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Sorting through the belongings after a bereavement

Julia Faulks / 08 January 2016

It's hard to predict how you will cope with sorting through your partner's belongings after they die. For some it's a helpful process, but for others it's incredibly painful. We look at how to cope on a practical and emotional level.

Shirts in a wardrobe
It can be traumatic to go through a loved one's belongings, so make sure you take your time and do it when you're ready

1. Go with your instincts

Only you will know when it’s the right time to go through your loved one’s belongings and whether you want to do it alone or with the help of others. It is not going to be easy – photos will remind you of the huge void in your life and certain smells will trigger an even greater sense of loss. However, you need to allow yourself to take things slowly and only set deadlines for the things that really need to be done quickly.

If you're struggling with grief, find out where to find bereavement counselling

2. Break things down into manageable timescales

Rather than spending a whole day sorting through personal things, set yourself a time frame and try to focus on one task a day at a time. It could be that you concentrate on it for an hour a day and then you take a break. This way you still will feel as if you are accomplishing something.

3. Avoid feeling rushed

Often we can feel so consumed with grief that we end up regretting certain decisions. Listen to your heart and if you don’t feel ready to go through something or are unsure whether or not to keep an item, leave it for another day. You could also have a think about other options for storage. Is there space in your attic or somewhere safe you can leave things until you feel ready to take that step?

4. Focus on the practical side

As gut-wrenching as it is to go through a loved one’s belongings, turning it into a more practical task could help as a coping strategy. Separate boxes or bags into things for saving, throwing away and donating, and label them as you go along. If you have children then it’s a good idea to talk to them first about the things they may like to keep. The idea of getting rid of anything at all can be incredibly painful, but opening up the discussion means that you can start putting a wish-list together.

5. Find other uses for clothes and jewellery

Think about what you can do with the things you find that may act as a ‘silent reminder’ to your loved one. This could be having some jewellery re-made or making up a collage of photos and letters with your loved one’s writing on. There are also other ways of keeping someone’s memory alive, for example by visiting websites where people make bears or blankets made from loved ones’ clothing that you can treasure for years to come.

6. Be prepared for the unexpected

Can you prepare yourself for finding something you don’t want to? Probably not. But you can have a conscious think about how you may react if you do find something that makes you feel angry or sad. It’s important to remember that tears are healing and to have a good cry, as exhausting as it is, is all part of helping you move on with the grieving process.

Read our tips for dealing with grief.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.