Dilemma: the burden of sorting through my late mother's belongings

Katharine Whitehorn / 29 January 2016

Agony aunt Katharine Whitehorn hears from a reader who is struggling with the burden of sorting through her late mother's possessions.



Dilemma: burden

My brother and I are trying to deal with our mother’s things, since she died last summer. 

I seem to be doing the lion’s – well, lioness’s – share; I don’t resent it as my brother lives at a distance and is very busy. 

But the load is really wearing me down. Any suggestions? 

Katharine Whitehorn's advice

This is always going to be difficult – how much of the family memorabilia do any of the next generation want? Is any of the stuff valuable, and if so who should get it?

I don’t have a magic formula for you, I’m afraid; but there are two things which can help. 

The first, if there’s a sum of money around because of your mother’s will, is to hire someone else to help you. They will come to the task fresh every morning, they won’t be hung up on old memories – or antagonisms, come to that. 

They can say: “Do you, or anyone you know, really value that statuette – that photograph album?” This will help you to commit the sacrilege of chucking stuff out. 

The other is simply to divide the task into small chunks – two hours this Thursday, two hours next, a half day at the weekend or whatever, so you have the sense of achievement of having done your stint, and needn’t feel the whole job weighing on you all the time.

Read our tips for clearing out personal possessions.

Our readers say...

We also asked our Facebook followers for their advice...

"When my mother passed away, I had thought that myself and my brothers would sort the belongings. But without telling anyone my one brother went and bagged everything up and sent it to a charity shop. He's kept all mementos for himself, trying to get anything back we have found, is a legal minefield. When you sort through your mother's belongings make sure you have another family member with you and it is all itemised, or it can be the cause of family rows in the future, as we have found to our cost. At a later date, when he is ready then he can come to you and you can sort out keepsakes then."

"Carry on and sort them yourself and put a few pieces he might like to give to him afterwards as keepsakes. I never got the chance to sort through my mother's possessions, my sister-in-law took everything to the tip and cleared the house because she was in a hurry to sell it."

"My brother, sister and I worked together to sort out my mum's things. It was hard but a lot easier than if I had been on my own. I kept far too much and now need to sort out the stuff that I have put in the loft!"

"Unfortunately my brother was the same when I cleared out my dad's flat. So I did it with the help of my partner but I made sure I kept stuff I thought my brother would want. It's not an easy job and some people just can't face it."

"Take your time do one room at a time when you are having a good day and remember good things to get you through and you could find things you never thought your mum kept. Put things your brother might like to one side."

"Some people struggle with this, it is hard. I think men find bereavement harder to deal with and know when the time comes I will be in the same situation with my mother and brother."

"Put it in writing to him and request his reply, then you won't be blamed for disregarding her precious things. He is coping with the loss as you are, but he is probably finding it difficult to make such decisions."

"Everybody deals with bereavement differently. There has been some good advice posted already. Even the strongest people can struggle when a loved one dies. Keep some of the more personal things he would associate with your Mum so as time heals you can both go through them, smiling and remembering your mum together!"

"Can you decide on a date that would suit you both to go through things particularly if there are things he might want? Then you can sort the rest out after."

"We all deal with grief differently. It may be that he needs longer to come to terms with this loss. Talk, talk and talk some more."

"Just do it if he won't help its his problem if you get rid of anything he says afterwards that he wanted. Tell him to man up."

"When my dad died, Mum and I couldn't face sorting his things so my hubby and brother in law did it."

"Get on with it,and if he wants anything just say 'oh I thought you weren't interested.'"

"Tough! Could be of course it's too early for him and he's still grieving more than he wants to let on! Tricky situation!!"

"I would just do it. He can't complain because he has had the opportunity to help and he hasn't taken it."

"Ask him if he wants to keep a memento if not then you can dispose them as you with but don't fall out or wait till you are both ready to do it together."

"I had to do this recently. I think you should do it as the longer its left, the harder it is."

"Is there a rush to do it ? Give time to your brother."

"Just phone him and tell him your doing it with or without him it has to be done."

"If you have good friend to help you as it isn't the easiest job and so much harder alone."

"Depends on the time scale. It took me a long time to be able to sort out my mother's possessions when she died."

"Don't fall out with him over it, he might be just too upset to do it."

"Just do it yourself and remember the good times while doing it. It'll be hard..."

"Do what you want with them. Take them to a charity shop."

"Maybe you can wait until things aren't so raw."

"Keep any memories you want and send the rest to a charity."

"Everybody deals with grief different, maybe he just can't handle it, If you can then go ahead and do it and don't fall out about it."

"Good comments here. Just don't fall out over it however you deal with it."

"People nearby should respond to need and help out, even just for an hour or two."

"He might just be too upset don't hold it against him."

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