Having the Talk with Your Parents—About Their Stuff

by Janet Arnold-Grych

When I think of my parents, kind and loving thoughts come to mind. When I think of my parent’s house, I get heart palpitations.

They were never prone to throw things away and, now that they’re retired, their additional finds at flea markets and estate sales have caused their tiny house and garage to overflow with all manner of hobby equipment, gadgets of one sort or another, and duplicate items.

My brothers and I have broached the idea of helping them sort through their things so they can find and enjoy the more precious items. These offers have not been received well. Yes, we’re getting into sticky “adult versus child” territory, but it also seems as if their stuff has become a talisman of meaning, even a perceived shield against mortality.

We could just let them hang onto all of it, but there’s the chance that recent medical issues could necessitate an abrupt change in their living situation. The more stuff they gather now, the less likely they might be to embrace a new home, especially one that will likely require downsizing.

So, this issue has it all—the parent/child dynamic, my own anxiety at the thought of being left to wade through mountains of stuff, fears around mortality and meaning, and the overriding desire to ensure that my parents are happy and safe. I want to lead with compassion, grounded in a yogic approach, but where to start?

Thankfully, my brothers and I were able to present a united front. We decided to come together with my parents for dinner, not to tell them what to do, but to listen, offer questions, and perhaps plant some seeds. “In instances like this, I think it's important to allow the parents to speak first," says Jashoda Edmunds, E-RYT 500, a faculty member for the Kripalu School of Yoga and a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist. “Ask them about their needs and how you can help. Often, parents know what changes they need, but sometimes you have to help them make those changes. Be on your parents’ side, not against them, and talk about it with them in a straightforward manner—don’t go behind their backs.”

So, after dinner one night, my siblings and I gently opened the conversation. We told them that we wanted to better understand their perspective, and that our concern was grounded in love and a desire to support their well-being. To our surprise, we were met with an openness we had not experienced before, likely due to the recent medical news as well as our approach.

Beginning with “Tell us …” or “We’re interested in how you see …” established a different dynamic than previous openers, such as, “You can’t even walk through the garage anymore …” Framing things in this way underscored respect and reinforced that the decisions remained theirs. Having been in similar situations and consulted with a geriatric social worker, Jashoda says we need to remember that making one’s own decisions is important to well-being. “Our job as children is to honor our parents and their needs,” she says.

Looking for further insight, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. The core tenet of the book is the guidance to determine which items truly “spark joy” when you hold them, and then to release the ones that don’t. So we asked our parents questions about joy, not just utility. Did all 200 auto books bring them joy, or was there a special subset that they might want to showcase? They didn’t embrace our ideas immediately, but they didn’t entirely dismiss them either. Again, we left the question as one they could ponder.

Our approach included acknowledging their skills and concerns. When my dad was in the working world, for example, his job was to solve technical problems. So we also asked him how he might approach some of these questions if the situation was framed as a puzzle or challenge.

In the course of the conversation, we were surprised to learn that my parents felt they were also guardians of our things—old childhood toys and items they assumed we’d want (but don’t). We thanked them for raising us to be focused on people and not things, and told them to feel free to let that stuff go.

Eventually, my courageous mother suggested that we get together to revisit the issue in a month. In the interim, she and Dad would take a look at what they’d accumulated and think about it. To their credit, they have begun to make choices—discarding, donating, and directing items to my brother to sell online—all with more vigor and lightness than we can remember seeing before.

This situation could have unfolded very differently had my parents not been so open, or if we had waited until we were in crisis mode, when action was required. Moving forward, I plan to apply what I learned to future interactions with my parents.

Ask, don’t impose. Everyone wants to feel respected and in control of their own life. Plus, you might uncover new information that challenges your assumptions.

Think about the “currency” that is important to others. For my parents, discussing accumulation as a safety hazard carried weight, especially considering potential medical issues on the horizon; for my dad, framing the removal of that accumulation as a puzzle seemed to gain traction.

Identify pieces that feel manageable. Inquiring about places to start or identifiable groupings of things makes the process of sorting seem less scary and overwhelming.

Commit to follow-up. It was amazing that my mom initiated that request. There is great value in pausing and regrouping later, to leave time for consideration while still keeping the momentum going.

Celebrate forward progress. When my dad started offering up boxes for us to dispose of, we applauded his efforts and tried to keep things light.

Even more important than clearing the stuff, coming together has opened the door to a new level of exchange among us. Whatever’s next, I feel more confident that, as a family, we’ll be able to address it together.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.