Losing a parent is an inevitable hurdle in life. And for baby boomers, whose aging parents are often in their 80s and 90s, it’s an imminent one. Aside from coping with the emotional burden, there’s also the burden of dealing with all the “stuff.” It can be overwhelming.
That’s the case for Alan Miller, a rail-transportation planner, who is weighed down by the volume of his parents’ things. As his family’s only adult child, he’s tasked not only with untangling his parents’ complicated financial affairs, but also dealing with their personal belongings. Everything from his father’s collection of glass vacuum tubes to his mother’s holiday decorations to their numerous, scattered files of paper.
One year after his mother’s death, he’s still sorting through the remnants of his parents’ lives. Most are packed in boxes in the basement or cluttering a spare room in his downtown Davis, Calif., bungalow, as well as stacked to the ceiling in a nearby storage facility.
“I know people who pull up a Dumpster and everything goes into it. But I’m not that kind of person,” said Miller, 52, adding that the job is both emotionally and physically draining.
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To help him, he turned to Claudia Smith, a professional organizer with Clear Your Clutter Consulting in Davis.
“Downsizing and letting go of stuff is good for everyone,” said Smith, who said many of her clients are in their 40s to 60s. “I go into homes where the attic is crammed and every room is filled. The kids are completely overwhelmed.”
Grace Bamlett, owner of Organized Outcomes in Orangevale, Calif., said parental possessions are “an emotional weight for baby boomers.” She said 10 to 15 percent of her business is clients who are “either having to downsize for their parents or dealing with stuff left to them after their parents have died. It’s a large group of people, and it’s only growing larger.”
As professional organizers, Bamlett and Smith encourage clients to shed belongings but not the memories.
If parents are alive and willing, ask if they want help.
Start giving things away to family or friends. Jewelry to a dear friend. A set of dishes to a daughter-in-law. “It’s far better to give them to a loved one now,” said Smith. “They can enjoy them and your kids don’t get stuck with everything when you die.”
One way to eliminate the avalanche of stuff is by capturing a loved one’s memory in smaller ways, such as a shadow box, which contains “the essence of the member in a physically small way,” as Smith put it, who made one for her father.
“You don’t need a room packed full of stuff to honor a memory,” she said. “You want to keep the history and memories alive, without the burden of a huge volume of physical stuff.”
It can be challenging when siblings come home to divvy up mom and dad’s belongings. When Judy Hertel’s father died in 2013, he left behind a lifetime of possessions in the family home outside Chicago. Everything was still in the house, from old family board games to Hertel’s wedding dress.
And then there was the basement. Her father, a General Motors machinist, had a workshop filled with tools, lathes, vises and thousands of pieces of leftover scrap metal. Cleaning all of it out to ready the house for sale fell to Hertel and her siblings.
“My brother just wanted it done. His attitude was: Go in, get it done and put the house on the market.” Her sister, by contrast, needed to touch every piece of paper, which greatly slowed the process. “It created a lot of tension,” recalled Hertel.
Ultimately, they donated clothing, linens and kitchenware to a local church charity. They recycled 150 pounds of metal, including boxes of bolts, screws and nails. And they filled two waist-high Dumpsters with discards.
The task was further complicated because Hertel was in California and not able to be as hands-on as she would have liked. In retrospect, she wishes they’d done far more of the sorting while her parents were still alive.
Sandy Edwards, a retired teacher in Carmichael, Calif., vividly remembers how she and her siblings divvied up the contents of their parents’ sprawling, four-story Victorian mansion in Merchantville, N.J., which had been in the family since 1900. It took two years and innumerable trips back east.
Essentially, “We linked arms and walked room by room. We didn’t assign values to anything but used three colors of Post-it notes” to mark the things each wanted to keep, including items for grandchildren. “The emotional part was extremely hard to do,” Edwards said, but dividing things up was comparatively easy among her siblings.
Don’t wait too long
Four or five years before her mother died at age 97, Marty West, a retired University of California, Davis law professor, helped her go through closets, drawers and paper files. It was a process her mother welcomed, she said.
It wasn’t until after her mother died that West discovered — stashed in her mother’s garage — a treasure trove of old family correspondence, some dating back to the 1800s. The letters, in shoe boxes and cardboard containers, had been stored unopened for years. Some were from her Kansas grandmother written to her grandfather while they were courting in 1896. Some were from her parents, who were social and religious activists in the 1940s.
“It was sad when I discovered all this correspondence because I could no longer ask her about it,” said West.
For the past several years, West has been methodically going through hundreds of letters. She’s tossing out “anything I’d never want to read again,” but keeping correspondence that has personal, historical or emotional significance.
Old letters from aunts, uncles and cousins have been sent to surviving relatives. The ones West is keeping are filed chronologically in airtight plastic containers, rather than cardboard boxes that could be susceptible to insects. Tackling those kinds of chores now can save everyone tedium and some heartache in the long run.
Miller, having closed up his parents’ Palo Alto, Calif., home and settled most of their legal affairs, is now committed to paring down the physical pieces of their lives that he’s accumulated in Davis.
For him, it couldn’t be done without a professional at his side.
Smith, the professional organizer, advocates a simple rule of thumb:
“We spend our first 40 years in life collecting things. And we should spend our second 40 years getting rid of things.”