My dad died a few months ago and he didn’t leave a will. Unfortunately, only after he passed away did we discover that my sister, who’s the only one of us who lives in our hometown anymore, had been basically cleaning out his stuff for months. She took tons of furniture, artwork, and mementos, and never even told anyone–so much was gone that at first I assumed there had been a theft. I’d like some of these items for my own home, so I can have memories of our dad, but since there wasn’t any will I can’t point to anything to prove that he wanted my brother and I to have certain specific items (he told us as much in the past). How do I get my sister to give up the goods? I’m starting to feel really resentful that she didn’t think of my brother and myself at all, and disgusted that she essentially looted our father in the last months of his life.

-At a loss

First of all I’m sorry for your loss. It’s never easy when a parent dies, and it gets even more complicated when he wasn’t prescient enough to plan for that inevitability. (Note to all: if you have kids, make a will. Period.)

I think when people are grieving, you have to cut them some extra slack, which is exactly what you need to do for your sister. The way you describe the situation–“looted” “resentful” “disgust”–makes it pretty clear that you haven’t been doing that so far.

Talk to her about this calmly and directly; for all you know, your dad asked her to take things in his final days; people often do just that when they’re facing their own mortality. It’s also possible she just swept in and grabbed stuff, but that could have just been her way of dealing with grief.

So let her explain, and don’t go in preemptively judging her. Ask her for a few specific objects–a concrete way to make everyone happier is much easier to tackle than generalized anger. Then, if she refuses, try not to overreact.

Overreacting, incidentally would include screaming, name-calling, or cutting her out of your life. Unless this sister has done a lot in the past to justify your anger with her, this is NOT a reason to destroy your relationship with her.

Yes, it would be nice to have mementos of your father, and that desire is probably especially strong now, when the loss is still painfully fresh. But at the end of the day, his stuff is just stuff. It’s not his legacy, it’s not your memory of him, and it’s not going to bring him back.

Don’t let a few end tables turn the loss of one family member into the loss of two; it’s not only doing a disservice to your father, it’s doing a disservice to yourself.