By Debra King
I have worked with dozens of clients who refused to downsize, declutter, or organize their personal property while they were healthy, which created massive burdens for their adult children later on. Their stories are all somewhat similar, so the story I’ll tell here is a composite.
Dad passed away unexpectedly. Mom had dementia and couldn't stay in the house anymore, so the couple’s three daughters had to make arrangements for her to get care in an assisted living facility in another state. The parents had lived in their home for 60 years, and the amount of stuff in the house was overwhelming.
Mom’s dementia made it impossible for her to participate in the decluttering process before her house could be sold, so the daughters planned do this over a single weekend. All three sisters worked demanding jobs half a continent away, and they had just one weekend to complete this task.
I accompanied them as they walked through the house, trying to figure out where to start. There was so much stuff. Some of it was sentimental, but most of it was junk. This walk-through caused many emotional moments as they faced the reality that life in that house was over.
Unfortunately, there was no time to waste on trips down memory lane. They had to start deciding what to do with all the stuff. Because neither parent had ever been willing to talk about their preferences, they had no idea what was important and what wasn’t.
So, they guessed.
They started in the kitchen. The sisters expected things to go quickly, thinking that it would be easy to figure out what to donate and what to pitch. It wasn’t easy. When the sisters opened the cupboards and the China cabinet, things slowed down. All of Mom’s fine China was there, along with the complete sets handed down by Grandma and Aunt Susie, and the family’s beloved Christmas China. What would they do with that?
They decided to table that decision and move on to the next room, the den. Bookshelves lined the walls, each stuffed with books and memorabilia. Dad’s desk was there, with bills, statements, magazines, and more strewn on top. The sisters had to go through all the paperwork and try and figure out what was important. What should they keep? What should they trash?
It was all so difficult, and things got worse when they found Mom’s journal. They didn’t know she kept one. Their progress ground to a halt as they read the pages. There were more than a few surprises. I’ll let you use your imagination.
The sisters spent an entire day going through each room, sorting items into piles to keep, sell, donate, and pitch. At first, things went smoothly, but as they were confronted with decisions about who gets what from the “keep” piles, the disagreements started.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen adult children argue about who gets what. It’s always worse when they have no idea what their parents would have wanted. The emotions follow a predictable pattern. There’s sadness, then anger, then regret. You realize that you have just one shot at this and you need to get it right. You want to make sure that you're not getting rid of something that you might want later.
One possibility was to put the items in storage and deal with them later. There was a cost involved, but they could each afford to pay their share. What they couldn’t agree on was where the storage unit should be located. Mom lived in Tennessee, but the sisters were scattered across the country. One was in Boston, one was in Seattle, and one was in Florida.
Most of the second day was spent arguing about what to do next. Finally, they decided to hire n estate sale agent to deal with the items they wanted to sell and donate. They would have to come back the following weekend to finalize who got what, and then have professionals clean the house.
One of the major sticking points for this family was the fine China. No one used China, but they were all afraid to get rid of it.
“I don’t know what to do,” one of the sisters said to me.
“Just keep it for a while,” I told her. “Take it home and stick it somewhere and see how you feel about it a year from now."
I’d like to say that this story has a happen ending, but it doesn’t. The process of dealing with their parents’ stuff fractured the sisters’ relationship. They rarely talk today. All of this indecision, this conflict, and this chaos could have been avoided had the parents been willing to sit down with their daughters and talk to them about their preferences.
If you are serious about keeping your family together, if you are serious about not creating unnecessary burdens for your kids as you get older and your health declines, please do something about your stuff. Please be open to the possibility of downsizing now. If that’s impossible, at least talk to your kids about your preferences. They will be glad you did.