How to Let Go of the Clutter After the Death of a Loved One, a Divorce, or a Breakup
Tips to wrangle the chaos—both physically and emotionally—according to a pro organizer.
Professional organizer Jeni Aron (a.k.a. the “Clutter Cowgirl”) blazed into my life two years ago when my Queens apartment was in complete chaos. I’d been widowed for three years, and though I was slowly going through my late wife’s belongings (she’d been quite the collector of musical instruments and electronic gadgets), I had barely made a dent. On top of that, my then 7-year-old son was rapidly outgrowing clothing and toys, my new partner was about to move in with us, and it felt like half the contents of my mother’s jam-packed home had landed at my place after we’d moved her into assisted living! My two-bedroom apartment was bursting with stuff and nothing had a proper place.
I have never been comfortable with chaos and, in hindsight, I realize how paralyzed I was. I don’t know how I’d ever have moved forward without Jeni’s help. She recently met me at a cheerful coffee bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where, over tea and muffins, she let me in on the organizing tricks she swears by.
Why do we often find ourselves stuck in a chaotic personal space after a traumatic event like the death of a loved one or a divorce?
Jeni: When your entire body and mind are consumed by grief, the idea of doing even a simple thing like a load of laundry seems inconsequential. You feel removed from reality. Remember, too, that when we experience a big loss we have often already been living in chaos and clutter. The traumatic experience makes it hard to see past that.
How do you know where to start?
Jeni: Make concrete things the first priority. Do you need a lawyer? Do you need to fill out paperwork for Social Security or life insurance benefits? Then set up a reasonable timeline for everything else. If it took ten years for your home to get clogged with clutter, you can’t expect to unclutter it in a month. One great thing about hiring a professional organizer is you can set aside three or four hours a week to work with someone, they might give you a few homework assignments before they see you again, but the rest of the time you can just go back to your life.
How do you begin to organize sentimental items?
Jeni: Sentimental items are part of each personal journey. Items you keep should be associated with positive memories, not negative ones. I don’t think a home should be a museum. You can find creative ways to honor your loved one, but still keep your space vibrant and alive. I advise my clients to pick one or two things that are truly special and showcase them.
What about assessing valuable items like jewelry, antiques, or collections?
Jeni: Often it’s good to go to the source. If you inherit a collection of stamps or rare books, try contacting your loved-one’s dealer. Ask that person for more resources if necessary. If you are faced with a closet of valuable designer clothes or handbags, try browsing resale websites like The RealReal or Poshmark to assess their value. If there’s not a consignment store nearby where you can unload a bunch of clothes, consider hiring an Ebay professional. All of this takes time and you do need to weigh the value of your time against the potential monetary value of these items. If you’ve inherited a big item like a Chippendale buffet or a grand piano, you are going to have to hire an appraiser. Ask friends for recommendations. It’s worth taking the time to find the right person.
So what about a joyous event like the birth of a child? People who have spent months doing all the right prep work like setting up the nursery or cooking and freezing meals ahead, often feel traumatized by suddenly finding their lives a huge tumultuous mess!
Jeni: You can never fully prepare for the sleep-deprivation, the complete change to your daily routine, and the well-meaning visitors who crowd your home with tons of baby presents! New parents can combat the chaos by setting a schedule for everything. Then try to do one small extra thing a day, like write a thank-you note or unwrap and put away a few presents.
Let’s talk about making room for a new partner. How do we clear the way?
Jeni: I tell my single clients who are contemplating cohabitating with a new partner to literally envision welcoming that person into their space. Imagining how you would like to be welcomed into a new home will help you let go of the things, clutter, furniture, etc. that are standing in the way of that welcome.
Cohabitation requires an honest conversation between two people about the priorities and value of each person’s belongings. If you can’t compromise on a sofa or a lamp, you’re probably going to have trouble compromising about bigger issues. The “pick your battle” strategy is often what makes a relationship work. And no one needs ten saucepans.
What’s the most important thing your clients have taught you?
Jeni: They’ve taught me that bravery happens every day in the smallest of ways. They’ve taught me that I can let go, too.