give a New Life to Old Items

If you decide to let go of some items, consider giving them to someone who will fully appreciate them. Knowing that the items are going to a loving home can make it easier to let go of them and be a meaningful way to honor your loved one’s memory.

You can donate items to a charity or favorite non-profit organization, or sell them to an enthusiastic buyer.

If you’re interested in preserving unique, high-value items like antiques, collectibles and memorabilia, know that these items may be of interest to professional preservationists, museum curators, and historical societies. These specialists will gladly accept your donation and ensure the individuals who owned them will never be forgotten. 

Lastly, if there are specific items that have meaning to family or friends, consider giving them as a gift during a holiday or birthday. This can be a great way to keep items in your network and ensure that they continue to be cherished.

4. Ask for Help

Decluttering after a loss is a daunting task, both physically and emotionally. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends who will gladly help you go through items or transport things where they need to go next. Having support during the process will also make it easier to make decisions and move through the process in a healthy way.

If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, consider hiring a professional organizer, such as an estate cleanout service, or a bereavement specialist. These professionals can provide essential tips and guidance to help you make the vital decisions needed to move forward.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that as difficult and challenging as grief cleaning is, it’s also an opportunity to honor the beauty of the past and create space for the future. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, or declutter, so be gentle with yourself as you navigate the process one step at a time.

About Dr. Joseph Stern

Dr. Joseph Stern is a board certified neurosurgeon and the author of Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion, a book which explores the impact of grief and loss from the perspective of medical professionals, caretakers, patients and their families. Join the conversation by signing up for our newsletter or following Dr. Stern’s social media accounts.

For additional resources and support on grief and bereavement please visit our Community Resources for Patients & Professionals page.

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