Decluttering after a death

Dealing with the aftermath of a death in the family is a long and arduous process. Many kind people are helping me to sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, yet there are many aspects of the task which I must deal with myself rather than delegate. It feels overwhelming at times, and brings up an uncomfortable mix of emotions.

Having been brought up in frugal wartime Britain, my mother seldom threw anything away. When she came to live in New Zealand she brought a container load of possessions. Some of the household items – furniture, bedlinen, crockery and cutlery, ornaments – belonged to my grandparents. She also brought large supplies of clothing, numerous boxes of papers mostly relating to her former academic career, and her precious library of books. It feels heartless to be discarding things which carry so many memories both of her life and mine. But I know it is best that most of them should be given to charity, for I already have all the material goods I want or need.

Some of course ought to be kept, but which ones? It can be difficult to decide. My impatience to finish the job, and be free to get on with more enjoyable projects of my own, is combined with the fear of carelessly disposing too soon of items that are important or valuable or “might come in”.

It is interesting to look through the old family photos, many also dating back to my grandparents’ time, but frustrating to find that most of them are unlabelled. When and where were they taken, and who are the people in them? Some are familiar, but others are obscure. It is strange to see a young woman and her child in a picture and not to know whether they were my mother and me. The letters and personal papers are also of interest, revealing certain aspects of my mother’s life which she never discussed. But I feel a certain sense of guilt about intruding on her privacy. Did she intend that I should read this material after she died, or was she just too tired and unwell to dispose of it before it was too late?

After I have finished closing my mother’s estate I am resolved to put my own affairs in better order – to declutter, organise and simplify. I do not want my own executors to be faced with huge piles of stuff to sort out. But this is easier said than done, and I am already making room in our already fully furnished house for some of my mother’s things, and put all her photos – still unsorted and unlabelled – out of sight in a drawer.