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Downsizing A Loved One’s Belongings

May 13, 2023

Another Way for week of May 4, 2023

Downsizing A Loved One’s Belongings

The older I get, the harder it is mentally for me to help clear out a home, apartment, or a room at a retirement facility. As persons even older than me (generally) have to move to a place for nursing care or because they can no longer keep up their home, the spiral from there is often sad.  

I’ve done that now probably 10-12 times in the last 20 years for my husband’s relatives, a father-in-law, my own parents, and various friends and acquaintances from church. Recently we helped a fellow church member move to a nursing facility. He had been at an assisted living place. Before that a lovely and large apartment. I know he has treasured so many objects and especially books but he generously gave away dozens of his items on a church table and to other friends.   

That’s life, as my special friend Martha used to tell me.

Special items given to me from church friends and family: Goldilocks cookie cutters, plate from my great grandma, butter dish, glass coaster, and high heeled shoe (from mother’s collection).

So how do you tackle the enormous (sometimes) challenge and move forward with what has to be done? Experts suggest starting slow, if possible, going through beloved items gently, and taking a first pass through and later more passes to gradually pare down the belongings.  

Likely you first make sure family members or close friends have opportunities to pick out and receive items. Sometimes several family members have their eyes on a specific treasure that is precious to all. I’m grateful my mother and father wrote down many of these special objects indicating who was to receive what. Other times, no one wants or is able to take the rocking chair that helps us remember Grandma, but honestly, do I have room in my already full house?

Sometimes yard, garage, or even estate auctions, depending on what’s practical, are the way to go and the whole community thus shares in the distribution of items that still have a useful life.

When my Mom and Dad first moved to a retirement home/facility, they held an auction which took days if not weeks to prepare for. Auctioneers have a good feel for what might bring a decent price and what things are best to put together in boxes—with persons who bid on such boxes taking the good with the not-so-good.

Eventually we came to the stage where we made generous use of places that accept donations of clothing, household appliances, furniture and so on. Of course those organizations—that typically use the funds accrued from sale of such for charitable causes—help to ease the pain of parting with beloved items.

This should not be interpreted as unloving or cold hearted. We come into this world with nothing and leave, essentially, with nothing and while I have many treasured dishes and framed photos and artwork that I love, I know that at some point, someone else will make decisions about what to keep, throw, or donate of our possessions. Maybe, if you’re the one making those decisions, you can focus on keeping memories, not items.

And then there’s miscellaneous paperwork, records, photos, old letters. What if you plan and want to do a family history book of some kind? The letters and records can be of vital help. I am working on such a book now.  

Blessed be the mothers and fathers who free their offspring of guilt or worry by cleaning out and disposing of some of their belongings—ahead of their last years or months.

I have been doing some of that for the past couple years of our own stuff, but I still have mountains of stuff that will need to be processed at some point. Sometimes renting a huge dumpster is the only solution to disposing of items that have deteriorated, rotted, become soiled or damaged and unusable. Then it is good to remember the old hymn, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through; my treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue” (words attributed to A.J. Carter).


What treasures have you inherited or received from friends and family?

Ideas to help downsizing or cleaning out belongings? What have you learned? What do you regret?

Are yard sales worth the work?

Comment here or write to me at Another Way, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834, or email

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of ten books, most recently Memoir of an Unimagined Career. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. I’ve done the curating-purging process multiple times. Sometimes there are treasures but often the hoard of stuff is daunting. We rented a huge dumpster for my Aunt Ruthie’s house; my mother’s was more manageable.

    Right now I’m aware of all that we have accumulated. One of us is more willing to part with “stuff” than the other.

    • I love your last line here “one of us is more willing.” Sigh. Yes! Thanks for your camaraderie and online friendship!
      And I hope you have a wonderful mother’s day. My mother’s day column will be shared next Saturday (after newspapers have had a chance to share it.) Blessings!

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