Managing Memorabilia After Loss

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One of the most difficult categories of items to organize is memorabilia. Whenever I’m about to sort memorabilia with a client, I begin by telling them that this will probably be slow going. By definition, memorabilia is loaded with emotion and memories, so even under the best of circumstances, making decisions about what to keep can be challenging. Understandably, managing memorabilia after loss is particularly difficult, deserving of both care and patience.

While death may be the most obvious kind of loss that comes to mind, there are actually many circumstances where feelings of loss may be at play.

1. Death

Our feelings after a death can be complex. We may be despondent, in shock, and/or struggling to accept the reality. It is common to feel bitter, abandoned, hopeless, sad, lonely, and many other emotions. In some cases, death may also usher in feelings of relief (e.g., if a loved one had been suffering a long and terrible illness), which may be accompanied by feelings of guilt.

2. Divorce or end of a relationship

When an intimate relationship ends, there will be feelings of loss. In many instances, relationships come to an end by the will of one party, which leaves the other party feeling rejected. Even if the termination is mutually sought, it still leaves a void.

3. Physical ailment or injury

Ask any accomplished athlete who has been knocked out of his/her sport by an injury and you will immediately recognize the presence of loss. Aging, illness, accidents, and injury can all steal the ability to live and thrive as we might have desired, often permanently.

4. End of employment

While we often joke about how great it would if we didn’t have to work, employment can give us a sense of purpose and value. When a job comes to an end, whether by a layoff, termination, or retirement, it is likely to leave feelings of loss in its absence.

5. Financial difficulty

Whether due to an end of employment or another situation, financial struggles typically result in some form of loss. We may have a hard time paying our bills and find it necessary to cut back. Additionally, financial pressure robs us of lifestyle pleasures. For instance, we may no longer be able to hang out with the people we used to because we can’t afford to pay our fair share for meals or activities.

6. Relocation

People relocate for many reasons, both positive and negative. Regardless, when we leave a town or community, we are likely (at some point) to experience feelings of loss about the place we left behind.

7. Theft, fire, war, or natural disaster

We don’t have to look far to see devastation across our world. Severe events can wreck substantial damage in a short period of time, leaving us to cope with loss from circumstances well beyond our control.

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In light of the many ways we may experience loss, how do we make choices about the memorabilia associated with these lost people, relationships, abilities, opportunities, and locations?

First, it is important to remember that memorabilia is – by definition – part of the past. It doesn’t represent the items we need to live in the here and now, but rather objects that provide connection to a previous time. Like anything we aren’t currently using, it must “justify its real estate” in our space. Here are a couple of overarching guidelines for memorabilia in general.

#1 Memorabilia is optional.

If you don’t want to keep something, no matter the reason or what someone else says, you don’t have to.

#2 Memorabilia should bring you joy.

Belongings with no functional purpose should only be kept if they make a positive impact on our lives.  

#3. A little memorabilia goes a long way.

A box of two of memorabilia can be brought out, reviewed, shared, and enjoyed. Twelve boxes of keepsakes, piled in a dusty attic, will likely sit untouched (and therefore unappreciated), until such time as they need to be moved.

4. Mementos are best kept in a way that allows you to access and enjoy them.

If we can’t see, touch, and interact with sentimental items, we won’t experience their solitary benefit.

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Now that we’ve looked at guidelines for memorabilia as a whole, how can we best assess pieces that are directly connected to a loss? Here are some questions I suggest you consider.

How recent was the loss?

If you’ve experienced a loss within the past year, it may be wise to allow yourself the grace to postpone decision-making. A year is not a magic number, and some may find they require more or less time. The key is to give your mind and heart time to heal before putting pressure on yourself to declutter and organize.

Will this potentially bring me joy in the future, even if it is making me sad right now?

This question is one way to look beyond the potentially painful present and consider the value of an item to your future self. If a photo album from your first marriage makes you cry, it is perfectly fine to let it go. However, if the ashes of your deceased pet are hard to look at now, but you perhaps would someday like to spread them in a beloved location, bringing you closure and peace, then go ahead and hold onto them.

Will keeping this help me move forward with my life or hold me back?

Things are just that: things. They don’t hold power or emotion. We imbue them with sentimental value via association, memory, and/or experience. Importantly, we have the power to decide what things we want around us, and how they might impact us. For example, if someone who has died gave you a gift that you really don’t like, you don’t have to keep it simply because it came from someone who passed away. You might better honor his/her memory by displaying a photo of a happy memory of your time together.

*     *     *

As you review memorabilia, particularly those pieces associated with a loss, remember that you have choices. Obviously, if there are pieces that you treasure, those should be kept and stored in a way that honors them. However, for objects about which you are uncertain, here are some options for how to proceed:

When in doubt, keep it.

Unlike other possessions, you can’t replace memorabilia or just buy it again. When possible, avoid regret.

Schedule a future review.

Often, we may not be emotionally ready to make decisions about particular items. One option in these cases is to pack them into a box to look at later. I suggest you put a date on the box for when you will try again, as well as a label which very clearly records the detailed contents of the box. To make sure you don’t forget, put the “future review date” on your calendar. When that day arrives, read the label. If you are ready to let go without looking at the individual items, feel free to do so. If not, you will have mentally prepared yourself for what you are about to handle.

Offer unwanted items to others, but don’t pressure them.

When we come across items we don’t want, particularly those to which other family members may feel a connection, it is kind to offer them to relevant parties before discarding or donating. Ask others if they want whatever the items may be (e.g., via texting a few photos), but also, give them the option to decline. We never want to alleviate our own emotions by creating a burden on someone else.

Let go.

Especially with items associated with loss, we tend to feel guilty about letting go. We worry that we will forget a person or experience, or that by getting rid of an object, we are somehow negating a time or experience. Fortunately, this is not the case. Choosing to donate or even trash items does not mean that you didn’t care. It may simply mean that one season has ended, and you are ready to create emotional space for another one.

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Sorting through memorabilia, especially after a loss, is very difficult to do alone. I encourage anyone facing this task to consider bringing in some support. Whether it be a friend, family member, or professional, look for someone who won’t pressure you, who will enjoy hearing your stories and memories, and who will move at a pace that is comfortable for you.

How have you coped with items associated with a loss? Do you have any tip to share?

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22 thoughts on “Managing Memorabilia After Loss”

  1. This is such a sensitively written post. I love how you addressed the various types of loss and some ideas for moving forward with memorabilia. Those emotional attachments to our stuff are reminders of what was, who we were, who we loved, what we did, or where we lived. It can be challenging to face the actual loss and then the objects that represent that other time.

    But one of the key points you made is that you do have a choice. As the object’s owner, you get to decide if it’s meaningful or not, whether to keep or to let go.

    When objects carry emotional attachments, it makes sense to work with them slowly, as you mentioned. Take time to grieve, remember, and then decide whether that ‘thing’ deserves a place in your life still, or if it’s time to let it move on.

    1. Probably the hardest type of possession we have, right? Full of emotion, perhaps both positive and negative. I just want people to know that they have options and that they shouldn’t pressure themselves to rush through. Some people grieve by letting go of things, while others need time to process.

  2. This is a very important topic. People who are experiencing loss are not always ready to make decisions or let go. Having time to process and letting time heal will be important parts of the process too.

    1. I think this is one of the reasons why making changes in residency very close to a loss is tough. In ideal conditions, we would have plenty of time to process items after loss.

  3. This is a beautiful post, Seana. I love the way you have divided the topics, provided options, and strategies.
    Memorabilia can be a treasure to review from time to time or an anchor keeping us from leaving the past behind and living in the present.
    Addressing things that are emotionally challenging has to be done when the person is ready. Hopefully they do this with another trusted person to support them.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…How To Have A Successful Multi-Generation VacationMy Profile

    1. “When the person is ready” is such a key phrase. That is definitely what we hope for. Unfortunately, sometimes people get pushed into dealing with memorabilia too quickly, or in the midst of other difficult circumstances. This is one reason by why we often need that support, right?

  4. Excellent post, Seana! I love the question, “Will this bring me joy in the future, even if it makes me sad right now?” This answer tells a person a lot.

    I would also add if you want to keep the item but won’t use it as intended. Try repurposing the item. Adding creativity and making the item more unique for your purposes now will still give you happiness. Things you want to keep may not be functional for the space right now; you always have the option to modify and make them fit in your surroundings.

    1. I love this idea, Sabrina. We had a NAPO-CT member who was able to take articles of clothing and make them into teddy bears. It was a nice way to keep a bit of something special and make it into something also special, especially because we are unlikely to rewear a family’s members clothing (it doesn’t fit, isn’t stylish, etc.).

  5. I agree that it’s really difficult to let go of things early on. When my mom passed away, her room was filled with clippings, handwritten notes, and other things. We were all curious about them, so they went in a bag and each of us kids took it home in turn to review it. I was last, and I still have it, 26 years later. I have managed to toss a few things and we probably wouldn’t miss anything if I just got rid of the whole bag, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. I have started taking photos of some of the items she kept.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…How much does a website cost, and how long does it take?My Profile

    1. What a thoughtful and smart way to allow you and your siblings to handle your Mom’s memories. It can be hard when family members live far away from one another, and this is a wise way to let everyone have a turn. I wonder if you asked each person to review within a specific period of time (before the bag got to you), or if you let people decide their own timeframe? Thank for you sharing this, Janet!

  6. Oh, Seana, you’ve addressed this very fraught and complicated topic with grace and sensitivity. I think people fear that others (especially professional organizers) will push to just “let it go” when sometimes (as with a recent trauma or loss, or when one isn’t certain) it’s best to hold onto things and review them later. People need permission to NOT need permission to take any specific action with memorabilia because the best answer will always be a personal one. You hit this one out of the park!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Organizes Temporary Papers and Explores Third SpacesMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Julie. This was inspired by a recent client session. It’s very hard. I know what a privilege it is to be invited into someone’s pain, and I take the responsibility seriously. I never want there to be regret, and I want to be a soft place to land. In truth, I honestly do love hearing people’s stories!

  7. This definitely hits home for me. I am keeping things from my family and most of them I enjoy. There are things that are difficult to decide on and I still haven’t done it. I know it will be a lot easier for my family to dispose of those things but I am trying to lighten their load as much as possible. I need to rethink some however.


    1. I’m sure your family will greatly appreciate your efforts, Dianne. It isn’t to make decisions on these items, so give yourself time and grace. 🙂

    1. I think reconnecting has been one of the biggest benefits of social media, and for my generation, that has also been Facebook. What is funny about the yearbooks is that not many people look like their old photo anymore, and I’m not sure I would even recognize people if I walked right by them!

      I agree that connection – whether to others or to my memories – is why I keep memorabilia around at all.

    1. Shedding those things that aren’t bringing joy is very freeing, I think. Why keep items that make us sad or otherwise unhappy. They are just objects!

  8. Thank you so much. These tips are truly invaluable. I’ve been struggling so much with taking care of all the stuff left behind by my significant other so a big thanks

  9. Thanks for a very thoughtful article, Seana.

    If articles left by loved and now departed family have some value (in the collector sense), I’ve sometimes suggested considering selling them at a fair price and using the funds to honour in some way, the person(s) who’ve passed. A little engraved brass plaque on the back of a seaside bench, a donation to your local cancer research organization with a name added to a scroll, the purchase of a small piece of equipment for use in your local hospital……….. lots of ideas.

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