Avoiding heartache when it's time to clear out a family home

Book: Authors give tips on preserving relationships and memories while sorting clutter
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Fifty years' worth of stuff.

That's what Linda Hetzer faced when her father, a widower, decided to move from his home to an apartment. The task became even more daunting when the home sold immediately.

"In deciding what should be kept, what should be given away and what should be sold, there were a lot of decisions to be made," Hetzer said. "And there wasn't a lot of help."

Now there is: Moving on: A practical guide to downsizing the family home (Stewart Tabori and Chang, $15.95), which Hetzer co-authored with Janet Hulstrand, who had a similar experience helping her father move from home to apartment.

The book is aimed at helping others empty a home, regardless of what triggers it - a move to a smaller setting, the departure of the last child or the death or relocation of a parent. They have pulled together practical advice, tips and examples from other families about what worked and what didn't.

Whatever the catalyst, dismantling a home can be an overwhelming and emotional project, particularly if there are time or geographical constraints. It also is a task fraught with potential to damage family relationships if there are disputes over who gets what or how the process unfolds.

And that leads to the first suggestion offered by Hetzer and Hulstrand in a telephone interview: practice "proactive downsizing." Long before it is time to start thinking of clearing out a home, consider getting rid of items you no longer need or use, whether clothes, toys or sporting equipment. Discard it, donate it or pass it on to family or friends who can make use of it.

"It is nice to do it gently over time so you can enjoy the idea of passing these things on," Hulstrand said. "Giving things away when there is no need to do so is just a way of letting that cycle of life proceed in a way everyone can enjoy."

You can do that by earmarking items, creating lists of who gets what or even physically passing objects on to family members.

One woman told the authors that years before she died, her mother started giving family treasures as gifts on birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. Her mother would share stories of the item's family history and explain why she wanted one child or another to have it.

"It was wonderful for both the children and the mother," Hulstrand said.

Sometimes, there is a logical progression for dispersing family items. For instance, if holiday gatherings have shifted from a parent's home to that of a child, it makes sense to hand off the set of family china always pulled out for the occasion.

But the inevitable cycle of life is a taboo topic in many families. Children often don't want to face the reality of their parents' mortality, and parents may feel threatened when children propose they begin clearing things out.

Hetzer and Hulstrand offer tips for starting this sensitive discussion (see box) as well as advice on how to avoid the process becoming a family free-for-all - or worse, a feud.

It almost came to that for three sisters who share their story in Moving On. After their mother died, the siblings gathered one summer to go through her home. As they divvied up items, they soon found themselves getting snippy with one another.

"They realized they were heading toward territory they didn't want to enter," Hulstrand said.

The solution: Disputed items were placed on a "fight shelf." The shelf quickly became a room, which they decided to tackle months later.

As they sorted through the "fight room," Hetzer said, one sister came across a particularly ugly tray. She held it up as she wondered aloud who had wanted it.

"They started to laugh. They couldn't imagine any of them wanted it," Hulstrand said. "They were able with that distance to come back to the task and approach it in a more harmonious way and to realize they didn't need all these things."

That brings up another point. The authors say many families include two categories of people: "the throwers" and "the keepers."

"The keepers are people who have a hard time getting rid of most things," Hetzer said. "They have sentimental attachments to the objects and there are reasons in their minds for keeping things. They are often people who keep the family stories."

Throwers, on the other hand, don't get quite as attached to items and, almost willy-nilly, toss things into the trash.

That can be a mistake, Hetzer said. There are certain items that should never be thrown away, at least without careful consideration and an attempt to preserve the information in some fashion. Foremost on that list: family memorabilia - anything with family historical information, from name, dates, places or people.

"You don't want to make decisions about those things when you're getting rid of everyday things," Hetzer said. "Put all this stuff aside in a box to keep so you can go through it at your leisure when not pressed for time."

There is hardly anything that isn't of use to someone else, the authors point out. Vintage clothes may be of interest to collectors or resellers. Local historical societies may want such items as old letters or photographs; genealogical societies often want yearbooks.

The book includes a list of resources that can aid you in finding a home for items no one in the family wants.

And there is satisfaction in knowing your old prom dresses and magazines and cutlery have been passed along so they can have a new life, Hetzer said.

Also, there is the possibility that something you view as trash will be treasured by another family member.


Moving on - a driver's manual

l Practice proactive downsizing throughout your life by getting rid of or passing on items you no longer use.

l When you need to empty a house, give yourself plenty of time to do the job if possible.

l Make sure everyone is consulted and given the opportunity to be involved or have some say on what happens to belongings.

l Start with the least emotional items first.

l Set aside items that more than one person wants and come back to them later - even weeks or months later when emotions are more settled.

l Think creatively about how to hang onto information, rather than


l Children's artwork, for instance, can be preserved by photographing a child with the creation.

l Make sure the next generation knows who people are and what the significance is behind a particular object by creating records of the information. The backs of photographs should list names, dates, places and


l Try to enjoy the process. Take time to tell each other stories and record them as you are in the middle of sorting through pictures and objects.

l Don't be afraid to let something go if no one has room or a use for it.

Source: Moving on: A practical guide to downsizing the family home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand






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-Source: Moving on: A practical guide to downsizing the family home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand

Key questions

Whether you are a parent who has decided to downsize your home or children who are doing so after a parent's death or relocation, thinking over these key questions can help the process go smoothly:

l Has everyone in the family been consulted, and informed, that we are about to start emptying the house?

l Have we made a family plan for how to go about this process? Has everyone agreed to it?

l Have we set a date when the process will begin? Is it clear to everyone who will be involved?

l Have we talked about how to handle any disagreements or disputes that may arise in the process?

l Have we dealt with any disagreements about any of the above as well as we can? If we are not all in agreement, do we at least have a consensus that the process should begin?

Source: Moving on: A practical guide to downsizing the family home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand






Who gets what?

For siblings, emptying the parents' home can cause hurt feelings or regrets that take years to get over. It helps to have a plan for deciding what to keep and what to let go, and who gets what. Some tips:

l Keep your eyes on the prize. Family harmony is worth far more than any one object.

l Avoid power struggles. If a particular discussion raises hackles, back off and try again later.

l Acknowledge the past, but look to the future. Don't let unresolved childhood issues get in the way of constructive communication.

l Respect one another's differences. Understand not everyone may share the same feelings about the family's shared history or possessions.

l Make choices. Think about what one special item in your family's home best symbolizes the way you feel about your family. This will help you gain perspective about everything else.

l Ask one another what is fair. Everyone has a different idea of fairness and the answers you get may surprise you - and might even make it easier to divide up possessions.

l Share your memories. Talking about your common history and hearing the different ways each member of the family experienced the "same" thing can further understanding and help strengthen bonds.

Source: Moving on: A practical guide to downsizing the family home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand








Source: Moving On: A practical guide to downsizing the family home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand