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Foliage in a glass jar signifying recycling and environment

Decluttering when someone has died

Sentimental items are without a doubt the most difficult things to deal with when decluttering. Emotions around objects can be incredibly strong, as we link feelings and memories to physical objects and this is especially true when someone has passed away. In this post, Zoe Berry of Life/Edit gives her advice on decluttering a lifetime of possessions after someone dies.

Decluttering when someone has died: How to deal with a lifetime of possessions

Recently I have worked with two clients for whom this is a huge issue: they are responsible for decluttering after someone has died, and they find themselves hanging on to far too much stuff because of an almost paralysing inability to make decisions on what to do with it all. There are varied reasons for this: in these particular cases, the sheer volume of it all was overwhelming. Where do you start with a whole house or the contents of someone’s entire life that’s ended up in boxes in your loft? But perhaps greater than this is the associated guilt. When someone has died it can be so hard to part with their belongings: knowing how hard the person worked for them, knowing what the items meant to the person, worrying that you are being disloyal or disrespectful by simply ‘getting rid’ of them, or not knowing who to give them to or where they should go if you do want to part with them. This post explores how you can respectfully and thoughtfully keep someone’s memory alive without having to be the keeper of all of their belongings.

First: ask for help

This is going to be hard. You probably can’t do it on your own, so allow the people who are offering help to work through it with you. Or if this isn’t an option, look up a professional declutterer here: https://www.apdo.co.uk/find-an-organiser/. We are trained to help you, and can help to guide you through the process.

Start with the ‘least difficult’

In the case of post-bereavement decluttering, there probably isn’t an ‘easy’ place to start, but whatever you do, don’t start with the most emotional things. You’ll know what these are. For some people it’s about their mum’s clothes, for some it’s their husband’s precious collection of books which were his pride and joy. For some people it’s about something that may seem entirely random but you will know what is going to be the most difficult for you. Leave that until the end.

Do I really want to keep this?

Look at the item and ask yourself: what precisely am I sentimental about? Chances are, it’s not the object itself but its association with a person, place, or time. You will retain that memory without a physical object to remind you. However if you look at the item and love it, then it’s not clutter.

pile of photographs letters and memories

Let go of guilt

Often people keep items not out of love or nostalgia, but guilt. It could be because it feels ‘bad’ to get rid of something, or it could be because you had a difficult relationship with the person who has died and you’re subconsciously trying to make it better. Allow yourself to realise that your complex relationship with your aunty will not be fixed if you keep hold of her hideous set of figurines now that she has passed away.

Take a photograph

If you have your grandparents’ table and chairs and you know you can’t keep them and won’t use them, take a photo of them as part of the process of letting them go. Use the same logic as you do with other parts of your decluttering life (you wouldn’t keep all your kids’ toys for example) and apply it to the post-bereavement decluttering.

Pass it on

Do some quality research before passing your items to charity. Some charities only take specific things (for example, no electrical goods) and you don’t want to be turned away after the difficult and emotional process of sorting through, loading your car and driving to the charity shop. Recently I donated a whole lifetime’s worth of clothes which had belonged to a client’s mum. Going through these clothes was so difficult for my client, she spent hours in tears remembering the stories that went with them: where her mum wore them and how they summed her up. I made sure these clothes went to a charity shop local to me which specialises in vintage clothing. For this client, the idea that the next generation of vintage-loving young women would be soon wearing them filled her with joy and pride.

Foliage in a glass jar signifying recycling and environment

Family

You may not want something or have room for it, but you can always offer it to others in the family. Remember to check with them first before packing an object off to somewhere outside the family.

Upcycle

To hold onto your connection with something, create something new that retains its sentimental value. An example of this recently was an antique chair belonging to a client’s beloved great aunty. I encouraged her to upcycle it so it fitted more in to her house décor and she covered it with some beautiful fabric bringing it right up to date whilst still retaining the nod to her family member.

Dealing with collections

It’s very difficult when dealing with the possessions of an avid collector. Your dad may have loved his thousands of model cars, your brother loved his rooms full of books, but it doesn’t mean you have to absorb them into your home. Choosing one or two keepsake items to represent a collection, person or era can allow you to let the rest go.

Memory Box

Just as you’d keep a memory box for your children with their precious school drawings, first shoes and other sentimental items, you can also do this for someone who has died. It doesn’t matter how off-the-wall these things are – if an empty margarine tub makes you chuckle thinking about your gran, then pop it in the box. This is a good way to preserve memories without taking up too much space. It also keeps the items all together, so you can choose when you want to look at them, particularly if grief is still very raw.

Most of all be kind to yourself. Take time, acknowledge that this is one of the hardest things to do, accept help and reward yourself when you make progress.

Toys on the floor on a background at wall

How to keep an organised home when you have small children

Some of the most common questions that professional organisers get asked are around how to keep on top of clutter and keep a semblance of an organised home when you have small children. In this post, Rebecca Caution of Conscious Space Professional Organising shares her top tips on how, with a little bit of effort, it really is possible to do so.

Think like a Montessori educator

When it comes to maintaining an organised home with small children as inhabitants, take inspiration from the Montessori approach. Montessori is a method of education based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. In Montessori nurseries and schools, children make choices in their own learning, whilst staff and classroom set-up guide the process, developing independence and encouraging creativity from a young age. But what does this look like day-to-day in the home?

Designate a place for everyday items and establish daily rituals

Children learn through repetition, so putting in place routines which allow them responsibility for getting themselves ready each day will be effort rewarded with less stressful mornings. Consider affixing a hook for each child – at their level – in your hallway or by your front door. Coats and bags can live here, so that each morning your children can grab them as they leave, and each afternoon return them there. Likewise, shoes – along with seasonal accessories, such as gloves and scarves or sun hats and sunglasses – can be kept in an easily-accessible container under the sofa. My children love having their own special hooks and even though the 17-month old can’t quite put her coat and bag on herself just yet, she has a clear sense of pride at being able to get them herself when she knows it’s time to leave.

Easy access kitchen items and mealtime rituals

Similarly, child-friendly cutlery, crockery, baking equipment and lunch containers can also be kept in a place which your children can reach. Once items are within easy reach, rituals can be established around accessing plates and bowls for each meal and returning items to the sink or dishwasher afterwards. In our home, cereals, fruit and healthy snacks are also accessible, so our Reception-aged son can prepare his own breakfast and the toddler can pull out whichever cereal she chooses each day. It may take a little time and repetition to get children to return items to the same place, but it is worth it to see the self-esteem it builds when they are allowed to do these things for themselves.

multi-coloured wooden toy building blocks on a wooden surface

Fewer toys

Our consumerist culture would have us believe that the arrival of a child in our homes is synonymous with the sudden necessity for a multitude of items we never before considered we would need (clue: we don’t). And the bombardment of daily marketing plying parents and children with messaging that they “need” this-that-and-the-other just carries on from there.

Whether you store and rotate toys, or simply make a commitment to have fewer to play with, the benefits are numerous: it’s quicker and easier to tidy up; it fosters far more creativity; children play better and for longer with what they do have.

Simple toy storage makes tidying up a game

Store toys which are most loved and are played with daily in open baskets. If baskets aren’t your thing, use other easy-to-access open containers which you like the look of, such as a shelving unit, canvas bags on hooks or felt boxes – especially if this is in your living space. That way, you can feel satisfied each evening that all toys are tidied away without having the eyesore of plastic boxes encroaching on your limited child-free time.

Store toys by type (cars, soft toys, dolls, building blocks, dressing up clothes), by colour or a different way each time – whatever works because any method of distinguishing toys means it’s simple to make tidying up a game and get even the very youngest of children involved. Think like Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and – SNAP – the job’s a game.” Those with the musical ability of Mary Poppins can come up with a catchy tidying-up song too. The rest of us can find one on Spotify.

Keep toys and books visible on open shelving

Another Montessori-lesson is to store toys and books in bedrooms on easy-to-reach shelving, with as few items in each space as possible, and then to encourage your children to return an item before another is selected. This allows easy child-led tidying and also leads to more focused play rather than the over-stimulation that can come from having access to too many toys at once. When everything is visible, it becomes very easy to assess which toys are getting regular use and which have been outgrown, at which point you can decide with your children whether it’s time to rotate, or to pass some things on to someone else who might like to play with them. When this is part of family conversation and encouraged from a young age, children become less attached to a multitude of items and really value the chance to be able to share toys which they have outgrown with someone who might be less fortunate than they are.

Red and white decorated childs bedroom with open shelving and toy basket

These small and simple changes can really make a difference to a household. You will notice all the wonderful benefits of having a tidier and more ordered home: more time, less stress, clearer focus. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll also notice the pride and joy it gives small children to have a little bit of independence; to take responsibility for their own possessions and daily chores; to focus and play when they have fewer toys to choose from; to truly value those that they do have; as well as gaining an understanding of the value of being able to share their good fortune with others. What could be a better pay off than that?

If Rebecca’s advice has inspired you to get your family more organised, you can find your local professional organiser here.

apdo blog family organising decluttering

How do I get my family to declutter?

As professional organisers, one of the questions that we are most frequently asked is: “How do I get my spouse/children/housemate on-board with decluttering?” In this post, professional organiser and coach Hannah Ashwell-Dickinson of Declutter With Hannah gives us some guidance, and shares what has worked well with her own family.

“How do I get my family on board with decluttering?”

You may have ‘seen the light’ yourself and be reaping the rewards of living with less stuff – more space, more time, improved mental clarity and feeling freer. But it can be challenging when others in your household either can’t let go of their clutter, or simply just don’t feel your enthusiasm. Some people aren’t adversely affected by mess and clutter. But if you are, and it impacts negatively on your well-being, this can lead to tension in the household. So, what can you do?

Set an example

Firstly, you can lead by example by continuing to let go of your own belongings and enjoying the benefits.  You need to “walk the walk” yourself before expecting others to make big lifestyle changes. Have a think about why you find clutter overwhelming and try to communicate that to the other people in your home. Start requesting experiences or consumables as gifts instead of “stuff” so that less is coming into your home and you show that you are serious about wanting to live with less.

apdo blog - getting family on board with decluttering - basket

Create zones

Allocate zones in the house that are clutter-free (for example, your side of the bedroom, a select number of shelves, the kitchen table) and ask people to respect that these areas should not be piled high with stuff.

Implement systems

Start to implement some systems in the house for where things should go. Have a place where keys belong, where the post goes, where bags and coats should be hung up, etc. This encourages other household members to put things away and keep communal areas tidy. Set up an easy-to-use filing system so that paperwork doesn’t pile up. And try to comment when positive changes occur – how much better you feel and how great the house looks – so that your family start to recognise that the whole house is benefitting from being more organised.

Set goals

If your family is willing – sit down and set some goals around what you would all gain by having less stuff. If you all agree to stop buying as much, you can put saved money towards a family holiday or a summer ice-cream fund. Or if you declutter the spare room you will gain extra play space or a home office. Encourage your partner or housemates to sell some things to make extra money to put towards your goal.

Start giving

Encourage family members to gather up unused toiletries and donate to food banks and refugee centres. Children are often motivated to declutter if they know their toys are going to families in need. Children also respond well to making decluttering a game. You could create a treasure hunt for the whole family to take part in where you collect broken toys, unused clothes and unwanted gifts. Whoever wins can choose an activity for you all to take part in – a family bike ride or baking a cake together.

apdo blog - getting family on board with decluttering

Set some rules

Finally, set some family rules together like “one in, one out” so that when members of the household buy something new, they must let go of something else. Or ask people to use the “one minute rule” – if something can be put away or dealt with in under one minute then do it so that jobs don’t build up.

Remember, learning to live with less and changing habits can be a slow process and it can be an even slower process changing other people’s habits. But don’t let that put your off. Slow and steady wins the race.

If you and your family would like to get some help with your decluttering, you can find your local professional organiser here.