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.

There Is a Tipping Point, However

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.

Our Hearts Are the Memory Keepers

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:

Pick a Favorite

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.

Take Photos of Objects as a Remembrance

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.

Make It an Event

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.

Take Time to Think About the Person

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.

Take Your Time, But Vow to Begin

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!

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