Our Reading Lives

When A Loved One Dies: What To Do With Their Books

Jamie Canaves

Contributing Editor

Jamie Canavés is the Tailored Book Recommendations coordinator and Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter writer–in case you’re wondering what you do with a Liberal Arts degree. She’s never met a beach she didn’t like, always says yes to dessert, loves ‘80s nostalgia, all forms of entertainment, and can hold a conversation using only gifs. You can definitely talk books with her on Litsy and Goodreads. Depending on social media’s stability maybe also Twitter and Bluesky.

When my abuelo y abuela died there was an entire house to pack up. Some things were easy because they’d already been pre-donated to museums, but most of the house was an enormous “Well, what do we do with all of this?” including an office full of books. It’s an emotional situation to find yourself in, filled with grief and difficult decisions. You’re basically unpacking your grief and someone else’s life. While grief is different for everyone, I can hopefully offer some ideas for what to do with a loved one’s books, especially since my biggest suggestion is — even though we’re taught in the U.S. to avoid death — to think ahead and have an idea of how to tackle something like this.

First Start With The Keep Pile

If there’s anything you know or think you’d like from someone’s collection of books, set them aside. When my abuela got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I brought her some of her favorite books, along with some I thought she’d love. It was also the moment that I realized many of my abuela’s books were in English and she had in fact known English my entire life, even though I’d never heard her speak it. It seemed she’d used books to teach herself, but for various reasons related to the way immigrants are treated, she had refrained from speaking the language. For my keep pile, I selected the Matilda Español edition and added it to my main bookshelf that I look at every day. In a full circle I can use it to brush up on my Español.

But don’t just think of what you want to keep. Ask family, friends, and neighbors if they think there is anything from the collection that they may like. You can always take photos to share with them to pick from to make it easier.

Flip Through Every Book Page

You’d be surprised how much you may find inside a book. It turned out my abuela kept a Cabbage Patch Kid ad I’d cut out of somewhere (JCPenney catalog?) when I was in kindergarten and gave her covered in heart stickers. She’d made a note on the back quoting what I’d said to her when I gifted it to her. I’ve always known and felt my abuela’s love and in that moment I was so grateful for all the time I’d had with her. I’ve kept it tucked inside a book beside my bed, just as she had.

You might find bookmarks, receipts, letters, money, and other items that can sound uninteresting (except the mula) as random objects, but when tied to someone you love, could give you a glimpse into their life. That 7-Eleven ice cream receipt might suddenly hit differently.

Discard Damaged Books

Most people won’t have rare books in their collection, so please discard damaged books, especially if they contain mold. Donating damaged items just creates work and problems for someone else. There’s also a good chance that there are outdated materials which you may want to make a “recycle this” decision on.

Donate Books

Once you’ve rehomed and discarded books from the previous steps you’ll probably be left with a pile that still needs a home. In some cases, you might be able to take everything to one place, but in many cases it may be more than one. If so, you’ll need to separate what’s left by where you’ll be donating them. There are public libraries, Little Free Libraries, used stores, schools, prisons, shelters and generally underserved places in a community. However, please don’t just show up with a pile of books to leave them. Call them first and ask if they take book donations, let them know what you have in general, and see if they’d like it to be donated. I know that the task of having to go through someone else’s belongings can at times feel overwhelming and insurmountable, but dumping the problem on someone else if they do not take donations at the moment for whatever reason is not a great thing to do.

It’s Okay To Wait

If the collection is manageable, it’s also okay to move the items, or box them up for storage temporarily until you have the bandwidth to sit down with all of it. However, you may want to watch a few episodes of Marie Kondo’s show first to give yourself a bit of an umph if possible, because lugging around (physically or emotionally) these items for a decade with the knowledge that eventually you’ll have to sort them out isn’t necessarily great, either. So maybe wait a bit if you need, and then give yourself a realistic soft deadline for making some decisions. And don’t take on the project alone if there are people who you can ask to help.

Don’t Feel Guilty

This one is hard to even say, but it’s important: keeping something you don’t want out of guilt serves no one. Keep books that mean something to you, that you have space for, and that hug your soul. Don’t keep books because you feel that you have to. The memory of a person is with you, not an object you’re keeping out of guilt.