Grief hangs like a shroud. The memories from so many years together come rushing back in a storm of emotions. There are phone calls to make, condolences to share and a funeral to plan. And in the midst of it all sits a houseful of things: the books, furniture, memorabilia and heirlooms that are the remains of a person’s life.
The process of cleaning out a home after a friend or family member’s death is cumbersome and complicated, full of difficult decisions about what to keep and what to do with everything else. It’s a heavy lift in more ways than one. If it’s too much to handle without a helping hand, there’s an industry of supportive professionals ready to step in and carry some of the weight.
Patrick McNichol, the owner of Havertown-based Main Line Junk Removal, works with families in the wake of a death to distinguish what should be kept, donated and discarded. He typically delivers the most desirable items to family members’ homes and then works with organizations like Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity to find a second home for as many things as possible. The rest heads to a junkyard or landfill. The whole process takes two or three days — even less for a smaller home.
“Nobody ever wants to get rid of memories, but it’s also really hard to do it on your own, so there’s a sense of relief in the speed with which we can operate and the notion that we’re handling it in general,” McNichol says.
Although he aims to keep as much out of landfills as possible, McNichol acknowledges that it’s a challenge to find a good home for much of what people leave behind. Mid-century modern furniture carries plenty of appeal, but pieces from the 1970s and ’80s that have gone out of style aren’t likely to attract attention.
John Romani has been running Sales By Helen, which operates estate sales, for about five years, ever since his mother (the company’s namesake) passed away. He says the process looked different 20 years ago, when the things in people’s homes still had value. But fine china, glassware, crystal and linens have given way to assembly-line furniture and disposable dishware. Now, those high-quality goods are harder to sell. Romani, who says his job description includes “25% therapist,” sometimes has to tell families that a seemingly valuable item is either going to an art teacher for a mosaic project or straight to a dumpster.
“It was easier when it was worth money,” Romani says. “People could take a couple thousand dollars in exchange for their memories.”
People can’t even talk to me on the phone because they’re breaking down when they talk about these items and what they mean.”
– John Romani, Sales by Helen
In the average home, Romani says, about 60 percent of items can be sold, 20 percent get donated and the rest ends up in a landfill, despite his best efforts to reduce waste. But regardless of its destination, anything with a connection to a deceased relative carries its own significance.
“People can’t even talk to me on the phone because they’re breaking down when they talk about these items and what they mean,” Romani says. “My wife says I professionally disappoint people, because they attach a value to that sentimentality that doesn’t exist.”
In some cases, Romani conducts a Facebook giveaway following an estate sale, leaving the remnants to be picked over by community members rather than trashed. It’s not a fit for every family, but he has seen hundreds of people show up to take home items.
“That is a direct pipeline to the community,” Romani says. “People are taking those towels home and using them.”
As the cleanout industry has expanded, professional organizers like Annie Kilbride at Life Simplified have become a bigger part of the process. She helps families navigate the overwhelming period after a death by educating them about what they need to do and helping them address all the clutter that remains. She sometimes makes dozens of calls in her quest to find a home for used goods, knowing that so much of what outlives us retains our imprint and throwing it out is a fraught proposition.
“We like to hear stories,” Kilbride says. “Sometimes little things might seem like nothing, but when we’re working with a family member they can tell us a story about a piece of cloth or clothing. We try to cherish that by taking pictures so that story can still live on with the family.”