Sorting through a deceased child’s belongings

A while ago, I wrote briefly about taking time to go through your child’s belongings in my blog, “A Few Things I’ve Learned in the 10 Years Since Jason Died.” I’ve also responded on Facebook to bereaved parents who’ve asked about what to do with their child’s things. It dawned on me yesterday that I’ve never actually written a specific post with my recommendations on the subject.

When you were ready, here are my suggestions for going through your child’s belongings.

Take your time

First of all, don’t let anyone rush you or push you to go through or “get rid of” your child’s belongings. This is something that’s a very difficult thing to do and you should be given the grace to do it on your own time frame. Let me say that again – your own time frame. Yours. Only yours. Not a time frame someone else has decided for you. Even within family members, the time to go through a child’s belongings should be based – not on the FIRST person who decides or feels like they are ready – but rather on the LAST person reaches the decision that they are ready. If you are the first person to reach this decision, extend copious amounts of grace to everyone else. When it comes to sorting through your child’s belongings, no one should feel rushed or mowed over.

If you absolutely have to consolidate belongings because you have to move or for some other valid reason, that’s one thing. Even then, you should not let anyone push you on their schedule. If someone intimates or outright tells you that you are making a shrine to your child and makes you feel like that it’s a bad thing to wait until you – and only you – are ready to tackle this task, just chalk it up to their not having been in your shoes. They have no idea what they’re talking about, and we need to hope that they never will.

Be gentle with yourself

Going through your child’s belongings is not a marathon or a mountain to be climbed. It is not a task to be conquered. If you begin and find it too overwhelming, it’s okay to take a break or close the door and wait until another day. There is no rule or set time when this task needs to be started or finished. If you need to stop and take time to grieve, extend yourself the grace and time to do so.

Realize that it’s a hard task

No matter how long you wait to begin sorting through your child’s belongings, acknowledge to yourself that it’s an emotional and difficult task to do. It will always feel like you are erasing part of your child’s life from your own. The older the child, the more things they will have collected, the more you will have to sort through.

If you need to, ask for help

If you have a trusted friend or family member who will follow your lead and be sensitive to what you’re going through, ask that person to help you. Don’t be offended if someone says no. Not everyone can handle such a difficult and emotional task and walk beside you as you do this. Let them know it will not be an easy task and make sure they know it’s okay to be honest with you if it becomes too much for them to handle. When we started to go through Jason’s room, our daughter said, “This is more difficult than I thought it was going to be.” She thought she was ready to help, but couldn’t do it and had to leave. And that was okay.

Make a plan and be prepared

Purchase some Rubbermaid totes or other types of long-term storage containers and some boxes. Make sure you have on hand some type of labeling material that does not easily come off of boxes/containers (permanent markers, stick-on labels) and sealing materials (package sealing or duct tape). You may need some file folders, hanging file folder holders, file folder labels and bankers boxes for organizing papers. Also get some various sizes of Ziplock bags for grouping small or similar items and some recycling and garbage bags.

Organize

To begin, choose a small, less-emotionally charged area to sort. Try not to take everything in all at once, as it may become overwhelming. Focus on one specific area. Success breeds success, and you will feel more able to continue when you have successfully completed one small area.

Divide things up into five sections: 1) absolutely have to keep; 2) not quite sure yet whether to keep or not or what to do with; 3) special things you want to give to certain people; 4) things to donate to a charitable organization; and, 5) things to throw away. As you go, box up the things you know you want to keep and label the contents of each container. The same goes for the “not quite sure” items. For the special mementoes, put items you want to give in individual Ziplock bags/boxes and label who you want to give them to. Box up donations, label where they should go and bag up garbage to go where it need to go.

While the others sections may be obvious, the one area that may be overlooked and yet is very crucial is the “not quite sure” items (# 2 above). It’s okay not to know if you want to keep something or not. You don’t have to decide at that very moment. Let me say that again – you absolutely DO NOT have to decide everything at that very moment. I strongly suggest boxing up the things you are not sure about in long-term storage containers and then setting them aside in storage for review at another time. With distance, things may be clearer. It’s an absolute tragedy to give or throw away something you later wish you hadn’t. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and there usually is no way to ever recover those items. Box up those items you are not sure about, store them in your basement or garage, and go through them again when you feel you are ready – whether it be months or even years down the road.

Before making final storage/disposal of items, be sure you check with family members to see if they have any input, changes, or wish to go through your decision choices. Disposal of your child’s things really feels permanent, like the closing of a door, and it’s worth the effort to consider the feelings of others before taking this step.

Final Comments

All of these suggestions are made from experience – either things I did well or wish I had done differently. My greatest errors were allowing myself to be pushed to go through Jason’s room before I was ready to do so, and to not set aside things I wasn’t sure about to review another day. At the end of the day I was totally traumatized at a time when I didn’t need any more trauma. I gave away or “got rid of” things I wish I never had. If I can encourage anyone to take time and give themselves or another bereaved parent grace with this heart-wrenching task or save someone the agony of giving away something they wish they hadn’t, then this post has accomplished its task.

If you have any additional suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

~Becky

© 2020 Rebecca R. Carney

This entry was posted in Child Loss, Death of a child, Family and tagged , , by Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective

My name is Becky Carney. My husband, Joe, and I have been married for 44 years. We have two living children, Eric (41) and Jenna (36). We lost a baby in utero at 19 weeks in 1987. In 2002, our middle son, Jason (19), and his best friend, Alina (20), were broadsided by a drunk driver who was going at least twice the speed limit. They both died instantly. This blog is written from my perspective as a bereaved parent. I don't claim to know what it's like to walk in anyone else's shoes. Each situation is different; each person is different. Everyone handles grief differently. But if I can create any degree of understanding of what it's like to be a parent who has lost a child, then I have succeeded in my reason for writing this blog.

2 thoughts on “Sorting through a deceased child’s belongings

  1. Thank you so much. My only son Eddie has been gone 7 years now. I was able to go through some of his belongings (with the help of my daughters).BUT, Eddie was 45 and single – and had lots of personal belongings, furniture, clothing . . .we had to take everything out of his apartment right away…it was unbearable. I kept it stored for a couple years. I hoped my girls and/or my grandsons would want some of his things. BUT, i also wanted to KEEP everything because it made me feel closer to him. I do have “a shrine”…and as I’ve gone through a few boxes it continues to grow. I keep feeling guilty that I SHOULD get rid of more things – but I still cry just looking at them. This year – my oldest grandson, his nephew, got his own apartment and did take a couple pieces of furniture, and kitchen things. …and it feels good. Eddie would be happy, I know.

  2. I, speaking from experience after my 17 year-old son died unexpectedly from bacterial meningitis, say “Bravo” on this post and I think all mentioned is good ‘guidelines’ or advice for those needing support, or who are ready, but not certain how to start, or for those who are ready when another loved one is not yet ready – For myself, I still have 3 crates of things left from 13 years ago, come this June. The first pack up came when we moved. Then each time I moved, went through to tidy storage area, etc., I would, if I could bear it, go through the remaining crates of his and my father’s things. Sometimes I did it alone, sometimes, a friend sat with me while I did it, sometimes his friends would go through things with me. Each time after I did ‘cleaning/organizing/reduction’ my younger son and I would go through things I has set aside as ‘ ready to let go of’ and he would choose anything he wished to keep. Now? There are some of his ‘things’ sprinkled through our home decor, our closets, our game shelf, the DVD & Bookshelves – – There are things that went to another young person as they left for college, set up their own ‘first apartment’ etc. And, in looking over your post? Yes, I believe it to be a pretty comprehensive post that 1. Acknowledges the unique grieving path we each follow. 2. Gives someone the encouragement to take the time they need 3. How to help those ready before others are to give grace to the ones that aren’t ready and 4. How-Toing information to achieve all of the above when one is ready or life needs press it to be done before one feels ready. KUDOS! Excellent post!

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