Losing a parent is an inevitable hurdle in life. And for baby boomers, whose aging parents are often in their 80s and 90s, it’s an imminent one. Aside from coping with the emotional burden, there’s also the burden of dealing with all the “stuff.” It can be overwhelming.
That’s the case for Alan Miller, a Caltrans rail transportations planner, who is weighed down by the volume of his parents’ things. As his family’s only adult child, he’s tasked not only with untangling his parents’ complicated financial affairs, but also dealing with their personal belongings. Everything from his father’s collection of glass vacuum tubes to his mother’s holiday decorations to their numerous, scattered files of paper.
One year after his mother’s death, he’s still sorting through the remnants, large and small, of his parents’ lives. Most are packed in boxes in the basement or cluttering a spare room in his downtown Davis bungalow, as well as stacked to the ceiling in a nearby storage facility.
“I know people who pull up a dumpster and everything goes into it. But I’m not that kind of person,” said Miller, 52, adding that the job is both emotionally and physically draining.
To help him organize and pare down, he turned to Claudia Smith, a professional organizer with Clear Your Clutter Consulting in Davis.
“Downsizing and letting go of stuff is good for everyone,” said Smith, who said many of her clients are in their 40s to 60s. “I go into homes where the attic is crammed and every room is filled. The kids are completely overwhelmed.”
Grace Bamlett, owner of Organized Outcomes in Orangevale, said parental possessions are “an emotional weight for baby boomers.” She said 10 to 15 percent of her business is clients who are “either having to downsize for their parents or dealing with stuff left to them after their parents have died. It’s a large group of people, and it’s only growing larger.”
As professional organizers, Bamlett and Smith encourage their clients to shed belongings but not the memories.
Bamlett is a proponent of “guilt-free” organizing. “If you’re holding onto something because you feel you should, don’t. Give it to a charity that speaks to your heart. Or find another relative, someone who’s interested in family genealogy.”
If parents are alive and willing, ask if they want help.
Start giving things away to family or friends: jewelry to a dear friend. A set of dishes to a daughter-in-law. “It’s far better to give them to a loved one now,” said Smith. “They can enjoy them and your kids don’t get stuck with everything when you die.”
Years before she died, Judy Hertel’s mother sat down with her two daughters at the kitchen table, going through her heirloom and costume jewelry. At her mother’s suggestion, Hertel and her sister made a list of the pieces they especially wanted to keep.
“She wasn’t ready to give anything up yet but wanted to know what we wanted,” said Hertel, mother of three kids in their teens and early 20s. “And she wanted to avoid any fights after she was gone,” she laughed.
One way to eliminate the avalanche of stuff is by capturing a loved one’s memory in smaller ways, such as a shadow box, which contains “the essence of the member in a physically small way,” as Smith put it.
Sacramento attorney Don Fitzgerald, whose father was a school bus driver and avid outdoorsman in Siskiyou County, has several shadowboxes created by his sister after their father died about 11 years ago. Using pieces of their dad’s favorite flannel shirts, his fishing lures and old family photographs, she gave one to each of the six grandchildren, including a photo of each child with “Papa.”
“One glance at the shadowbox,” said Fitzgerald, “and great memories come flooding back.”
Smith, the professional organizer, did the same for her father.
“You don’t need a room packed full of stuff to honor a memory,” said the Davis resident. “You want to keep the history and memories alive, without the burden of a huge volume of physical stuff.”
It can be challenging when siblings come home to divvy up Mom and Dad’s belongings. When Hertel’s father died in January 2013, he left behind a lifetime of possessions in the family home outside Chicago. Everything was still in the house, from old family board games to Hertel’s wedding dress. And then there was the basement. Her father, a General Motors machinist, had a basement workshop filled with tools, lathes, vises and thousands of pieces of leftover scrap metal. Cleaning all of it out to ready the house for sale fell to Hertel and her siblings.
“My brother just wanted it done. His attitude was: Go in, get it done and put the house on the market.” Her sister, by contrast, needed to touch every piece of paper, which greatly slowed the process. “It created a lot of tension,” recalled Hertel.
Ultimately, they donated clothing, linens and kitchenware to a local church charity. They recycled 150 pounds of metal, including boxes of bolts, screws and nails. And they filled two waist-high dumpsters with discards.
The task was further complicated because Hertel was in California and not able to be as hands-on as she would have liked. In retrospect, she wishes they’d done far more of the sorting while her parents were still alive.
Sandy Edwards, a retired teacher in Carmichael, vividly remembers how she and her siblings divvied up the contents of their parents’ sprawling, four-story Victorian mansion in Merchantville, N.J., which had been in the family since 1900. It took two years and innumerable trips back East. Essentially, “we linked arms and walked room by room. We didn’t assign values to anything but used three colors of Post-it notes” to mark the things each wanted to keep, including items for grandchildren. “The emotional part was extremely hard to do,” Edwards said, but dividing things up was comparatively easy among her siblings.
Don’t wait till too late
Four or five years before her mother died at age 97, Marty West, a retired UC Davis law professor, helped her go through closets, drawers and paper files. It was a process her mother welcomed, she said.
For her mother’s 90th birthday, West took home boxes of loose family photographs and assembled a four-volume scrapbook of her mother’s life, starting with baby pictures in 1915. It was a way to preserve the best of all the random photos that pile up in drawers and closets.
It wasn’t until after her mother died that West discovered – stashed in her mother’s garage – a treasure trove of old family correspondence, some dating back to the 1800s. The letters, in shoeboxes and cardboard containers, had been stored unopened for years. Some were from her Kansas grandmother written to her grandfather while they were courting in 1896. Some were from her parents, who were social and religious activists in the 1940s, working as high school teachers in the Japanese internment camp in Manzanar and later in a church-sponsored relocation hospital in Chicago.
“It was sad when I discovered all this correspondence because I could no longer ask her about it,” said West.
For the last several years, West has been methodically going through hundreds of letters. She’s tossing out “anything I’d never want to read again,” but keeping correspondence that has personal, historical or emotional significance. Old letters from aunts, uncles and cousins have been sent to surviving relatives. The ones she is keeping are filed chronologically in airtight plastic containers, rather than cardboard boxes that could be susceptible to insects.
With her own professional papers, chronicling her work on UC Davis faculty women’s issues, West has already donated many to the UC Davis archives.
Tackling those kinds of chores now can save everyone tedium and some heartache in the long run.
Miller, having closed up his parents’ Palo Alto home and settled most of their legal affairs, is now committed to paring down the physical pieces of their lives that he’s accumulated in Davis. “The nature of the job is emotionally wrenching, but most of it is so tedious just because of the sheer quantity,” said Miller.
For him, it couldn’t be done without a professional at his side.
“We baby boomers want someone to give us permission to let go,” said Smith, the professional organizer. “We feel a huge responsibility to honor the past. But there’s the financial, emotional and sheer exhaustion of the time and energy in dealing with it.”
That’s why she advocates a simple rule of thumb: “We spend our first 40 years in life collecting things. And we should spend our second 40 years getting rid of things.”