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Cleaning Out a Deceased Loved One’s Home: Four Tips to Spark the Process

I didn’t expect to take eight years cleaning out my parents’ home. But here I am.

I also didn’t expect to feel walls of resistance erect inside of me, blocking my ability – or rather, my willingness – to throw away, give away or pack up their stuff. Propriety dictated I go over to their home and get the job done. I just wanted to sit with their things and cry.


A set of teeth and molds my mother made in dental school. I discovered them during the cleaning out of my parents’ home.

Along the way, I noticed what nudged me to act when I’d get stuck holding on to their things. I’m not advocating we push ourselves past the point that our emotional journey takes us. In fact, I’d say take all the time you need and can reasonably acquire. I had the luxury of keeping my parents’ home, the house where I grew up, for almost as long as I wanted. I wasn’t paying a mortgage on it, it was close by, and my husband indulged me.

However, if you discover you need a nudge, try these strategies to get back on track.

Bring a Friend. Or a relative. Those who are sensitive to our emotional state but not as emotionally involved or attached can help us cull the piles of things. My husband went with me in May 2014 to my parents’. Did I really need to keep the black-handled hammer? We already had two hammers. I let it go. I packed several things and made a lot of progress that day.

Take a to-do List. Off site, I decide on goals for my next trip. I section off a spot of the house in my mind to tackle, like a bedroom closet or a cabinet. That helps minimize the overwhelming feeling such a huge project can generate.

Snap a Photo. I take photographs of things I cannot keep or should not keep. Last year, I decided a pink ballet box, with a narrow, snap-shut slot for dainty shoes, wasn’t a keeper. It was dirty and deteriorated from age. I snapped a photo before discarding it. I also photographed a set of teeth my mother made. Almost 60, she’d decided to go to dental school. The photo reminds me of what a pistol she was. I keep all my photos of their things in one place for later reflection.


My parents’ closet as they left it. It’s one of the last things left to clean out. The collection includes my mother’s red party dress (left), which she turned into a princess costume for me as a second grader. I brought home 2nd place in a costume contest then.

Journal the Discoveries. I didn’t discover papers that said I was adopted. I already knew that. However, I found in the house pieces of my family’s story I’d missed or forgotten. I journaled them. And I journaled about my evolving relationship with myself, with my grief, with my parents, and with my God. It’s like my own personal self-help book in several volumes.

I think getting those feelings out on paper helped me continue to delve into the project. Let’s not miss an ounce of what this clean-out process gives us. Let’s write it down for ongoing reflection.

What strategy above have you would you used? What would you add to this list?


Copyright © 2017 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane #

    My parents have been gone for years, my mother for 5. We cleaned out the little room off the garage this week and I discarded her old hair dryer and old Kenmore canister vacuum cleaner. Progress……


    August 10, 2017
    • I think on some level I could deny they weren’t coming back if their things were around. Good for you on taking that step, Jane. It’s a process. I’m glad you are taking the time you need


      August 10, 2017
  2. Sheryl M. Baker #

    Great suggestions for when the time comes. My parents’ home is packed to the brim as well as garages. I really like the tips on taking pictures and making a plan ahead of time. And only doing one small section at a time. I get overwhelmed easily. Thanks for easing the process for so many others.


    August 11, 2017
    • Thanks, Sheryl. I’ve heard of some parents culling things and labeling things for their heirs long before the time comes, but other families like mine was can’t bear those conversation or the thought of eventual loss and death. In my case, it worked out. In others, it is an overwhelming experience. I appreciate your support.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 11, 2017

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