I watched my in-laws’ tidy bedroom closets fill with suitcases and clothes after each of their parents died.
Add to this the odd table, chairs, hutches, and antique Victrola that migrated to the basement family room, which transformed into a maze you’d see in an episode of Hoarders – the couch piled with boxes, the TV pushed into a corner and covered with grandma’s quilted bedspread. The remote lost forever.
Everyone is different when it comes to living with material things. When family treasures are involved, it is especially important to respect our differences; they don’t define who we are as human beings.
For instance, I’m easily overwhelmed when surrounded by too many things. A minimalist by nature, I function better with fewer things in my life.
Others find comfort surrounded by things that hold memories of those they loved. Neither is right or wrong. There is no moral high ground.
Too often, we keep things tucked away in storage boxes only to think we can forget about them. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Sorting through a loved one’s belongings can evoke an undercurrent of delayed grieving or guilt. We may end up thinking we’re a terrible person if we choose to say we actually don’t want to keep Aunt Myrtle’s coffee table or porcelain figurines.
There are some heavy “shoulds” that arrive with the boxes and furniture, however. And, there comes a time when it serves us to question why we’re hanging onto stuff that sits somewhere in our house and might get looked at once a year. Maybe.
In the midst of tending to the treasures, it’s important to remember that our hearts hold our memories forever. To recall how that person made us feel, the echoes of time spent together, and what they handed down doesn’t need to take up space with things.
Our hearts hold their memory – the legacy of who they were and who we are because of them. The true treasure of who they were to us. And what we were together.
It’s important to hold this truth and give yourself permission to let go of what was left behind in terms of material possessions that have become burdensome.
Here are my 5 tips for tending to the treasures:
You may have a family member who collected multiples of the same items to dust, illuminate, and delight in. Think Hummels, collector plates, teapots, salt & pepper shakers – you name it.
Consider saving a favorite item from a collection and let the others go – to a relative or someone who you know will enjoy them.
Instead of keeping lots of items from your dearly departed, take photos of the objects they cherished the most. Those photos can be shared with other family members and can be stored online freeing up space in your home and theirs.
There are companies (or a tech-savvy relative) who can digitally archive your family photos, slides, and old videos.
Gather family members to go through the photos, boxes, and closets through an event to share memories, laughter, and even tears. Everyone can leave with a fresh reminder of their connection to each other, having had a time to remember those who shaped them.
Connect via FaceTime or Zoom with those too far away to attend and have a box ready for any items they may want sent their way. Others can leave with boxes in hand. You know they’ve had their chance to take what was meaningful to them, making it easier for you to pass along what wasn’t wanted.
As you remember your loved one, you may be inspired to think of creative ways to find new homes for their things. If they loved animals, then perhaps donate their things to a local thrift shop whose proceeds support PAWS or other animal rescue facilities.
If you have a lot to tackle, and feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume to manage, remind yourself you don’t have to do it all at once. Determine a good starting point. Something that feels less daunting.
Set aside time on your calendar and set a timer for an hour (or even less) and begin. One closet shelf, one box, one drawer. Reassess how you feel when the timer rings. Give yourself permission to stop, or, if you’re feeling good, set the timer again and keep going.
Give yourself permission to let go of the stuff. It’s okay to let go of things. Really. Let go of feeling guilty or judged by others as being uncaring, ungrateful, or cold-hearted if you don’t hang on to things.
Let go of feeling like you have to take keepsakes because yours was the logical place for everything to go. Make room for what is actually yours.
A friend shared the story of his father-in-law shipping most of the furniture from the family home to theirs as he was down-sizing. Asked how they liked the furniture, my friend said to his father-in-law, “Well, our place looks just like yours now.”
We need room for our own tastes and likes to be in our homes. Keep the true treasures that you absolutely love and will take pleasure in having.
Use the fine china, the silver, the gold rimmed drinking glasses deemed special-occasion-only status. Let other pieces take root and enhance someone else’s life.
Trust your heart to hold the memories.
How do you keep the belongings of loved ones who have departed this world? Are your closets full of other people’s things? Have you done a clean-up? Please share your thoughts and best practices, and let’s have a conversation!
wow! just cleaned out, still at it, my mom’s my gramdma’s…guilt personfied…but I feel so much lighter and able to think more clearly…it’s sort of a ‘phew’ time right now…
Well done, Jeanne! It’s amazing how much lighter we can feel and how much room we free up in our minds, hearts and lives from tending to these cleanings/clearings. Enjoy this ‘phew’ time.
One of the hardest things for me to do is get rid of things that mean something to me! The problem is that everything seems to mean something to me! Every cubby every closet every tucked away space is filled with things for my children and from my past. I even have stowed away things from my mother who has been dead for 13 years! I tell myself all the time that I need to go through all that “stuff”, but it’s such an overwhelming task! I tend to think I have to get it all done and one day. This article really spoke to me! I am going to put an alarm on my phone for one day a week, to just spend 2 hours cleaning out something! I’m getting ready to move when my husband retires, and I do not want to take all this crap with me! I’ve given myself a 2-year deadline to get us down to bare bones! If I don’t do it now, then when? I’ve been putting it off since before I got remarried 8 years ago! It’s time!!
It is hard, Meg. And, you’ve got a great incentive with your move happening. Think of how much easier the move will be and how wonderful it will feel to start fresh with less stuff. Letting go of thinking you have to do it all in one day, or one week offers you breathing room where you can approach a bit at time without feeling overwhelmed and stressed. So, set your timer one day a week for 2 hours. Bit by bit, you’ll get there, Meg. Now’s the time!
This is a really excellent blog. I’d love to share it & put it on my blog. My website address is; http://www.GrowingOlderWithGusto gusto.
Hello Gail ~ Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it and I’m delighted that you would like to share it on your blog. I’ve responded to you privately with next steps. Warm wishes, Barbara
Great article to make me think. I have much guilt I need to let go. My father was a painter, and I have 10 paintings I watched him paint, hanging here, some on the floor. I did give 2 to my daughter and have no one else to give to. I can’t let go as I feel guilty. He would not want me to get rid of them. What to do? I have many photo albums of their lives. No one wants them. I have a giant bible my grandpa gave me, an old antique still working wooden radio. Not into ebay. And also crystal candlesticks, anniversary glasses, and some collectors items in boxes. What to do? I don’t want to donate to a place that resells.
Hello Monica ~ Take your time and be gentle with yourself. The guilt you’re feeling is something shared by many facing this same situation. A shift in perspective is ultimately what will free you in making your choices as to what to do. Would your father want you to feel this burden? As far as options for what to do…Have you considered contacting a local museum or historical society for a few pieces that may carry significance for the community? Maybe a few of his favorite places would enjoy displaying his work. A community center, retirement home, library or church? As you consider your next steps, and to support creating ease for you, you may want to put everything in one room, or a storage unit. Having a little separation from being surrounded by and immersed in everything can allow a little breathing room as you sift through the letting go and separating the person from the “things”. To recognize that you aren’t throwing away their memory. Knowing that by sharing these “treasures” with places or people who find pleasure in them you are honoring those individuals creativity and spirit. I wish you well as you find your way through these tricky waters.
Thank you. My father wanted to keep them in the family. My sister is deceased and my niece and I are not on good terms. Came across this saying, “Possesions are a burden for heirs, and it’s an act of kindness to streamline your life while alive.” I thought of my older daughter for when I am gone with my possesions. But first I need to take care of my fathers. Great idea seperating the paintings in my storage. They are in my living room and bedroom and have been looking at them for 10 years now, even before, when I was young and watching him paint. Great idea about sharing them. I know of a senior home he stayed in, maybe I can try there. Thanks again for such great ideas. Just what I needed, some new insight.
You’re very welcome. I completely agree with the quote you mentioned. May you feel inspired to keep going in dealing with your father’s possessions and then your own, knowing that you will create a “lighter” legacy for your daughter.
Digitize the photo albums so that they are forever available to heirs and descendants, then throw the physical albums away. There are stores and services that will batch scan photo albums for you.
I have photos on my computer and usb. The only problem is I like sitting down with the album, turning pages and actually looking at the pictures this way. A bit difficult though when you have 14 albums. lol