Is there a Marie Kondo for widows?
December 29, 2016 10:01 AM   Subscribe

I am overwhelmed by stuff in my house. My husband passed suddenly in April, leaving behind a large house + a large garage mostly full of his hobby items. I have been trying to go through it for months now, but it is overwhelming. Is there some kind of professional that can help me with this?

I'm overwhelmed partly by the volume of stuff, partly by the fact that it is tucked in closets, drawers and cabinets everywhere in the house, and partly because I don't know what a lot of it is (he had a lot of technical hobbies that I didn't share).

I have tried to focus on one room at a time, but I get depressed and avoid working on it. I really want the stuff gone. I would like to move to simplify and downsize, but I can't do that until I am able to clear out his stuff. His buying habits were a source of stress and disagreement in our marriage, and being surrounded by reminders of that does not feel good. In fact, I tend to avoid spending time at home, which makes me feel better, but isn't allowing me to move forward on a long-term solution of moving to a house and location that suits me better.

I'm in therapy, and my therapist has suggested various strategies (do one hour a day, build in rewards and/or accountability, etc.). After a few months of dinking around unsuccessfully with these, I realized that I can't do this alone. I feel like I should be able to, but I just can't, and rather than beating myself up about that, I'd like to hire someone to help me get it done.

I have contracted with an estate sale company to manage a sale of his items, but because they aren't selling everything in the house, I feel like I need to go through and separate things into trash/donation/sale/keep categories before they come in and set up the sale. While I do expect them to sort and appropriately price items for sale, I don't think it is in their purview to help me go through each closet and drawer and make decisions about whether to sell items.

I need someone used to efficiently going through a lot of unfamiliar stuff and putting it into categories, who can keep me on task, and who won't get totally freaked out if I'm a little emotional (occasionally slightly teary, not openly bawling). So what kind of professional can help me with that? Is this the kind of thing a professional organizers do? How do I find and select this person?

Bonus question: If you have been in a similar situation (dealing with a deceased loved one's stuff), how did you manage? Anything that worked well (or didn't)?
posted by jeoc to Human Relations (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have his contacts from his hobbies?

I play a niche tabletop simulation baseball game, and occasionally see posts in Facebook groups/email listserves from widows looking for their late spouse's baseball season sets etc. to find a good home. If you just want it gone, someone might arrange to get it.
posted by stevis23 at 10:10 AM on December 29, 2016 [19 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss. Professional home organizers absolutely provide this service and some will even haul the stuff away for you (to donate, sell, or trash). You can start by googling "professional home organizer (city)" and read their sites to see if you like their philosophy. I have even seen a few that specialize in this kind of situation.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:15 AM on December 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

Honestly, I'd think about getting in touch with a professional organizer, and/or someone that works with people with hoarding problems. NOT because you're hoarding but because they are great at sorting through a house full of (sometimes emotionally-laden) stuff and getting things sorted out. Googling around, I event found a few advertising that they use the Marie Kondo method. I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by whitewall at 10:22 AM on December 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: jeoc, I'm so sorry for your loss. Jessamyn called my attention to your post because I'm a professional organizer, and these are the kinds of issues my colleagues and I handle with our clients every day.

First, what you're experiencing is completely normal, as I'm sure your therapist has told you. Grief comes in waves, and standing there in the middle of your husband's possessions is like wading into an ocean of such waves. Any competent professional organizer will not only give you the benefit of her or his expertise and knowledge, but will make you feel safe, comforted, and validated, and will not rush you through the process (but will work speedily and efficiently on your behalf).

Second, Marie Kondo aside (because members of our profession have some very serious and complex thoughts on that subject), what you need is an experienced professional organizer, someone who is empathetic and has expertise with the very issues with which you need assistance: sorting, purging, identifying the relative or monetary value of things, assigning logical and productive homes for the items you will be keeping, identifying appropriate resources for donating items (and maximizing your tax deductions), and helping you through the process of working with an estate sale company. Having a partner in crime, as it were, will not only give you the knowledge and information you need, but the motivation and accountability to stick with the process to reach your goals.

If you will allow me, I can absolutely help you find some referrals for professional organizers in your area. (I've done pro bono phone coaching and provided referrals for MeFites before; it's all about being there for one another. I'd be honored to help you find someone to relief your stress in this regard.)

Please feel free to MeMail me, and we can look at solutions for you, via email or I could even talk with you on the phone. I can explain the different types of professional organizers, different types of fee structures, etc., and answer any questions you'd rather not ask your potential organizer. Feel free to contact Jessamyn, or Cortex (who has even met me in person), who can vouch for the fact that I'm not a random person trying to get your personal info. And, of course, I can provide my credentials via email, which I can't do here w/o breaking the self-promo rules.

If you'd rather not have me help, what you want is to make sure you are working with someone in the National Association of Professional Organizers, the site for which has a "Find an Organizer" tab with a geographic search you can use, filtering geographically and by speciality. But I would be able to help you by recognizing names of colleagues (as I've been in NAPO 15+ years), and can also make sense of the various credentials, such as Certified Professional Organizer (CPO®), which is what I am, or CPO-CD, etc.

While whitewall gives valid advice, and you could certainly contact someone allied with the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) (whose subscribers -- they're not called members -- specialize in studying how to work with people with chronic disorganization and hoarding tendencies), the vast majority of ICD members are also NAPO members, and I'd be more inclined to use ICD's database as a cross-check than as a sole resource, given your very typical needs.

Finally, "I feel like I should be able to, but I just can't" is phrasing I hear, quite literally, every single day from prospective and new clients. Organizing, on its own, is a skill that initially eludes many people. Organzing, and all the related aspects of possessions and paperwork, after a loss, is complex and fraught for most individuals, and we all -- even professional organizers -- need the support of others. Please give yourself permission to let go of any sense of obligation you have to find this process easy on your own; almost nobody does find it easy, and the support of someone who has the experience and compassion to help you through the overwhelm can transform this for you into something more doable.

I will be sure to check my MeMail periodically each day to make sure I can respond if you can make use of me.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:00 AM on December 29, 2016 [120 favorites]

I want to second stevis23's suggestion of reaching out to the community surrounding your husband's hobby.

A recent issue of a hobby related magazine (I think Home Shop Machinist) featured a note from the Editor that was moving for two reasons. The first is that the Editor described that one of his most bittersweet duties was helping out spouses (mostly wives for lots of reasons) who didn't know what to do with their deceased partner's lifetime collection of hobby specific things. His practice was generally to work to get the surviving spouse in touch with local groups, in the hopes of finding someone who could help sort out what was really valuable, what was junk, and what could be really useful if put into the right hands. The second reason why it was moving is that the Editor was now helping the wife of a close friend do the same, and he was personally experiencing how it felt to see well-loved tools pass into the hands of someone who needed them and would put them to use.

Practically speaking, I would start with your husband's friends who shared the same hobby. If it works for you financially, is there someone who you can just gift the contents of the garage to? If not, then you can rely on trusting* a friend to be fair in giving you their assessment of what things are worth. Next I'd look to any hobby related clubs he was a member of, and maybe call around to the stores that he frequented and explain your situation. I'd be a little warier of trusting monetary offers, but maybe you will learn of a school or other program that can make good use of the items if donated. And hey, maybe a lower lump sum to have it handled for you is worthwhile?

*Even if you end up with an untrustworthy "friend", the fact that they were a friend of your husband is a datapoint in their favor that you wouldn't have from a total stranger.

I am so very sorry for your loss.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:24 AM on December 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Definitely encourage reaching out to anyone you know in the hobby community. Almost any contact who knew him will know someone else likely willing to help. I have experienced this a number of times with one of my hobbies (relating to old toys). Members of local clubs often go around to help with classifying/selling/disposing of things. Just this year a couple of friends organised the arrangement, classification, and sale by auction of several tons of this stuff and raised significant funds (six figures) from the sale of his collection of things. Had this not been done by someone really knowledgeable about this specific hobby, it would have fetched considerably less for his family.

If he had "a lot of technical hobbies" there might well be some significant value in there. Then they can work in with a professional organiser for everything else, but make sure that valuable items aren't overlooked or sold in the wrong way.
posted by tillsbury at 12:20 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just want to note that my husband was pretty solitary in the pursuit of his hobbies, and they were wide-ranging (random sampling: large-scale acrylic painting, hand-building an amplifier, PC building, building an airplane in our garage, furniture building, home theater stuff, custom auto part fabrication, etc.). He didn't have hobby friends or a local community, and it seemed like he had a lot of problems (getting in arguments, getting banned) with online communities. Trying to find a local hobbyist community for each of his dozen+ interests feels as overwhelming as going through things.
posted by jeoc at 12:32 PM on December 29, 2016

jeoc, thank you for asking this question and I'm sorry for your loss. My wife passed in September, and now I'm in the house we shared for 12 years, but that she lived in for 12 years before I knew her. Every closet, every dresser drawer, every cabinet is filled with her things, and I was just starting to wonder myself how to handle all this. Thank you also to The Wrong Kind of Cheese for your answer, because I think I'll need to have someone like you help me when the time comes.
posted by ralan at 12:34 PM on December 29, 2016 [7 favorites]

I just want to note that my husband was pretty solitary in the pursuit of his hobbies, and they were wide-ranging ... Trying to find a local hobbyist community for each of his dozen+ interests feels as overwhelming as going through things.

I don't think that individual communities for each of the hobbies are necessary, I certainly see some overlap in the ones you mentioned (planes + auto body work, amplifier + home theater, etc...). If you lived in Minnesota I betcha I could get you a list of people/business who specialize in each of the things you mentioned in an evening. BUT...

You know what? this is also the kind of stuff that a professional organizer can help you with, and so I'd defer instead to The Wrong Kind of Cheese's advice in that regard.

Since I was unhelpful on the one aspect of your question, I wonder if I can make it up with this:

I feel like I need to go through and separate things into trash/donation/sale/keep categories before they come in and set up the sale.

I would challenge the assumptions you are making about what the Estate Sale company expects for you to have done before they get there. I bet that you could get away with just two categories: "Keep" and "Leave", and moving the "keep" stuff into a specific place (your bedroom? the basement?) and letting the Estate Sale people deal with dividing Leave into Sell/Donate/Trash. Remember that anything that was your husband's is yours now, and decide (even in a Kondo type way) whether you want to to keep it in your life. Unlike Kondo though, I'd let yourself err on the side of "Keep" (worst case, you'll have to deal with donating/selling/trashing it later) for at least the first pass.

This might help if part of what is overwhelming is knowing that you don't want [thing], but trying to determine the "best" way to get [thing] out of the house. This is not to pretend that deciding whether or not you want [thing] will be easy. It's just directing your focus to the one thing that you are the best expert on (keep or leave) and outsourcing the things that professionals know about better (whether it's worth trying to sell [thing]).
posted by sparklemotion at 1:04 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd also get a professional organizer to help with the process.

Or, if that seems like it's also overwhelming, you can find a local junk hauler who has a bit more finesse. I used one that took a giant pile out of my garage and then sorted it (off-site) into stuff that could be donated, could be recycled, or was going to the dump. Then, they brought it all to its final destination. I literally made an enormous, unorganized pile of stuff in my garage and they came and took it all away. I felt much less bad about not going through the effort of trying to sell/donate/recycle/etc because they were going to do it. I just needed all of that stuff OUT OF MY HOUSE. Then, once a lot of it is gone, you will feel that it's easier to go through the items that need more fine-tooth combing.

I also realized that it was OK to throw a bunch of stuff out and replace things if I found that I had thrown out by mistake. I'm not talking about keepsake stuff, but more like dumping junk drawers into a box and calling it a day. Touching every single item was so overwhelming for me. It's never ending and not efficient. Give yourself the freedom to dump all of it and move forward. If I had forgotten I had it, it could go.

I'm sorry for your loss and I wish you the very best.
posted by quince at 3:17 PM on December 29, 2016

I just had to deal with something similar, and move at the same time. I have a van, so I didn't leave my house for three weeks, without going one of three places: the dump, the thrift store, the storage unit. As I got to the end and the items were larger, I rented a truck for a morning, and a coupla guys who helped me store the last of what I wanted, and then load me up for the dump. It is doable. The problem is relative value, and I got some various lessons on that from buyers, takers and onlookers. My elderly neighbor told me that when selling stuff, if you don't hear back from your ads the first day, then give the stuff away, or throw it away.

It is difficult if the strain of the cost of his hobbies was an issue. Then getting little in return is grating. But, once all the stuff is gone, you will have your personal space, which is worth a lot.
posted by Oyéah at 5:48 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

You mention Marie Kondo, so I think it's worth mentioning that she specifically says that emotionally charged items (childhood artwork, children's clothes, family memorabilia,photos, etc) should be left until the end. She also specifically mentions that you shouldn't purge others peoples stuff (particularly before your own). I realize this situation is different and there are better people in this thread to answer but I thought it was worth pointing out.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:15 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went/am going through this with my late husband's stuff. He died 13 months ago and I think I did most of the work in the first six month but it definitely felt overwhelming and there is still work to do. His accumulated hobby stuff was also always a source of stress between us and I generally avoided all the storage areas in our house since it made me crazy to think about all the crap then and even more so when he was gone.

What worked for me was first, to find space to collect and sort stuff. For me this meant dealing with his vehicles first, a truck and a motorcycle. Once they were out of the garage, I could use the garage as an staging site and it's been super helpful. Having physical space to sort gave me mental space to deal. I laid out all the hundreds of tools in sorted piles one day and that sort of progress made me feel way better and gave me some sense of control.

Selling those two big objects also made it easier to get rid of all the associated tools, parts, and equipment for each since each person who came to look or buy could be a potential repository for the associated stuff. The guy that bought the motorcycle got a lot of extras just to get them out of my way but it did mean that I had to do some preliminary sorting of stuff that I knew very little about. I did enlist friends and peoples who shared his hobbies but that may not be an option for you.

In some cases I just packed up bags of stuff that seemed like they went thematically together and dropped them off at a store or group that might want them. This worked for guitar building tools; I found a guitar repair store and went in and they were happy to take them.

I also made it a habit to ask everyone who came over took through books and other stuff to see if there was anything they wanted. I guess it depends on whether you want to sell everything or can give it away. In a lot of cases it wasn't worth my time to try to sell stuff but I didn't want to throw it all away so I found that giving stuff away was easier.

Just close the door on things you don't want to deal with yet. Parcelling the enormous job into smaller chunks might make it more manageable. Good luck; I know this sucks!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:51 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

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