Letting Go: How I cleared out my mom’s house after she died
When my mom died suddenly from a stroke in 2013, she had a 3,000 square foot dream house by a lake.
A 3,000 square foot house filled with belongings from 60+ years of life. And I had a problem: I had to sell the house, which meant I had to empty the house.
And everything became precious after she died.
That McDonald’s toy. The rock she picked up from the beach. That random post-it.
My mom had selected it. Handled it. It might still have her fingerprints or her DNA.
How could I let them go?
So how did I clear out 3,000 square feet of stuff from my mom’s dream house after she died?
When my mom died, I was working as an independent curator, organizing and producing pop-up design exhibitions in London. My creative instincts kicked in, and I asked myself:
“If I was to curate an exhibition about my mother, which 100 objects would I choose?”
I applied the basic steps of how I usually curate an exhibition:
- Collect – Survey all the possible objects to show.
- Curate – Choose objects based on criteria like what stories I want to tell, what I want visitors to know or feel.
- Create – Bring it all together into a cohesive experience.
It worked. Objects were sorted, the house was emptied and sold.
Selected objects went into my suitcase or into storage.
I did create that exhibition with my mom’s belongings, 2 years after she died.
Objects were handled. Stories shared. My mom remembered.
It was the memorial I wanted to give her.
Proof of Life exhibition 2015, curator Charlene Lam
A Lifetime of Belongings: How I Chose What to Keep After My Mom Died
Because I had the lense of curating objects for an exhibition, each item kept had to meet this criteria:
- It represented something about my mom, the way she was, the way she lived.
- It connected to a story about her that I wanted to share.
- Or it just brought me joy! Marie Kondo hadn’t become a sensation yet, so more broadly, my filter was a variation on the famous William Morris quote:
Only keep what you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
I also had a size and weight limit, as I was living an ocean away. Items had to fit in my suitcase and on a gallery plinth. The heavy 1980s Belgian waffle maker? I loved it, I took photos, but I ultimately discarded it.
The Collect, Curate, Create framework is flexible.
I’m so grateful I leaned into my creative instincts after my mom died. The Collect, Curate, Create framework was vital for clearing out my mother’s house after she died, and I’m excited to share it in the hopes it may help others faced with difficult decisions.
Not a curator? You can swap in the word Choose for Curate.
When we curate, we are essentially selecting, editing, choosing with intention.
If you are faced with the difficult task of sorting through a loved one’s belongings after they’ve died, you can borrow this criteria or make your own:
- What you find useful
- What you believe to be beautiful
- What makes you feel joy, love, or closer to the person
You get to choose.
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