Storage: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ve written about how hard it was to let go of our family home after my father died. We spent tens of thousands of dollars (I’m not exaggerating) dealing with its contents, family belongings that seemed to pour out from every corner and crevice of that house. Some of the money went to appraisal and hauling fees (we threw away three dumpsters worth of junk!), and of course to the IRS and attorneys. But most of it went to the local storage facility, a bleak little operation tucked behind a strip mall on the outskirts of town. Storage units are ugly, depressing, money pits, but let me make a pitch for why they can be useful, if not necessary, after the death of a loved one.
For starters, storage units do relieve stress.
In the wake of someone’s death, a storage unit can be the easiest way to manage the physical and emotional burden of your loved one’s stuff. It is hard to confront the things that surrounded that person for a lifetime when you are facing a life without them. You cannot look at these objects without being reminded of that time when, of the story where. So there is a lot to be said for just putting them somewhere, anywhere, until the immediate, raw grief is behind you. Because you’re probably also dealing with the estate or challenging funeral plans or the other pressing to-dos. Dealing with dad’s old reading chair can wait.
If you go this route, don’t half-ass it. Hire someone to take over the whole process, including finding the storage facility, hiring the movers, and overseeing all of the packing. Is this ideal? No. But if the point of renting a storage unit is to relieve stress, then you might as well go all in. There are some great folks out there - known as “move managers” and “bereavement clean-out specialists” - that your estate lawyer or real estate agent can recommend (Starr Osborne of Tailored Transitions will always be in my debt!).
Putting things in storage helps shed their sentiment.
Storage facilities are dismal places. Take the contents of a wonderful, bright family home, wrap them in bubble wrap, stuff them inside identical, brown moving boxes, then jam those boxes inside a windowless, corrugated steel paneled room. Chipped furniture is stacked up on top of each other, their useless legs splayed upwards like dead bugs. It's hard to look at, and it’s why you should hire someone, if you can, to put everything in there in the first place.
When my siblings and I finally visited our storage units, we were armed with a list of items to take back with us. We had used the extra time and the photos and written inventory my sister and father had prepared months earlier to methodically go through and chose about 10 items each that we wanted. I'm glad I had that list, because otherwise I'm not sure I would have left with anything that day. It's not like opening presents at Christmas. Everything looked dusty and dejected.
Slowly, slowly, my siblings and I were able to consolidate the three units we had opened into one; about 8 years after our father’s death, we paid a New Jersey auction house to take the remaining items to their facility, where they were spread out on folding tables in a large, windowless room. My siblings and I (one via FaceTime) spent a long day walking down aisles and aisles of our old family belongings, identifying any last items we wanted to keep. The rest would be auctioned off. It was depressing. It was hard to imagine any of that stuff in our magical childhood home. I certainly couldn’t imagine any of it in the home I had created with my husband and children in the intervening years. The items I did decide to take with me held real sentiment, or were things I could use in my daily life (if dainty, crystal dessert plates count as useful). And I’ll be honest, I took a few things out of guilt.
Sounds terrible, right? It absolutely was. There was real grief attached to this experience, and at the time I resented having such an incredibly long tail to an ordeal of a lifetime. But having our family belongings in storage helped me untangle the emotion from the things. I came to grips with the fact that I wouldn't be able to recreate the family museum and all of its memories, that my family’s legacy couldn’t be passed down in furniture and trinkets alone.
Finally, there are real, financial consequences associated with storage units.
This sounds like a bad thing, and it is. Storage units are expensive. Like car payment expensive. The luxury of giving yourself space to grieve comes at a price. But if you’re smart, you don’t sign up for auto-pay so that you are reminded monthly just how stupid it is to keep these things tucked away forever.
If I were to do this all again, obviously, I would have talked to my parents before they died about the important heirlooms and how they wanted them allocated (and the reasons behind those decisions, so we weren’t left to guess). We were simply left with too much stuff, and it was impossible to figure out what was important to them, to us, to our family history. But given what we were left with, I'm glad we used storage. I only wish I had set a deadline of 3 years to clean out the units once and for all.
If you can avoid storage, please, by all means do. It's a terrible, sunk cost. But, if the project of dealing with your loved one's belonging after their death is simply too large, too daunting, too emotionally charged, and you have the money and time, storage can be your friend. Just don’t let it keep its talons in you forever.