Why Decluttering for Other People Is Challenging in Surprising Ways

Cleaning out my parents' home was much harder, emotionally, than expected

throwing out clutter

 The Spruce / Ellen Lindner

My house isn't some sleek, minimalist wonderland out of the pages of Dwell magazine. But I believe it would get a solid "not bad" from Marie Kondo.

Junk mail never makes it inside. Our bookshelves, cabinets and drawers have breathing room. I could open any closet door for you without shame. Sure, every once in a while, there's a clutter uprising—home office supplies proliferate, pantry goods migrate to the wrong shelves. Any disarray, however, always gets quashed before things get too willy-nilly.

Luckily, my husband shares this fondness for order (and has mastered a mean KonMari clothes fold).

When we do round up stuff to discard or donate, the only emotions involved are glee and, admittedly, a little smugness.

Keeping my own space clear is easy. But decluttering someone else's space takes a very different approach.

New House, Very Old Clutter

I found that out after my dad's passing earlier this year. My mom decided to move out of the home that the two of them shared and into a new house, being built as we speak, that will be closer to my brother and his family.

Even amid our grief, we're all still excited about her having a new place. And she knew without a doubt that she didn't want to fill this fresh and clean space with the clutter she and my father had accrued through a 50-year marriage.

My brother and I didn't want this for her, either. So I packed up my face masks and hand sanitizer to head from my home in Texas for a decluttering mission at her house in Northwest Georgia.

I don't use the word "mission" lightly here. This clutter wasn't going to vanish overnight. My father was the quintessential "let's hold onto this just in case" child of the Depression. He was also a big softie, sentimentally saving even the gift tags on Christmas packages. My parents also tended to get buried in all the paperwork that goes along with being seniors with ongoing medical needs. All of this added up to covered surfaces and jammed closets. (Design flaws in their house, like the lack of a pantry and linen closet, didn't help things in this regard.) Stacks of boxes towered in the garage and a storage shed.

Clutter and Control

From the outset, though, I was blessed to have something that a lot of people who help someone else declutter don't have: My mom embraced the idea of downsizing.

She didn't try to claim that this was a reasonable amount of stuff to keep or to move —or that she "needed," say, a book of S&H Green Stamps, old typewriters (electric and manual), or a water bill receipt from 1943. Some projects I thought she might prefer to hold off on, like selling my dad's truck, she actually wanted to tackle quickly.

This didn't mean, however, that I could just let my anti-clutter zeal run wild. This was still her space, not mine, and she had opinions I needed to honor—even when they were at odds with my own. For example, she didn't want a stack of papers in the office moved, even though I thought it made sense to do so.

I wish I had been quicker to figure out that this little tiff wasn't really about the best place to put those papers. I think it had more to do with her sense of control (and, admittedly, mine, too) in a world that, between personal loss and global pandemic, was feeling out of control.

Communicating Compassionately

I also had to become more sensitive to the other big stakeholder in the project: my brother.

Confession: I got pretty hopped up on decluttering adrenalin. I obsessed about the limited amount of time I had vs. all that needed to be done, and I wanted to move fast. I came to realize, though, that some decisions that I thought were clear-cut could actually be seen differently. For example, to me it was obvious that we should donate some old art supplies left over from my mom's teaching days. But, to my brother, it was obvious we should keep them, since his kids used them when they were at Grandma's. After that, we became more careful about communicating about what we wanted each other to save if we ran across it and what we were OK not being consulted about.

Layers of Emotion

My parents' house held layers of stuff, and some confounding juxtapositions in those layers. In a single box, there might be my third-grade glass pictures, some Home Depot receipts from 2011, a dry ballpoint pen, and tickets from the Grand Ole Opry.

My own emotions in dealing with this clutter worked much the same way. That almost-panicky intensity I just told you about would run right up against nostalgia and frustration. (Another old AARP newsletter? Really?) In one breath, I'd feel proud of all we were accomplishing. The next, I would feel sad that these physical reminders of my dad were vanishing. That's pretty exhausting. My brother helped me remember to ease up sometimes and take breaks like watching "Hamilton" with my niece. And I hope I am doing the same for him now that I'm back in Texas and he's continuing with pre-move projects for my mom.

When the movers do come in a few weeks, they'll have a light load. In this extraordinarily difficult year, it means a lot to me that my knack for sorting, tossing and organizing could take some stress off my family. And I know that the next time I help someone else declutter, I will also bring something else to the project: a greater sense of empathy and patience.

cleaning out a home

Jeffrey Markowitz / Getty Images