Will the Job Be Awful or Bearable? The Choice is Yours

My husband is going to his parents' house again this weekend.  That doesn't sound strange, does it?  Unless I tell you that his parents no longer live there.

My father-in-law passed away last fall, at the age of 95.  My 93-year-old mother-in-law has moved to Arizona, and now lives in a small house across the street from her oldest son.

Yet the home they lived in for 58 years is still a responsibility.

Dad's "office"

A hoard of boxes

My husband and his brothers have spent a lot of time over the past several months clearing out their parents' home.  Recently, they discovered ticket receipts from their family's 1968 ocean voyage to Europe on the Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth.  They were in a box that had been in their parents' basement for over 50 years.  They've told so many stories about that trip.  Jon has many vivid memories, even though he was only 8 years old at the time.  The receipts don't add anything to those memories, nor does the unopened junk mail that was thrown into the box with them.  What else could the guys do but let all of that go?

My father-in-law's former office held more than 60 file boxes of miscellaneous paperwork, going back for decades.  The basement held many, many more boxes, most of them untouched since they were moved in.  There were even more boxes out in the barn.

"He's a hoarder."  We might find it easy to pass judgment on someone we don't like or respect.  But when it's someone we care about, it's harder to go so far.  We substitute "She's a collector," or even "He's the family archivist."  But when what he tends to "archive" (that is, put in a box) is elementary school papers, 1950's era geological surveys and field guides, newspaper clippings, damaged photos, 40-year-old tax returns, and every receipt ever handed to him, maybe we need to revise the description.

My father-in-law was (and my mother-in-law still is) kind, loving, supportive, and generous.  The mountain of crap they've left behind doesn't change that.  But this job of cleaning up their long-time home is simply horrible.

I can imagine the sense of freedom and relief that will settle on Jon and his brothers once they no longer have to worry about sorting, organizing, cleaning, and finding final destinations for all of these things.  They didn't accumulate the stuff (including more than 25 boxes full of ancient and newer paints, solvents, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, WD-40, and other hazardous wastes), but the responsibility has fallen to them.  

The guiding concept

One little phrase seems to have guided the choice to keep all of this stuff – just in case.

And so there are 

  • a dozen flashlights kept "just in case" (with their old, potentially dangerous leaky batteries)
  • several decades'-worth of insurance information kept "just in case" 
  • piles and piles of magazines kept "just in case" 
  • a bunch of 60's-era camping equipment kept "just in case" 
  • many boxes of photographic slides kept "just in case" 

... and the list goes on and on.  My mother-in-law still thinks that maybe we should keep a bunch of old tablecloths and piles of mismatched plates and cups "just in case."

We need to realize now that "just in case" means never.

Be brutally honest with yourself.  Is there anything currently in your house, garage, attic, or offsite storage that will make your survivors wonder "Why did she keep all of this crap?!"  Is there anything they will groan about having to deal with?  (Do you even know what's there?)  You can't help leaving your well-used clothes and underwear or the mattress you slept on.  But what about all of the other stuff?

The idea that anyone would have to perform such a job for me is unthinkable.  Anything I buy now needs to be immediately useful (and used up) or something I will actively enjoy owning for a long time.  The last thing I want to do at the end of my life is to leave a legacy of tchotchkes and garbage that should have been donated or tossed long, long ago.

Imagine it's 10, 20, 30 or more years from now.

Your surviving relatives have gathered in your home.  Grief about your passing aside, how do they feel about the job of clearing your space?  Will it be relatively painless, with each one taking a precious memento or two, while the rest is easy to donate, recycle, or toss?  Or will it be a huge chore that drags depressingly on and on?

The choice is yours.

P. S. I know that many of you have dealt with similar situations, and that the experience might be what got you interested in minimalism in the first place.  So how are you doing?  Are you making progress with the resolutions you made then?

If you've ever dreamed of living in a beautiful little cottage, you need to downsize.  If you want to stay in your current home but make it more spacious, easy to care for, and expressive of your true values and preferences, you need to downsize.  If you want to make the eventual process of cleaning your home less of a burden for your loved ones, you need to downsize.

Whether you actually move from your current home into a smaller living space, or simply undertake a radical declutter, it's a challenge.  But it's also a chance to reinvent yourself and carry just the essentials into your new life.  By releasing decades'-worth of accumulated items, you can emerge with more energy and freedom.  You're ready to look ahead, not back.

Downsizing can be hard, or it can be easier.  Downsize Now will give you the tools and inspiration to get the job done so you can start enjoying all the benefits.

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Updated June 2023


  1. We had to clean out my parents' home a few years ago. They weren't hoarders by any stretch of the imagination, but there was still a LOT of stuff. Fortunately, neither my brothers nor I felt obligated to keep, curate, or maintain the bulk of it - we had an estate sale and were rid of the majority of it. We each selected a few things that we wanted or could use and let the rest go. I go through my own household regularly, throughout the year, every year to determine what can stay and what can go. I'm always surprised at how much more I'm ready to release each time. Neither my husband or I shop very much so we are not constantly bringing in new inventory which is also a relief. I'm curious to see where the balance point is: very little coming in and next to nothing going out.

    1. Hi Cindy Lou, and thanks for sharing your experience. Unfortunately, my husband and his brothers seem to feel an obligation to at least look at everything. So far, a handful of interesting photos have been found (not in great shape) that no one remembers seeing before and where they can actually identify the people (no "mystery faces"). Jon has taken a few books and I think his oldest brother took one of their Dad's jackets (hardly worn -- he had about 20). My mother-in-law of course took many things with her when she moved to Arizona -- and THAT was quite a packing job, too (there will still be a ton to go through sometime in the future). So no quick estate sale for us!

  2. When a friend's father died we packed up everything in the house and moved it to his barn so the house could be sold. He and his wife then went through those things at leisure. He didn't trust himself to be thorough right away so this method worked for him.

    1. Hi again Linda. I’m glad it worked out for your friend to move everything to a place where he could sort through it when it was right for him, and presumably more convenient too. Not an option for Jon and his brothers, I’m afraid (their parents were the ones with the barn and guest house). It is certainly a difficult job for most people to get through.


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