My dad's gone, his stuff isn't, what do I/we do with it all?
September 4, 2019 6:41 AM   Subscribe

My dad died three weeks ago and he was a ...collector. My brothers and I are now facing the task of getting rid of all of this stuff and I've found myself struggling with the way that economics/"value" is mixed up in my head with the emotional attachments. I want/need to hear stories about how other people disentangled their heads and hearts in order to sell/give away their parents' treasured belongings.

Basically, anything that ever meant something to him, he kept, even when it wasn't useful or valuable: documents, gadgets, pins, books (oh the books), sheet music, coins, electronics, CDs, DVDs...I could go on with all the things that my father kept. Most of these are not things that any of us want or need, but they were clearly so meaningful to him. So how do we get rid of them. Please help me with your stories and advice. Did you wait for a while to do the sorting and selling/giving away? Enlist outside help? Tell stories while you filled boxes? How did you figure out what would make it worth *your* time to get assessed/evaluated for resale value? All of this is just overwhelming and sad and I feel like I'm holding onto things (and social media accounts) with this vain hope that it will keep him closer to me. TIA

Note: this thread was very helpful with the immediate aftermath.
posted by correcaminos to Human Relations (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that's helped me downsize my own (relatively small) packrat tendencies is to take photos. Photos store much easier than stuff, and (for me) the photos do the same job as the stuff did -- remind me of whatever made it resonate in the first place.

Very few of the things that I gather have intrinsic value. They're not something that would be cool to show other people later on. For the majority of them, they sit in boxes for years at a time unlooked at. Photos help me transition from not-looking-at-stuff-in-a-box-in-my-house to not-looking-at-stuff-that-is-now-donated-or-recycled.

Also, you can always sort and scrapbook with the photographs later on -- add stories about what made those things special to your dad, create albums of like items. Things like DVDs of major movies can be purchased again if you make a mistake; even if it's not your dad's copy, you can find it again and watch it and remember him.

As for books, bookworms love free books. Set up a "free" garage sale with a picture of your dad and a candle. Share a story about a book and your dad with someone who's taking it home. Spread the word about your dad's memory to family, friends and strangers. Or, donate en masse to the library so they can sell them off in their bookstore, etc. Unless a book rare, particularly meaningful, especially beautiful, or personally resonant to you, the books can have a wonderful second life with other readers. Do make sure to riffle through the pages in case there's marginal notes (which you can take pictures of), or photos, or other things he may have packed in there.

Ritual can help with transitions. I am not qualified to speak too much about that, but you can make one up that's meaningful to you or read about other's rituals.

Finally, condolences for your loss. Getting rid of the stuff of life is an emotionally charged experience. Be gentle with yourself while you sort through his things.
posted by wires at 7:00 AM on September 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

I've found myself struggling with the way that economics/"value" is mixed up in my head with the emotional attachments

Marie Kondo’s book really helped me with this. Please disregard all the jokes/uninformed opinions about her and give it a try. There will be big or valuable or seemingly meaningful things you think you should keep but that don’t really hold special value to you, and it’s perfectly okay to let those go, they are just things; they aren’t your dad. And there will be small or seemingly insignificant things that really strike a chord with you and remind you of him, and it’s perfectly okay to keep those even if other people might consider them trash. And it’s ok to hang onto stuff you aren’t sure about.

Most of these are not things that any of us want or need, but they were clearly so meaningful to him.

It was him that was meaningful to you, not his stuff. I’m sure he knew that.
posted by sallybrown at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2019 [31 favorites]

You can drown in stuff if you assume you have to keep any and everything that he had. I think one needs to be both pragmatic - what would you use? what is meaningful to you specifically and what do you have room for? I've been through this several times including while downsizing my father's stuff to move him into assisted living. We tried hard to keep things out of landfills and to donate to people who could use his things. And this weekend am doing the same thing with a recently departed cousin who kept EVERYTHING - family will take a few momentos and much of the rest will be donated.
posted by leslies at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you are able to, I'd say hire an estate salesperson to help with actually valuing (in terms of monetary value) the stuff in your father's estate. What you feel is emotionally valuable is something you and your siblings will need to figure out, but knowing hard cash dollars what an estate sale would consider worth selling and what would be relegated to the "give to the family if they care about it or donate/trash" can really help grieving families separate what is personally important to them from what they "should" keep/sell because it's "valuable" on the market.
posted by xingcat at 7:06 AM on September 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Some professional organizers deal with this area --- going through things with a family after someone's died. They can maybe help you say goodbye to the clear junk, make piles of things you want to keep personally, make piles of things for an estate sale, etc.
posted by zizzle at 7:08 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss. It's really hard. The stuff makes it harder.

I feel like I'm holding onto things (and social media accounts) with this vain hope that it will keep him closer to me.

Oh, yes...this. It may take some time to sink in that your dad is not in (all of) the stuff. The first pass of de-accessioning goes with the question "Is Dad in this?" Not whether it was meaningful to him (especially given his collecting tendencies), but how strongly you and your siblings feel your dad's presence in them. Deal with those less-resonant objects first. Donate, maybe to places/causes that would have pleased your dad, and get a receipt for your donations. You can decide later whether to do anything with the receipts, but it might immediately ease your sense of value being mixed up with emotions.

I found that I had to sit with the pile of remaining objects, because it took me a long time to realize that no, my mother-in-law was not in these things. I picked specific pieces to live with--I mean pretty things to display, and practical objects for daily use--so I could think about her without feeling overwhelmed. Over time, I have sifted the memory-connected objects from the this-belonged-to-her objects; many of the latter have gone to friends. The value is in the memory, and the ability to say "She would have liked knowing that this person was enjoying this object" and "I feel close to her when I see this object." But it takes time, lots of time, to get there.

I wish you luck. Go gently with yourself.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:25 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

You and your family go through Dad's things, take what you want. Get an appraiser in the look at what's left. No value? Trash it. Anything left can be sold at auction or any other method you please.

This kind of situation can be (is!) soul numbing. Start today. Don't procrastinate, the longer you let this go, the worse it's going to be. Trust me, I've been through this kind of thing 3 times in the past 15 years.

Good luck, and so sorry for your loss.
posted by james33 at 7:27 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Both my dad and his childless little brother died last year, a few months apart. His brother had still lived in the house where they'd both grown up, so my family went through this process in spades -- dealing with things that were significant to dad, my uncle and my grandparents.

Dad in particular had been such a private person that the rest of us had never seen many of the items, and going through them gave us a whole new window into who he was. Having gone through the stuff, talking about its meaning, made it easier to separate the stuff from the person, and to let most of the stuff go. The little things I've kept are basically worthless to anyone else -- 1930's childhood photos, a yo-yo, a nice glass magnifying lens, a pocketknife, a beat-up wristwatch, an improvised light switch. I guess they're basically souvenirs, and that's enough really.

I think you can ease the struggle here substantially by slowing the process down. Unless you need to empty the house so you can sell it, or vacate an apartment, then there probably isn't a huge rush.
posted by jon1270 at 7:33 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

My family are hoarders and stuff has been handed down generationally.

My sister and I are breaking the cycle. We were helped in this by a wise and travel-loving great-aunt who gave us the following advice, which I leave with you. For each person you love, choose 3 meaningful objects - for us that's one photograph, one book/letter/etc., and one object.

That's all you need. Everything else is just extra.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:36 AM on September 4, 2019 [19 favorites]

Almost all of the belongings I have inherited from relatives have been Marie Kondo’d out of my life in the last few years. I really like Warriorqueen’s suggestion, though. Telling stories as you box things up is great! I didn’t get that choice with my dad’s stuff, my mom ordered a junk truck the day after he passed without telling us. Every single belonging, piece of clothing, every book was disposed of in one go! Whew, that was harsh. She didn’t get rid of the house keys, so luckily I have his keychain that I keep with my own keys. And you know what, that is really enough!
posted by gryphonlover at 8:09 AM on September 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

My approach with my parents' stuff (they'd lived in the same house for 40 years and had a lot of stuff accumulated) was similar to monkeytoes.
I started with bulk and generic stuff that I didn't feel any attachment towards and just junked it or charity shopped it. After that I went room to room and tried to put things into keep/get rid/decide later piles. I found that moving things out of their "homes" in the house into piles or boxes broke the sentimental connection in some cases - they stopped being parent things and just became things (Corollary - if you think that might be a bit distressing, take some photos or video before you start moving stuff).
That pretty much reduced the set of things I felt attached to down to a manageable amount of things to keep. Again, taking photos of objects I wanted to remember but didn't actually _want_ was very helpful.
I didn't really try to sell much - I could have probably made a bit of money but I wasn't in a good emotional state to manage the effort that would have involved. Essentially I just agreed with myself that the lost "profit" was worth it for the peace of mind I got by not worrying about it.
Condolences for your loss - this is a tough process to go through.
posted by crocomancer at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss.

I've helped a woman who had lost her father go through the non-sellable part of his stuff (he was not a collector but he was a tinkerer, which meant that he did hoard tools and materials) because there was a lot, and she had decided that it would all have to go... and that it would make her feel better to have everything looked at by people who love tools and old electronics gear as much as he did. So nothing was thrown away without having been looked at, and many of the things that he lovingly gathered in little cigar boxes went to our hackerspace, to be used for projects. She told us stories about some of the objects.

Just the fact that some people who love this kind of stuff came over to take the time to look at all his things, and pick out what they saw as beautiful or useful, made her feel like nothing was carelessly thrown out. It took us a day but it was very much worth it, for all parties involved.

If you can find the right people, maybe that's an option for you, too.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:20 AM on September 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss. May his memory be for a blessing.

Personal experience: my grandmother died a few years ago and had mostly gone through her stuff before she died. That said, she had a large house and an interesting life and lived into her 90s, so there was still a lot of stuff. I picked out a box of things to keep, including a handful of books and trinkets, and a bunch of photos. It felt good to have just a few of her things. My father, on the other hand, insisted on inheriting all of her Judaica, and now feels miserable and guilty about the eleven boxes that have been sitting for years in his unheated garage. From this, I realized that it's okay to keep a few things, but I'd feel guilty and overwhelmed by lots of things.

Ten years ago, I helped a friend, D, go through her friend J's stuff after J died. J had no partner, living siblings, or children, and D felt like it was her responsibility to go through everything. She wanted every object to find a good home, whether it was costume jewelry, the many matching luggage sets, or the half-full bottles of cleaning products. I felt glad to be there for D as an objective person who never knew J and could help her decide what to do with it all. From this, I learned I wouldn't want to go through everything myself.

I've also been thinking about what to do with my parents' house when they are gone. I've decided to combine these lessons, and keep a box of stuff, maybe with a friend nearby to help. For the rest, I will hire an estate salesperson.

Grief is hard. If you like poetry, you may like this poem on The Five Stages of Grief. May the coming days go smoothly for you.
posted by wicked_sassy at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

After my mother died, I got the estate sale set up and done with in my absence and only took a few representative things from her home when I could have taken twice as many. It was the right thing to do at the time, and good for my mental well-being. but that time it was right for was a month after she died, and that time is long past now.

All of this is just overwhelming and sad and I feel like I'm holding onto things (and social media accounts) with this vain hope that it will keep him closer to me.

It seems like a vain and pointless hope now, because your living father is so close to you, and material things seem like such a tiny and useless substitute. The further away in time you go from him, the more they mean. Do not let yourself be convinced that real love means never giving your memory any material help, never admitting that it does help, unless that is really true for you.

Anything that is trash to you, anything you are sure you have no personal feelings for, get rid of in the easiest and quickest way possible. no problem there. You will not miss it. but for those things which have connections to him that you understand, like (maybe) some of his books, like maybe certain things he collected when you were young and that you remember from your childhood, maybe some things he collected after you were grown up and that represent a private side of him you have no other way of accessing - take what time you have to look through it and document what you can't or don't want to keep.

It is very easy to discard too much in the initial rush of productivity that comes right after the initial paralysis of bereavement. The problem, and the reason I say I made bad decisions by being too efficient, is that so soon after a death you feel like there is no possible way you can ever forget little things about the person -- so it feels irrational and redundant to keep track of mementos, which are called that for a reason: all your memories of him are in your head already and seems impossible that you will ever forget anything.

but, in a year or two or five, you will forget things. a lot of things. lost details will strike you as very important for no reason you can access or imagine right now.

so no, don't rent a giant storage unit, and no, don't try to keep everything, and yes, do hire a professional estate sales person. and don't ever think that you are disrespecting your dad or the things he loved by doing what everybody has to do. but keep or photograph the things that are hardest to sort through because, right now, they make you miss him too much. Those are the things you will be wanting very badly in two or three years, and those are the things you should pack away somewhere. not for forever if you decide not, but for when you need them.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

My sister and I had a good time (!) sorting through our mother's stuff on her death. She wasn't a hoarder, but she did have a lot of things. We had a very simple system.

Sort everything into three piles. Stuff with personal / sentimental value. Stuff with financial value. And junk. Go quickly and work hard. After half an hour you'll be tired enough of the work that it gets much easier; that funky old sweater with holes in the elbows will no longer seem to have any sentimental value.

Once the sorting is done you can divide things up. It's tempting to do that while you're sorting, and a little is inevitable, but it's a mistake to have a long personal discussion over every item because you'll never get it done that way.

The one thing I wish we'd saved more of is personal papers. We mostly didn't throw things away, certainly not diaries etc, but now I kind of wish we'd kept ephemera like mom's old plane ticket stubs or whatever. In the moment of sorting that just means burying it in a "sentimental" box you may not open again for 20 years.
posted by Nelson at 8:47 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

My father is gone 13 years. The week after he passed my brother, mom and I went through his closet and donated non sentimental clothes. We wouldn't wear them and knew there were people who would need them. We kept the clothes that had meaning (Yankees, his civil war trips, family vacations) and over the years I've weeded out some, but I still wear others.
We've further discarded things we can't use - like VHS tapes - but haven't touched his books. I dread that
posted by TravellingCari at 10:07 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are some local church organizations that will make a quilt out of your loved ones' clothing with donations - we had this done with my grandparents.

As someone young and recently widowed, I found the process of getting rid of 'things' way too difficult in the beginning. If it's only been three weeks, I'd recommend starting with things that have zero sentimental value (food in pantry, used cleaning supplies, etc) and maybe you guys should take a bit more time to grieve before making any collective decisions. I didn't end up really getting rid of my late husband's clothing until a year and half later, but my situation is very different.
posted by hillabeans at 11:25 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

My wife of 62 years and I lived in a large house. We had several antique furniture pieces. An the usual kitchen full of every manner of gadget and tool. She passed away nearly 5 years ago.

I had my 4 children in and told them what I was keeping for a downsized apartment. I gave one daughter my wife's wedding ring and the other daughter the engagement ring. Actually i had them cleaned, etc by a jeweler and put each ring in a separate box and had them choose a box and that was the ring they got. I had a workshop of tools. Gave my two sons first choice. I gave some furniture pieces that no one wanted to an antique dealer and they sold fast.

Both my wife and I did family history research. I have hundreds of pictures and reports of ancestors for both me and my wife. I put all the pictures on thumb drives so that they can see them (or not).

I have written what I'd like them to do with my remaining stuff when I pass (I am 90). And they can do that or whatever they agree upon. If more than one child wants an item they should flip a coin for the decision.

My wife was a quiltmaker among other hoppies. She made a special quilt for every child and grandchild (4 kids and 9 grandkids). They did not have to share that way.

I'd have no remorse if they just junked whatever is left over as it is just "stuff."
posted by JayRwv at 11:27 AM on September 4, 2019 [19 favorites]

Went through this recently, actually just a week ago I did a last clean out of the apartment. My relative was a lifelong bachelor, and like your father he kept everything. Everything. Training manuals from computer systems from the 1980's. Match book covers, magnets, train schedules, maps, busted furniture, novelty gifts, Christmas cards, all of it.

After his siblings had taken anything they had any interest it, which was mostly furniture from their childhood home and photographs, there was still an absolute ton of shit. Things that he clearly had wanted to hold on to and had some value to him, but to almost no one else, it turned out. No one wanted the clothes, dishes, furniture, all of it was basically landfill. Goodwill, habitat for humanity, thrift stores, not interested. He had some memorabilia that was probably the last remaining copy - but so obscure I could never think of a place it would be wanted. It was incredibly hard to just dispose of it but the place had to get emptied out to be sold.

I don't really have any advice, just commiseration. I kept what I could, all along being glad I have a tiny house and can't take much, because I knew it was junk. But watching it go, essentially his legacy, made me think a lot about how transient life is and just how many people have lived quiet and largely unrecorded lives over the course of human history. I looked at almost every item, at least once and often twice, took a lot of pictures, and tried my absolute best to find a home for anything I could.

In the end, I had to pay for the rest of it to be hauled off.

Sorry for your loss.
posted by pilot pirx at 11:52 AM on September 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

My dad used to be the librarian for a chamber orchestra; the group fell apart after he passed but we had a huge collection of sheet music.

I got in touch with someone at the local University's (and my alma mater) music department and they were happy to take the collection as a donation - but they weren't prepared for how big it was. They still took it.

CDs/ DVDs, a local library might take them as a donation; a local public library branch took a large collection of classical music CDs.
posted by porpoise at 1:28 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, if he hoarded stuff that was community oriented, please think about donating a box or three of those documents to your local historical society. This might include local music, diaries, ephemera like tickets, brochures, playbills, community newspapers (not the major ones, since they likely have them already), scrapbooks, photos you don't want that might seem relevant, documents from local organizations he might have belonged to, etc. They will be thankful, and you will feel like you did something good with some of his stuff.

I'm currently going through my own stuff and donating boxes of historically meaningful documents myself, so my family doesn't just toss it all or have to deal with it.
posted by RedEmma at 2:31 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm continuing to deal with this after my mom's death in January and our cross-country move this spring. Aside from a few things of hers I'm keeping for emotional value, the single thing that has helped me the most is this: If you didn't already own it, would you go out and buy it? This came from a book I just finished reading on my Kindle, Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki. I highly recommend it. You don't need to be a minimalist (I'm not) to glean a great deal of value from it.

I'm truly sorry for you loss.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 2:53 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

With collectors, can you find your local hobby association and pass it on to them with a photo of your dad, thus ensuring his collection is honored and then passed on to someone else who will have joy from it?
posted by corb at 3:08 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

An estate sale professional can help. Don't think you need to trash things that aren't "valuable." I've bought everything from brass polish to furniture to weird sculptures to everything in between at estate sales.
posted by vespabelle at 3:36 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for the loss of your dad. My dad passed away in December 2017, and we've been going through his stuff very gradually. (He was somewhat of a packrat, so there's a lot of it!)
If you don't need to get rid of his things right away, don't feel like you have to. It's okay to wait until the loss isn't so recent. (It was only in the past couple months that my mom was really ready to clear out my dad's study.) I did end up taking some of his things that I'd always liked or had special meaning to me. My partner is about the same size as my dad was, so he got a bunch of my dad's clothes. There were some things that we knew friends of his would appreciate, so we gave those things to those people. It actually was a comfort for me to know that those items were with people he'd want to have them.

I love the idea of donating things to your local historical society. My dad was very involved in local politics back in the day - he served as a village trustee and as mayor - and had tons of memorabilia, newspaper articles, political flyers, etc. from back then. We donated loads of stuff to the historic preservation commission.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:08 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

My mother was a book keeper-slash-hoarder. When she moved to memory care→hospice→died three years ago we were overwhelmed with what to do with all those like-new books.

Made a few phone calls, found out that a local small community happened to be in the process of opening a public library. We offered them all the books, just asked that they please come to mom's home to pick them up so we didn't need to schlep everything, and we helped them load vans full of books so the new library would have a good 'starter pack'. It felt so nice to think of someone else getting use out of these things.

I am very sorry for your loss.

edit to add: Also, if you have a LOTlot of things to get rid of, like throw away, I can say from experience that asking the garbage truck driver what his favorite beverage is, and then procuring that beverage in the largest bottle size and best quality available for him, it goes a very long way in being able to discard way more than the garbage pick-up company would normally allow.
posted by mcbeth at 2:29 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I left a couple comments in this thread which might be helpful and covers similar ground.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:11 PM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am so grateful for all of your answers, for your thoughtfulness and care and stories. Several of you reminded me that it's ok to take time with this, and I will do that. I'm not doing this alone, so I'm excited to take some of these ideas to my mom and brothers (he really did love all of his books; I love the idea of figuring out ways to pass the books on to others in a more engaged way). And then the idea of various rituals really appeals to me, which, honestly, comes as a bit of a surprise. So thank you, all of you.
posted by correcaminos at 9:54 AM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

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