Tell Me About It: I can’t bring myself to deal with my late father’s possessions

When I try to sort through his 80 years’ worth of belongings, I end up sitting in his study, feeling paralysed

Illustration: Thinkstock

Illustration: Thinkstock

Wed, Feb 5, 2014, 11:42

Q My father died a year ago, and as a family we have been procrastinating over dealing with his possessions. My mother doesn’t feel up to it, but she’s also anxious that it be done.

I’ve tried to make a start on his large book collection, photographs, papers and letters. Other members of the family seem grateful that I am willing to do this. But I can’t make any headway at all – it’s 80 years’ worth. I sit in his study, feeling paralysed. I pick up one picture, spend ages ruminating over it, then put it back in its dusty box.

A couple of these attempts have left me fatigued and swamped by memories. On a practical level, I have no idea what to keep. Should I ask someone else to do it? Or is that selfish? How can I get others to help me? Should my mother be involved?

A You describe so well the overwhelming sensation following bereavement when faced with the dead person’s things. Papers and books are the most time-consuming to go through because you don’t want to miss anything important, yet even seeing your father’s handwriting can be emotional.

“Understandably, many people feel that by getting rid of possessions they will lose memories of their loved ones. Items like books, photographs, papers and letters are especially nostalgic. It’s very common to get stuck in procrastination and it can be very difficult to imagine the end result. Sometimes we are just too personally attached to make any headway,” says Breda Stack, a lifestyle coach and decluttering therapist.

She had one client recently who let go of 23 bin bags of his mother’s clothes, most with the tags still on, and it was emotional but also uplifting for him to recognise that while shopping was his mother’s “thing” while she was alive, it was memories that were important now.

Decluttering requires you to take control, then let go, Stack says. People get a terrific sense of freedom when they’ve accomplished it, but it’s a long process.

You’re wondering whether you should ask someone else to do it, or ask for practical help, or persuade your mother to help. As with so many unspoken family issues, you have probably had bits of conversations here and there, seen the reluctance, and decided to be the brave one and have a go.

It’s okay that it was too much for you. Your next step is to sit the family down together to talk about it. You all need to acknowledge that decluttering is necessary and a part of grieving. If there are unspoken feelings that getting rid of Dad’s stuff is disloyal, now is the time to air it. Talk about what decluttering means: a respectful inventory of Dad’s things, deciding what to keep, sell, donate or throw away. Without mutual agreement, the family could sabotage your efforts.

Acknowledge that decluttering requires stamina, emotional strength, organisation skills and time. It’s a big project – not one you can sneak into the study and do on a Sunday afternoon after lunch. Do you have the time? Do others? If you are the natural leader in the family, and it sounds like you are, you could lead the project. Would others volunteer times to assist? It might be nice just to have someone to make the tea and share memories with.

Plan the project in advance step-by-step, setting yourself small attainable goals in realistic bites of time, Stack suggests. Agree in advance what you intend to do with unwanted items. Will old clothes go to charity? Are the books valuable? Second-hand antiquarian book dealers will appraise.

I think you should then present the plan to your mother for her approval. The alternative is a scene where you are beavering away in the study and interrupting her every few minutes for guidance, which would delay you and upset her.

If the task still seems daunting, your family could club together to pay for professional decluttering services. Stack’s service costs €650, which covers six hours at the house and three or four rooms. It also includes pre-planning, travel, her assistant, research into the value and possible sale of items, wardrobe and interior design advice, and aftercare support over the phone.

Email questions to or contact Kate on Twitter, @kateholmquist. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into

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