Final Logistics: A step-by-step guide to handling a loved one’s belongings after their death

July 17, 2017

When someone passes away, they leave everything behind, including their belongings. It falls to the surviving loved ones to rehome or reorganize these items, from leftover food in the kitchen to linens in the closet. But remembering which housekeeping tasks need to get done among all the other final arrangements can feel overwhelming, and that’s not stress a grieving family should have to face.

This will be your guide to taking care of the logistics following the loss of a loved one. Note that each situation will be unique, and you’ll need to adapt this information to meet your own family’s needs. Don’t push yourself to part with items before you’re ready or ask anyone else to; remember that everyone grieves in their own time and way. There won’t always be a definitive timeline, so focus on the impersonal items first and work your way up to other tasks.

Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for help in handling these responsibilities. Whether it’s enlisting the help of friends and neighbors or hiring help, you’ll need plenty of support throughout the process.

NOTE: This guide pertains to miscellaneous items in the home; all possession requirements established in the will or other legal documents should be honored completely.

Step One: Salvaging Perishables

A good place to start when it comes to handling your departed loved one’s possessions is the kitchen. Talk to neighbors and nearby relatives about taking in any opened food or drink products. Save and redistribute as much as you can, but there might be a fair amount of unavoidable waste depending on what you find. Keep any special dietary considerations in mind that might be helpful to others — offer iron-rich foods you find to a relative who struggles with anemia, for instance.

After dealing with the open food items, your main priorities will be the perishable food: fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, poultry, and seafood. Pay attention to the sell by dates, especially when you know you’re likely to encounter older items. Consider how you’ll transport everything, and any additional steps you’ll need to keep it all safely preserved on the trip. (Avoid long trips with food whenever possible.) If there’s a lot of family in town for the memorial service, you could even use leftover food to make a few meals for all to share; even better if you can delegate this task to a loved one with creative cooking skills.

Step Two: Assessing Other Food and Kitchen Items

Taking care of non-perishable food items — dry pasta, grains, canned food, etc. — isn’t an urgent issue, so it can wait a few weeks, if necessary. In the meantime, reach out to local food banks to see what you can donate. You might end up with some miscellaneous items like cereal and granola bars that soup kitchens won’t want, but you can still find meaningful ways to use them. For instance, you might be able to donate the cereal to a local elementary school that could use it for snack time. Cooking supplies like olive oil and spices can typically find easy homes with neighbors or relatives.

Then there are the dishes, flatware, pots, pans, and other cooking utensils to consider. Parting with dishes can be especially tough (if it’s the china you grew up with, for example), and some people choose to hold on to a couple of pieces for their own cabinets. There’s almost always someone close to you who could use some new or additional dishes — especially cookware — so ask around. They can always be put away in storage for someone to take later on, or donated to a local charity.

Step Three: Cleaning Out the Bathroom

Next comes the bathroom. First, you’ll need to address any medication your loved one left behind. Basic over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and allergy pills can be salvaged and taken in on their own, as well as any topical ointments, lotions, or gels. For any and all prescription medications, contact your local branch of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The DEA may tell you about a designated “drug take-back” day in the near future or offer quicker solutions for safe disposal. Reaching out to the prescribing doctor is another good way to find out about programs in your area. Always keep pills and medicine in the original container, and limit transportation of prescription medications until you’ll be disposing of it; most law enforcement officers will be understanding if they happened to “catch” you with someone else’s prescription, but it’s better to reduce the chances of the encounter to begin with.

Some bathroom toiletries can probably go to a volunteer friend or neighbor:

  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Hand soap
  • Perfume, cologne, aftershave
  • Lotion
  • Scrubs or body wash
  • Toilet paper
  • Tissues
  • Any unopened products (toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, etc.)

Similarly, many cleaning products should be easy to take home yourself or give away:

  • Bleach
  • Tile cleaner
  • Air freshener and candles
  • Cleaning wipe

Outside of these kinds of products, most items from the bathroom won’t be reusable and should be disposed of appropriately. Throw out all used cleaning tools (mop, toilet brush, sponges, rags) and personal care items (toothbrushes, body soap, deodorant). Bathroom décor, from art down to the bath mat, will be a judgment call. If there’s a hanging picture you think would look great in your home, grab it, but don’t feel obligated to keep the decades-old fuzzy toilet seat cover simply because it was your late grandmother’s. Additionally, unless a bathmat is brand new, it’s probably not worth saving.

Step Four: Personal Possessions

The next step is significantly harder, because it’s time to address your loved one’s more personal belongings. Exactly when to begin this process will depend on the situation; some families will be cleaning out the house of a loved one who lived alone, while others may be staying in the home the departed once occupied. If there’s a strict time limit (like if you’re preparing a now-vacant house to be sold), it’s better to handle these rooms sooner rather than later; you can try asking some friends and neighbors to help out while they’re in town for the memorial, or see if anyone can stay an extra few days to tackle the task. If time isn’t an issue, don’t rush into the process. Make sure both you and your family are ready. Break up large projects over the course of a weekend (or several weekends), and don’t underestimate to have extra hands to help out. Designating one person to sort items, another to take inventory, and another to pack boxes can make the entire process feel more manageable, so don’t be afraid to ask for or hire help.

Start with the closets, and pull out all:

  • Linens
  • Towels
  • Blankets
  • Wash rags

If they’re new or in like-new condition, you can see if any friends or neighbors could use them. If they’re significantly worn, you can find ways to repurpose them or donate them to a local animal shelter. Go with your gut instinct when it comes to these kinds of items, and keep it simple: if you’ve already spoken to an animal shelter who wants the linens, it’s probably easiest to donate all of them instead of sorting the nice ones from the old.

Movies and games are a couple of other closet items that might not be as painful to part with, especially if your loved one hardly touched them. Whatever isn’t claimed by friends and family can be donated to a local library, children’s hospital, school, youth center, or nursing home. You could even maximize your donation by also giving the facility your loved one’s DVD player or game console. It would be an efficient, meaningful way to find new homes for the items, and will undoubtedly offer you some comfort amid your grief.

Parting with your loved one’s clothing, shoes, and accessories will be one of the most difficult tasks; you’ll want plenty of support throughout the process. In some situations, like a departed mother, members of the family may want to claim certain items. Have each person write down exactly what they hoped to hold onto (again, honoring any obligations detailed in the will) so you’ll know what to keep an eye out for as you work.

Keep the sorting process itself as simple as you can. You should have three distinct categories: items claimed by family, items to donate, and items to toss out. Sort everything into clearly-marked boxes, and don’t allow yourself to go through a box twice unless it’s absolutely necessary. Letting go of those items just once will be painful, so avoid making yourself do it twice. Bear in mind that there might be certain instances where someone else should step in to handle the clothing and accessories sorting — a mother who’s lost her young son may find this task particularly unbearable, for example, so families should be ready to lend their help and support.

For those with quite a bit of jewelry to sort through, keeping a detailed inventory is essential. Write down:

  • The kind of item (watch, necklace, earrings, etc.)
  • A description (for example: “turquoise pendant on silver chain”)
  • Where and how it’s stored (for example: “in bedroom storage box 4, blue jewelry box”)
  • Any relevant insurance policy information

Photos are another helpful way to keep track of everything and let others know what you’ve discovered. Store and label them on your phone so they’re always handy, then upload them to a cloud file that trusted loved ones can access. Label everything in a way that makes the most sense to you: it can be as simple as “necklace 1, necklace 2, etc.” or as detailed as “small, dangling, pearl earrings.” You can always post a photo of your inventory list for others to reference as necessary.

Knickknacks, books, and other living room items should be sorted through similarly to jewelry, though you probably won’t need an inventory. Books can be easily given to loved ones, donated, or even sold. Knickknacks will, again, be a judgment call. If you’ve always imagined your father’s desk clock in your own office one day, it’ll be a lovely reminder of him to keep close by. But don’t feel guilty about giving away your sister’s bookends simply because they belonged to her. Keep only the things that are truly special to you, and let go of anything you’re likely to forget about in a week; others will surely find use for whatever you don’t keep.

If the house will be going up for sale, give friends and family a fair time limit in picking up their claimed items, and find a new home for anything left after the deadline. For those staying in the same home, ask a loved one to take responsibility for the items left so you aren’t constantly forced to dig up painful memories.

Find a friend or neighbor with a truck who will help transport items to storage as needed, or hire a service to do it instead. Eliminating this step from your own plate can help you make a cleaner break from the items instead of having to organize (and reorganize) all the boxes in the storage unit over time. Keep any boxes with fragile or heavy items clearly marked, and instruct helpers as needed. Note which items you’ll want stored toward the front of the unit (and thus will be easily accessible), and which ones should go in the back — colored dots make a simple but efficient marking system.

Step 5: Personal Documents

Even after their death, keeping your loved one’s personal documents organized and secure is important. Keep it all out of the way but easily accessible, locked in a drawer or file cabinet if possible. Documents might include:

  • Birth certificate
  • Driver’s license
  • Social security card
  • Marriage license
  • Car title
  • High school and/or college diploma
  • House deed or mortgage information
  • Home insurance policy
  • Car insurance policy
  • Military records
  • Medical records

Keep an updated list of which companies and organizations you’ve notified of your loved one’s death, and sort the personal documents accordingly. (For example, if both the car and house are paid off, the mortgage and title should be kept separate from the active power bill.)

Tax records will also be important, though you may want to hire a professional to help you sort through everything. Make hard copies as needed, and backup all related digital information to a cloud or other secure storage.

You might need these documents for more than a year following your loved one’s passing, so keep them handy for at least two or so. Be mindful of preventing identity fraud; keep the whereabouts of the deceased’s personal documents a mystery to anyone outside your home. You’ll also want to monitor the first few credit card bills following their death to watch for any unexplained charges.

Step Six: Getting a Fresh Start

This step is optional, but for some families, the best way to move forward is to move out of the home they once shared with the deceased. It’s a tough decision to make, and leaves for one more difficult goodbye, but cutting ties is sometimes the only way to heal.

Take the opportunity to downsize, even minimalize, all of your belongings. Purge items you never use, especially those that might have painful memories of your loved one. But don’t limit it to only items related to your loss; eliminate the excess wherever possible.

Minimalization at this time can not only help you regain your sense of control after a devastating loss, it can make your entire move much simpler. It also prevents the entire move from feeling like a way to “erase” or “leave behind” your loved one; “missing” items in the new home won’t all be related to the deceased.The process of going through a loved one’s belongings after they’ve passed is tedious and often painful, so take it one step at a time. Don’t hesitate to ask for or accept help any way you can.

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