Sorting thru a lifetime of Mom & Dad’s Things

Have you yet had the unfortunate, but necessary task of sorting thru and getting rid of your parent’s belongings after they’re gone?

It’s a sad, difficult task at best. And if you’ve got siblings who all want the same things, it gets even harder. Or maybe they say they don’t want anything…til 5 years later when you get that text or call, ‘hey, do you still have that red wagon that we had when we were kids?’. And then they get mad because you should’ve known they’d want it. Seriously??

Or, as happens sometimes, someone wants everything sold and the money shared, and someone else wants everything kept. You may need a mediator. For large things, like homes, cars, property, etc, it’s best to work with a lawyer. I can’t and won’t give advise on those things. This article deals with the items you find inside the house, rather than the house itself.

Photo by fauxels on

The best way to start this is to have all siblings gather together, at least initially. Have everyone over for dinner, maybe. Ask who can help clean out the house, and ask them to lay claim to what was theirs, or what meant the most to them. But that doesn’t always happen. Some siblings don’t live close, or don’t get along, or don’t have time. Sometimes parents have given out a lot before they pass. (that’s a good thing)

A lot of times it’s you, and you alone, who go thru all the furniture and accessories and clothing and momentos of a lifetime, trying to decide what to keep or pass on or get rid of. It can be heart wrenching.

I’ve been there.

Here’s some thoughts on how to make the best of a bad situation. This is assuming you have some time to go thru things, and that your parents were living in their own home still.


If it’s not you and you alone going thru the house, then all of you (you and whoever is helping you) can’t make decisions on your own. You have to agree to work together, and make decisions by majority rules, or designate someone as the decision maker. Maybe it’s the oldest, or the one who took care of Mom and Dad, but everyone has to agree.

If someone was living with Mom or Dad at the end, that means they are in charge. It’s not easy taking care of an elderly parent, and if you’ve given up a chunk of time out of your life to do so, then you get perks. You get to keep whatever you want. That doesn’t mean you should be selfish, though. Try and give your siblings what they want, as long as it doesn’t infringe on what you need or really want to keep.


If you have siblings, and they’re not there with you, reach out and ask them what specifically they would like to have, maybe their top 5 picks, rated 1 to 5. Tell them you can’t guarantee anything, but you’ll do your best to get them what means the most to them.

If multiple people want the same thing, use their rankings to decide who gets the item. If your brother ranks it #2 on his list, and your sister ranks it #4 on her list, brother gets it. And so on.

Remember that even though you may all be middle-aged, all those childhood sibling rivalries (Mom always did like you best!) may rear their ugly heads. Try to keep those at bay. Losing your parents is a tough time, even if the relationship wasn’t the greatest (but I hope it was) so try to keep the dialogue kind and fruitful.

So first of all, take out all the top picks of your siblings, and distribute those items. Then it’s time to tackle the rest.

You may want to tackle this group by group, or go thru everything and put all the furniture in one room, all the accessories in another, etc. Then go about seeing who wants what. It’s up to you.

Photo by cottonbro on


When you have a whole house to go thru, start big and go smaller. Take inventory of all the furniture. You may have sets, like a bedroom set of a bed, dressers, and nightstands. Or you may have a dining room table, chairs, and a hutch or buffet. Offer them up as a set first.

Start with siblings, then go down to nieces and nephews, then reach out to cousins, etc. You may have to do the expand your reach to friends and 2nd cousins. Youngsters just stepping out on their own may love to have a free bed or dining room table. However, maybe no one is in need, or no one cares for the style, or whatever. If no one wants it, you can sell it or donate it. If you need the money to pay debts or to help make house payments, don’t feel bad selling it. If not, donate it to Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill.

That said, if antiques are present, you may need to get them appraised. Either split up the antiques among you, as in everyone gets the same amount, or sell and split the proceeds, you decide.


Next sort out all the accessories…couch pillows, bedding, lamps, books, dishes, tools, small appliances, knickknacks, etc. Make a list of what you have, and offer them to siblings, then nieces/nephews, cousins, etc. Whatever no one wants, donate or have a garage sale.


In this category I’m going to include childhood toys, school items, family photos or scrapbooks, military items, guns or sporting items, sewing or other hobby items, parents clothing, etc.

This category is a tough one. Everybody wants the pictures. The girls all want Mom’s jewelry. All the boys want Dad’s shotgun. I can’t tell you how to handle these situations, but it may help to remember back and think who would value an item the most. For example, maybe your older brother remembers the shotgun hanging on the wall, but your younger brother was the one who went out hunting with your Dad, and he’d treasure that gun forever.

I’ve read somewhere someone suggested taking pictures of things, so everyone can remember them, but not everyone needs the actual item in their home. You can also do this with vintage items that are cool, and you want to remember them, but you don’t necessarily want it in your living room. Pictures last a lifetime.

And speaking of pictures, consider having home movies and photos put on dvd and getting everyone a copy. Then, truly, everyone can have them. If you find old photos of people you don’t know, seek out older relatives to try and identify them. My mother went thru and made 2 scrapbooks of each side of the family, and wrote out who they all were. I’m so grateful she did that.

The saddest thing is to go to a fleamarket and find old family photos for sale for a couple bucks…and realizing that person is forgotten because no one took the time to identify their photos.

When I went thru old family photos, I scanned them all into the computer. I then saved them to a disc, and each sibling got a copy. Then, I took all the photos and made piles, one pile for each sibling. Whoever was the subject (or largest subject) in the photo got the photo in their pile. Photos of our parents or the house where we grew up, or all siblings, went into a separate pile, and then those were split up, one to each sibling as evenly as I could. I didn’t need all those photos, and everybody got some. It seems to have worked well.

Consider texting/emailing your sisters with a note like this…I have knitting supplies, 5 piles of yarn, 4 stacks of quilting fabric, and 3 sewing boxes. Who’s interested? See what response you get and try the best you can to make everyone happy. Or, on the flip side, you make the decision. Sharon knits, so she gets the knitting supplies. Karen crochets, so she gets those. And on and on.

If you’re the decision maker, in the end it’s up to you. Do the best you can, and then let it go. I know how it goes sometimes, and siblings end up fighting and getting mad and not speaking to each other for months over who got what. Try to avoid the arguments by making everyone rank their ‘wants’. Or have everyone get together in one room and offer each item up for ‘auction’.

Your brother Jeff speaks up, he wants the old wagon. Your sister Mary wants it, too, says she remembers Mom using it to haul laundry to the clotheslines. Your sister Carrie speaks up, she remembers when Dad brought the wagon home, it was a birthday gift for Jeff. That’s it, Jeff gets the wagon. You get the idea.

Remember, as you go thru a houseful of memories, emotions will bubble to the surface and run over, in tears or anger or both. Be sensitive and kind, to yourself and your siblings.


In this situation, let’s assume it’s your home and your parent lived with you at the end. I’m assuming this means that all the family items came to rest with you.

A lot of things would’ve already been sorted thru, given out, or disposed of, when the original family home was sold or passed to another family member. So a lot of work has already been done. But you’ll have a lot of momentos yet. Keep what you need for your household, no questions asked. With other items, give siblings items they’ve asked for, as long as no one else makes a plea for them. Make a list of items you feel comfortable sharing, and reach out to find out if they want them.

Going thru your parents things, and your family’s history, can be fun (remember when?) and eye-opening (Mom had 2 boyfriends at once??), but it can also be sad and emotional. You’ll realize your parents are gone. That sounds strange to say, but it’s very wierd when your parents are gone. You realize you can’t call them anymore, or stop by and talk, or ask them questions.

This can also trigger emotions related to your own mortality. It sinks in that you’re getting older yourself. Give yourself some time to deal with those feelings. Remember, your parents, and your childhood, may be gone, but you’ll always have the memories. So in a way, you’ll always have a part of them with you.

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