Two months.

That’s how long my family had to sort through my late mother-in-law’s house and possessions before it was sold.

Two lifetimes.

That’s how much stuff was in the house, hers and my late father-in-law’s.

Going through every room, every drawer, every closet in their 3,000 plus square foot house? Overwhelming. Being the final arbiter of which of their things were saved and which ended up sold, donated, or in a landfill? Gut-wrenching.

I wrote an article about our experience for Dallas Moms, Most of Your Stuff Is Worthless: 3 Things You Should Be Doing NOW to Reduce What You Own.

Disposing of the last tangible reminders of your parents

Based on the comments I received (and there were plenty), there’s nothing that unusual about our experience.

People who would rather pay the monthly fee on a storage unit in perpetuity than go through the dishes, photos, books, and knick knacks crammed inside. People who spent years (yes, years) sorting through their mom’s stuff, one box at a time.

And most poignantly, people who just wish their mom or dad had been better about getting rid of stuff.

Funerals are really hard. But so too is saying good bye to the last tangible reminders on earth of your mom and dad.

How to start the conversation with your parents about reducing the amount of stuff they have

How do you start the conversation with your mom and/or dad about getting rid of stuff now, so you won’t be struggling with what to do with it later?

That’s the $1 million question.

For the answer, I decided to ask some of my clients.

I’m an estate planning and probate attorney (as well as business law). I’ve had clients who settle their parent’s estate relatively quickly. I’ve had others who get bogged down in the minutia, unable to let go of the house or possessions because it is too overwhelming to deal with.

Susan (not her real name) falls into the former category.

Susan, like my husband, recently lost her last surviving parent. Unlike my husband, Susan is not sorting through boxes and boxes of her late mother’s stuff. Nope, Susan hired an estate sale company to sort through and liquidate (sell, donate, throw out) the remainder of her mom’s stuff.

How can Susan so easily let go of all of that stuff?

Because Susan and her mom had already agreed on what Susan was going to keep (and what she was not). And the stuff Susan’s mom knew she wasn’t going to keep? She was able to let go of (or at least some of it). 

Here is how Susan started those conversations with her mom.

Be honest and realistic of how much stuff you would actually be able to keep

Be honest with your mom and/or dad about your own limitations. You have limited space in your house. You have your own stuff to deal with (and periodically purge to avoid clutter). Storage units are expensive. You can’t keep everything she would like you to have.

Be very specific on what you do and do not have space for. For example, if you already have china, crystal, furniture, etc., unless you’re running a B&B, you don’t have room for any more.

Work together to identify which stuff you are going to keep

Tell her you are worried something that is really meaningful to your mom (or family history) will be missed because you can’t keep everything your mom would have liked you to have.

Tell her what in her house is really meaningful to you. For example, the platter that your mom served Thanksgiving turkey on every year.

Work with her to come up with a list of things that are meaningful to both of you and fit within your limitations. This is what you are going to keep.

For Susan, having this list defused a lot of tension between herself and her mom.

The list validated the value Susan’s mom had placed on her most cherished possessions. Her mom knew Susan was going to keep them and treasure them as much as she did. The list was respectful of Susan’s taste and space limitations. And the list gave Susan’s mom permission to let go of some of the stuff that wasn’t on the list (and Susan to let go of all of the remainder).

Give meaningful support to your mom in her efforts to downsize

This is the time to bring in the professionals.

Yes, there are people who specialize in helping seniors who want to downsize and Susan brought them in to work with her mom so her mom could decide what happened to some of the stuff that did not make the list. 

Would we have done anything differently?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if there was something we could have done differently, some conversation we wished we would have had with my mother-in-law, to have reduced the amount of stuff we were left to deal with.

That’s a hard question to answer.

In the 11 years between my father-in-law’s death and her own, she gifted some of her most treasured possessions to us, but only after asking us first if it was something we wanted and respecting our wishes if the answer was no.

To my husband, my father-in-law’s watch. To me, ruby earrings that had belonged to a favorite aunt. To my girls, cherished toys from her or my father-in-law’s childhood.

The result being that even without taking a single thing from her house, we already had things to remember her by, things that we liked and affirmatively chose, things that we would use or display.

Did we talk to her about downsizing? Sure, but in the end we concluded that being in her home, surrounded by her things, gave her great comfort, comfort she sorely needed the last 2 years of her life when she bravely battled AML.

Have you talked to your parents about downsizing? Leave a comment or send me an email.

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