Are you ready to shed some belongings, but are hitting a roadblock with the sentimental ones? Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of seniors on this topic. I began by reviewing the various kinds of items that tend to carry emotional significance, grouping them into four major categories:
These types of possessions tug at our heartstrings, making it hard to decide how to proceed. Often, we end up stashing them away in remote storage locations, such as attics, basements, garages and storage units. While this alleviates our short-term desire to purge our living space, it often backfires in the long run for a couple of reasons:
- Items we can’t easily access are rarely seen or enjoyed
- Offsite storage is expensive
- Important memories may be lost or damaged
- We risk creating a burden for family members after we are gone
Another common solution is to pass emotionally-laden pieces down to family members. While this may make us feel better, such an approach is also not ideal because:
- We risk making others feel guilty about letting go of items that were special to us
- We often crowd their space
- We put the burden of decision making on someone else
The better course of action is to intentionally curate our collection of sentimental possessions, aiming to keep those pieces that have the most meaning, instead of keeping everything that might have some meaning. Furthermore, it is helpful to be aware that not everything that has value to us will have equal significance to our family members. For instance, one attendee shared that she has a folder of letters she received from colleagues when she retired a few years back. She enjoys periodically reading them, but the rest of her family probably would not as they don’t know the people or situations that they reference.
Legacy items – those we seek to pass down – should be ones with which family members can connect. In contrast, memorabilia we are keeping primarily for own benefit can be simply labeled, “Feel free to discard,” a kind and helpful instruction to those who will be managing our estate.
The question remains, how do we decide what to keep? Here are a few questions to ask:
What does this item mean to me?
Simply being part of our past is not a good enough reason to keep something. Focus on those that spark the best memories.
Is there a story associated with this piece?
The best memorabilia have great stories attached, much the way a piece of art is more valuable when we know its provenance.
Is there anyone in the family who wants this?
We should never assume that “someone will want this.” Today’s young people often live in tight spaces or have differing tastes.
Is the item in good condition?
If not, we should consider whether it can (or should) be restored, and if we want to invest the time, money and energy to do so.
What is the best way to preserve the memory or the story?
Sometimes the best way to preserve a memory is not by simply keeping a possession. For example, a photograph of grandpa in his favorite recliner is more practical than holding onto the fraying, sagging recliner itself.
As you might expect, there are no “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions. Rather, the goal is to thoughtfully prioritize.
Lastly, the practical issue emerges of how to shed those items that are sentimental. It can be difficult to throw away or donate something we feel emotionally tied to. Our group brainstormed a couple of suggestions:
=> If it is something with practical value, use it.
One woman shared that she has three sets of china in her home: her own, her mother’s and her grandmother’s. These take up a lot of space in her home, and her daughter has already told that she doesn’t want any of it. One idea was simply to start using it, and even though it may have a gold trim, to go ahead and put it in the dishwasher. A set of china that is chipped or missing pieces is easier to let go down the road.
=> Find an appreciative donation recipient.
Multiple people have furniture that is not “au courant,” but is still in good shape. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity Restore can often use pieces like these to furnish homes for people who are in need. It is easier to let go when we know our pieces will go to good use.
=> Utilize technology to capture the memory.
One woman shared a grass skirt, flower ley and ballet slippers that her granddaughter wore in a performance when she was little. The woman is holding onto it for now because she loves looking at it, but she knows that someday she will let it go. We suggested taking a photo of her and her granddaughter holding the outfit, and then writing a few lines about her memories of that event.
It may come as a surprise to know that most reputable junk haulers today will donate or recycle as much as possible of what they collect before heading to the refuse center. This process not only saves them money on dumping fees, but it is good for the environment. Fabrics can be taken to textile recyclers, auto parts can be dissembled and used, glass and metals can be recycled, paint can be treated and reused, and even some plastics can be used to create products like flooring, furniture and more. If our sentimental pieces are no longer usable, this can be a good option.
=> Digitize them.
While old papers often have significance, they are subject to deterioration and decay. We are fortunate to have the option today of digitizing old photos, documents, movies, slides and cassettes. Companies such as EverPresent and LegacyBox will take boxes of memories and return them to you on disks, thumb drives or other digital media.
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Simply talking with others about our memories can also be a healthy way to prepare to shed items. Knowing we’ve had “one last chance” to reflect and enjoy them can sometimes be enough to open the door to letting go.
Do you have a tough time letting go of sentimental possessions?