Cleaning out the house after the death of a loved one

  • Susan Anderson-Khleif's mother once owned the chandelier that now hangs over her kitchen table.

    Susan Anderson-Khleif's mother once owned the chandelier that now hangs over her kitchen table. Susan Anderson-Khleif

Posted5/14/2022 7:00 AM

If a parent or close relative dies while living in their own house, condo or apartment, the grown children or nearest relatives are the ones faced with the task of cleaning out the house, or "closing up the house."

This is actually a huge task and responsibility. If the parents or a relative has lived in this same place for a long time, it's likely there are huge amounts of possessions in the house or apartment.


Clothes, keepsakes, furniture, rugs, dishes and china, knickknacks, kitchen equipment, photo albums, letters, diaries/journals, on and on. Some valuable, some sentimental. And maybe there is also a yard that has to be prepared before selling the property. Where to start?

This all happens while there are so many other follow-up matters to handle -- insurance, pensions, banking, taxes, calls to make, notifications, and on and on.

When my own mother died, her request was simply that we four children gather in her place and just take the things each one wants. My father had died 5 years earlier.

She wanted us to just do a round-robin where we draw numbers and each in turn chooses something, and then the next does, and on and on until everything wanted was chosen. Then trade with each other as we wish.

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So that is what we did, on an appointed day after her death in Denver. Mom said this was what she did with her sisters after her parents died -- and it was respectful and calm. They inherited the wheat farm split three ways evenly. Her brother was already gone, died in his 50s, a stroke, so the three sisters inherited the farm.

When we closed up Mom's place, and did the round robin, I chose many things and love having them. It cost a lot to ship them to Illinois but it was worth it. I have two antique china cabinets from the Anderson side.

I think of Mom, that very special woman, every time I use one of her possessions, which I remember from childhood of course. I even took her 1950s dining room crystal chandelier that I love. But I had no place to put it. I already had a chandelier in the dining room (more modern), so I put it over the kitchen table! I enjoy it every time I have a morning cup of coffee or walk into the kitchen.

What should you do if this "closing the house" is your responsibility?

1.) The other day, a friend who has done this twice told me the first thing is to have a friend who knew the family come with you. If you are on your own, at least you can reminisce together while sorting through things.


2.) I think Mom's idea of round-robin "choosing" is a good one if there are siblings. Try to coordinate so you can be there at the same time.

3.) Then after that, if appropriate, be sure you invite other close family members or friends to select something they'd like to have as a reminder of their dear one.

4.) Get a professional appraiser to advise you on the value of the property.

5.) Get an estate sale company to organize and sell the remaining furniture and items. Donate the unsold to charity.

The point is: This "closing of the house" is a big job and stressful for many families -- because of many reasons including memories, grief, and it's lots of work. It takes an effort in an already very difficult time. It's a big item in all the practical matters that must be handled, which often loom very large after a death. But it must be managed.

We usually think about the grief, which may be intense or not, but these practical and business matters are big, too.

All this is good to remember when talking with your relative or a friend who is trying to manage all this. Try to help if possible.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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