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How to Clean a Loved One’s Home after a Death

One of the toughest challenges in life is to clean a loved one’s home after a death. From time to time I’m asked for tips on this subject, so I decided to gather a few of my top thoughts to help you along.

Whether a death is sudden, or something you’ve had some time to prepare for, take a deep breathe when you enter a loved one’s home after they’ve passed. And when you are ready, try these simple steps to help you and your family members more easily navigate these emotional waters.

Step 1: Take a Tour

Clearing out a loved one’s home after a death can be a challenging process. Before beginning any work, take a walking tour around the home with your loved one in mind. You may notice things that you have never seen before, and this will give you time to mourn and grieve. The process of going through someone’s possessions can be emotional, so give yourself a chance to release feelings before taking things apart, as doing so can be very therapeutic. You may choose to take photos as you walk around, or perhaps carry a notebook to write down thoughts that enter your mind. Give yourself at least an hour to do this, as you walk you will no doubt pick things up, open and close doors, but resist the immediate temptation throw anything out. There will be plenty of time for this once the process of deconstructing the home begins.

Step 2: Do Easy Things First

Once it’s time to start cleaning, start with the easy things first. Work layer by layer down through the items of your loved one’s life. I suggest starting in an area with things that can be easily removed or thrown away, for example in the pantry or kitchen, where you can easily start to let go of food or clean out a refrigerator. Sweep through the entire home looking for this easy-to-remove top layer of life. Doing so will start to lighten the load.

From there, work through each room of the home, grouping things into like piles. For example, gather all books and put them in one place, for review later. Books may be found scattered in all parts of a home, from the office to the bedroom. Gathering ‘like things’ means that at a later stage you can review all similar things at the same time. It can take a lot of physical and mental energy to do these tasks. You can more easily keep momentum up if you can review similar items all at the same time.

Step 3: Create an 'I Don't Know' Zone

The grieving process will remain active the entire length of time it takes to clear out the home. This means emotions may run high as you and your family go through items, and the ability to make objective decision may be tough. If you are working with family members during the clean-out process, create an ‘I don’t know’ zone somewhere in the home. This zone is meant for items, both large and small, where an easy decision cannot be made in the moment, or where two parties disagree. Ask everyone involved in clearing to honor this space, and to move items into this zone when it is unclear what choice to make. I have found that doing this allows strong emotions to dissipate, and most important, keeps unintentional fighting at bay. And as the home begins to clear, those gathered can begin to review the ‘I don’t know’ items and begin discussion with clearer, calmer heads.

Step 4: Press Pause and Breathe

Emotions will come and go during your time of grief ranging from sadness to disbelief to anger. If you become overwhelmed with emotion as you work, stop what you are doing, press pause and breathe. Step away from the process whether it’s for five minutes or five days. Allow yourself the time you need to process your feelings, as it’s far better to feel during periods of grief than to to ignore what is bubbling up to the surface. If stepping away for a long length of time is not an option, just step outside and catch some fresh air. A cooling off period is just the ticket as we work our way through the various stages of grief.

Step 5: Release and Let Go

As a final step, prepare yourself to release and let go some of the items in your loved one’s home. This means donating clothes to charity, gifting memorabilia to friends and loved ones, and preparing valuable items for sale. No doubt you will want to hold on to some items. Bringing treasured items into your own home after a loved one passes is part of the remembering and mourning process. So without a doubt, embrace the process of identifying what will come to live with you in your own home. But do it mindfully if you can, choosing to bring in only items that will be of use to you in your life, or will help you to actively remember your loved one.

Have you recently cleared out a loved one’s home? Share your experience below.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015. It has been updated to include new content.

Photo Credit: Bastian Sara, Fancy Crave, KaboompicsDan Budiac

Maeve Richmond is the founder and head coach of Maeve's Method, a home organization system based in New York City. She specializes in parents & kids, couples, small space solutions, space planning and decorative elements for the home. Contact her at or @MaeveRichmond.

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