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My Hardest Organizing Job Ever

As Published In Professional Organizers Blog Carnival
My Hardest Organizing Job Ever

I have been organizing people my entire life, and doing so professionally for decades — but I recently faced the hardest decluttering challenge I could ever imagine, when my mother passed away and left a house overflowing with “stuff” for me and my sisters to deal with.

The Sheer Volume

Now I’ve tackled some big organizing projects in my day. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and put in thousands of hours eliminating their messes. I’ve dealt with mansions ten times the size of my mother’s house. I’ve decluttered homes where the rooms were overflowing, the piles had overtaken every surface, and the occupant couldn’t even cook on her stove or sleep in her own bed for all the crap stacked on top. I’ve helped clients who faced fines from the board of health and pending eviction notices. I’ve organized people with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic disorganization, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hoarding issues — my mother had none of these things. But what she did have was a tremendous love for her “things,” a depression-era “I might need it someday” mentality, and an amazing ability to fill every space possible with at least twice as much as any other normal person could manage! No one had any idea of the sheer volume involved — not me, not my sisters, not her sisters. Whatever we thought my mother had, she actually owned three times that much.

I knew the woman had a lot of stuff. She was a child of the Depression who never threw anything away — hell, she’s the reason I’m a Professional Organizer at all (as a child, I had to hone my skills in self-defense against all the clutter!) But I had always dealt with her need to accumulate on a very surface level. When her living space got a little dysfunctional, I would help her make some space to put a few things away and try to encourage her to clean out. But she didn’t really want my (or anyone else’s) assistance — and I had to remember that she was my mother, not my client. So I didn’t go digging around in her drawers or closets any more than I had to. And as long as she was happy (and I had a place to sit when I visited), we left well enough alone. Of course, I did joke with her at least 10 years before she became ill that, if she ever felt herself starting to slip away, could she please have a yard sale — those words came back to haunt me as I was faced with the task of sorting through all of my mother’s belongings and deciding what to do with them after she died.

Of course, I had help — I, my sisters, the various husbands, and the occasional cousin all worked our fingers to the bone on that house. But even putting in 8+ hour days, it still took us nearly three months go through it all (I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I’d had to face this project on my own!) It wasn’t just that my mother had a few collections — she owned massive quantities of EVERYTHING. She had more books on tape than the local library. She owned enough canned goods to feed every starving child in Ethiopia for a year. I couldn’t even begin to count the numbers of ceramic frogs and glass chickens that adorned her nick-nack tables. And the woman could have changed clothes twice a day (pairing each outfit with a different piece of jewelry) and never worn everything she owned in a year’s time. Can you see why I live in less-than-200-square feet of space and own relatively little in the way of material possessions? It’s just overwhelming!

After everything was said and done, we threw out at least 20 contractor bags of trash (most of it was food that had spoiled and pure-d junk out of the shed.) We donated books to the library, craft supplies to the senior center, clothes to the mental health center — and still sent 30 or 40 bags off to Goodwill. We held two HUGE estate sales, because there simply wasn’t enough room to put everything out at once (after emptying the attic, we had essentially two housefuls of stuff to contend with). And my niece and her husband still hauled off two trailer loads of “leftovers” to sell at the flea market. People who knew my mother dropped by while we were cleaning out and marveled at where she could have had all of this stored. My only response was, “Woman knew how to pack a closet full.”

Dammit Pearl!

When working with clients who have lost a parent or spouse or child, I’ve always felt confident that I understood (at least on an intellectual level) how hard it must be for them to clean out a deceased loved-one’s belongings. But now that I’ve gone through it myself, I have a much more intimate and personal understanding of the process — and I believe that this will make me a better organizer for clients who are faced with this issue in the future.

I’ve been talking with another friend whose mother died early this year, and she’s only now starting to deal with her things — but my siblings and I didn’t have that luxury. The clock was ticking, we needed to empty the house, and we had a deadline. It was incredibly difficult, forcing ourselves to sort and decide and discard while the grief was still so fresh — but I’m certain it would have been even harder if we had allowed this to drag on any longer. I think that we all needed a sense of  closure. I can’t speak for the others — but in order to have the space I required to properly mourn, I needed for this to be over as quickly as possible.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to move from “grieving daughter” to “organizer” in this situation — not because I doubted my abilities, but because I was worried that my family would resent me taking on that role, misunderstand my intentions, and think that I was overstepping my bounds. I’ve always felt that my sisters sort of questioned my chosen profession, as it is — wondering why on earth people would pay me the kind of money they do to help them clean out. But this experience with my mother’s house has eliminated any doubt they might have had about the value of my skills. Of course everyone participated and everyone worked hard, but I was the one who laid out a plan, knew how to answer the question when someone asked “what should we do next,” and kept things moving when we became emotionally stuck along the way. I understood records retention guidelines, knew what administrative details needed to be taken care of, and found buyers for unusual items that weren’t attracting attention at our estate sales. And my sisters told me how much they appreciated my contribution — they knew that they could abdicate responsibility for all those nit-picky little details that eat up your free time and drain your energy, and that I would take care of them. So I guess the one good thing that came out of this horrendous ordeal is that I now feel professionally appreciated and respected by my family, in a way I never have before.

One thing that surprised me was how much emotion the cleaning-out process dragged up for me. Of course, I expected to feel sad because I had lost my mother. But aside from that grief, so much of what I found just made me sad FOR her, for her life. We discovered at least a dozen tubes of cream for foot pain, along with four-score pairs of cheap, ill-fitting shoes. I couldn’t help but think that, if my mother had just bought half as many but chosen good shoes that fit her feet, she wouldn’t have ended her life in agony. And so much of what she owned was intended for a “someday” that never came. I don’t mind a person having tons and tons of stuff if they use it and enjoy it all — but every time I came across a shrink-wrapped video tape, my heart hurt because my mother never had a chance to see that movie. When I found clothes in the closet that still had the tags on them, my eyes teared up at the idea that she would have looked really nice in that outfit. And as I sorted through the unused art supplies and imagined all the crafts she would have made with them, I said out loud, “Momma, even if you didn’t use your stuff, I promise that I will” (so you’ll probably see me go through a creative burst when I get back on track with my schedule, as I am now sworn to make use of all the paint and clay and beading I took from her house!)

But in addition to feeling badly for my my mother, I was also angry at her (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would be so proud.) As I traveled around the country, she told me about the places she would have like to have gone — to see the pyramids, to Nova Scotia, to England. And I tried to take her along on as many trips as her health (and our finances) would allow. But as I looked at the mountains of crap she had bought over the years and never used, I thought about all the trips she could have taken, the experiences she could have had, if she had skipped that particular shopping trip and used the money for a vacation, instead. My sisters and I also felt a lot of guilty resentment at the fact that our mother had so much more than she needed, that we had tried to get her to let go of the excess and she had refused, and that we were now giving up months of our lives to clean up her mess. Let’s be honest — we were pissed not only that she was gone, but that she had left all this behind for us to deal with. We finally came up with a cathartic ritual — whenever my sisters and I had reached the end of our tether with one pile or another, we all stopped and joined in on a group cry to the heavens of “Dammit, Pearl!”

The final conclusion my siblings and I reached is that you need to use and enjoy the things you own while you’re alive — because when you die, no one else cares about your stuff. Of course, people who loved my mother all got mementos to remember her by, little pieces of her life that will be cherished by a friend or family member. But I watched hoardes of strangers pick through my mother’s treasures, wanting to barter me down from 50 cents to a quarter, not realizing or caring how much that little trinket had meant to her. They didn’t know the joy that piece of junk gave her when she bought it — it was just one more thing in a huge pile of stuff. Depressing to the very end, and I’m glad to be done with it.

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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18 Responses

  1. Alys Milner says:

    Ramona, this was so poignantly written and so heart-felt. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  2. Pam says:

    Ramona, you are right on, this experience will help you empathize so much more with your clients. I am in that same boat, I always thought I “understood” them, now I understand on a deeper level.

  3. Dawn says:

    sharing your experiences and the wisdom you’ve learned from them is such a wonderful way to create something positive from such a difficult task—well done

  4. Ramona says:

    it’s hard, but I believe that if you don’t share, it didn’t happen :)

  5. Pam says:

    Sounds like you really have your head on straight. You were lucky to have siblings, too. Sisters, especially – I am envious of the sisters.”

  6. Alys says:

    Yes! I have a friend that went through her father’s home alone (he was a true hoarder and knew towards the end of his cancer what he was leaving her with). Very sad.

  7. Mary says:

    This was an amazing blog. Thank you for posting it…..I think I’ll go clean out a drawer……

  8. Bonnie says:

    I’m with Mary, think I’ll clean out a drawer

  9. Barbara says:

    Thanks for sharing. If I were to pass away now, my relatives and friends might feel some of the same frustrations. It’s time for the box to go to Goodwill, and the books to the library. I appreciate the reminder!

  10. Bonnie says:

    seems like that is what I’m always doing, getting rid of stuff – not sure where it all came from, but one thing is I surely don’t buy very much anymore because I think about what I’m going to do with it and where it will live and usually I don’t need it

  11. Jane Campbell says:

    “Dammit Pearl!” Ramona, thanks for the great reflection!

  12. gina says:

    I am going through this with my hoarding.. (alive) mother. We have a booth at the antique store starting this weekend to get rid of most of her stuff. I tell her I don’t want to have to go through all her stuff when she dies. She’s 68 in good health now. She has got to have the world’s largest f’ing ceramic chicken collection in the USA. LOL. You can’t walk in some of the rooms filled to the ceiling with junk. She doesn’t want to let go of anything, I will have to smuggle it out one at a time i guess. She showed me three of my dolls i had growing up, if she would have thrown them in the trash it wouldn’t bother me. See how sentimental I am?

  13. Claire says:

    damn ramona…this blog was so right on…i passed it on to my sisters

  14. Keri says:

    This article brought up a lot of memories of what I went through 3 years ago. We took 18 leaf bags of clothes to charity, had a trash man haul away a dumpster’s worth of junk, held an estate sale for the furniture and a closet full of boxes with dolls and other knicknacks, then hauled home at least 2 vans full of stuff we wanted plus 6 boxes of business files that needed to be shredded. While my project sounds simpler than yours, I did this with only my husband and daughter’s help. We spent weekends and vacation times to get this done, then endless hours trying to sell the property along with maintaining the yard. I can truly empathize with you.

  15. Janet Barclay | Organized Assistant says:

    Ramona, this is one of the most powerful blog posts I’ve read in a long time. What a turning point this must have been for you, both personally and professionally. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Lisa Montanaro says:

    Hi Ramona- Very beautiful and powerful blog post. I, too, went through my Mom’s possessions after she passed away. She was not a hoarder, but still had a lot of “stuff” after a lifetime of living. It was painful, emotional, healing, therapeutic and beautiful all wrapped up into one. I had to be both grieving daughter and organizer… wasn’t always easy. It left me with even more empathy for my clients, and a heightened sense of appreciation for the fact that we can’t take it with us. Yes, I use her china now whenever I want… not just on special occasions. Important lessons learned when you are sorting through your own dear mother’s things after she passes away, that’s for sure.

    If you want to read my experience with this, go to my blog at DecideToBeOrganized.com and search for Organizing After a Loss.

    Thanks for a great piece. XOXO – Lisa

  17. Jeri says:

    So touched by your blog post about going through your mother’s stuff; just tweeted about it. Never easy, but yours harder than some.

  18. Ramona says:

    It was incredibly painful yet cathartic to write — but I’m glad I got it out there for others to share. Something we all eventually have to go through, to some degree or another.

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