Precious Memories: How to Declutter the Stuff That's Hard to Let Go

When someone we love dies, we want to remember them. I love to tell my children and grandchildren stories about my parents and grandparents. When my oldest grandson Elliot asks to be told again how my dad (his great-grandfather) came from Trinidad, West Indies to California, that's a joyful connection. I'm so happy when I hear my son Teddy tell my second grandson, Damien, that the corn pudding we're enjoying at the Thanksgiving dinner table is one of my mom's special recipes, and Damien says he wants to learn to make it someday.

The stories and traditions we pass to the younger members of our family are valuable. They're irreplaceable. Make sure you're sharing your memories while you can.

old photos

The value and risk of physical mementos

Sometimes we want a physical reminder of that person we cherished, and that's also a wonderful way to keep them close. Reading the letter your mentor wrote when you graduated college and got your first job, looking at a photo of your young grandmother holding your infant father, or wearing the brooch your mother wore every Sunday to church can trigger happy memories of times past.

But when we feel compelled to keep too many of these items, there's a risk that the past will overwhelm the present, that our homes will become shrines to those who have gone before, and that our lives today will be weighed down by the belongings of others.

Common concerns: guilt and fear

Why do we feel the need to keep so many things that belonged to our loved ones? I think we feel guilty selling or giving away something Grandma once cherished, and fear that we'll forget something important about her. Or we feel guilty about not really liking the thing a favorite uncle left us, and fear a confrontation with another family member about it. Maybe we carry guilt about not doing what we think we "should" do, or fear that when we die no one will remember or care about us.

In one way it's true that our belongings are all just stuff – physical items that have no eternal significance. But in another way, stuff is never just stuff. It's emotions, experiences, and relationships. If it was just stuff, it would be easy to keep what you need and like and let the rest go.

But it's not always that simple.

How to declutter the sentimental stuff

First of all, don't start your decluttering journey here. Build your decluttering muscles and decision-making prowess on the things that are easier – all those duplicates, the things you really don't like, and the stuff that's worn out. Get rid of the freebies, the piles of outdated paper, and the half-finished projects you haven't touched in three years. Remove the unopened boxes in storage, the old tech you've replaced, and things you bought on a whim, used once, and stuck in the back of a closet.

Now you're ready to consider Grandma's silver tea service, Great Aunt Tillie's dining room furniture, or your father's paintings. Maybe you need to think about Uncle Jim's book collection, your mom's vinyl LP's and 45's, and your own high school sports trophies.

If there are too many mementos you feel you "can't bear" to part with, start by imagining your loved one. Would they want you to be burdened by the stuff they left behind? List your favorite memories of that person and the times you spent together. What do you have that best represents those meaningful connections? What symbolizes the relationships you shared?

  • If you often baked together, keep her favorite mixing bowl or her rolling pin.
  • If you shared a love of fishing, keep his tackle box or display a photo of him on his boat.
  • If she always read aloud to you, keep a book you both cherished.
  • If he taught you how to play chess, keep his favorite set.
  • If she taught you how to crochet, keep a few of her crochet hooks or one of her handmade blankets.

Instead of an entire collection, keep your favorite piece, such as one pair of earrings, one baseball card (the most valuable, or your favorite player), or the Christmas tree topper. One painting, one special cookie cutter, or one serving platter could be prominently displayed or make a appearance at every holiday and family celebration.

Now you're free to pass on the rest. Be sure to reach out to family members or other friends to see whether they would like something that belonged to this person. Otherwise, sell or donate without fear or guilt.

Now you have a chance to lovingly commemorate your relationship. Whatever you choose, display or use it in a way that honors your loved one and enables you to tell their story.

If not today, maybe later

If there's something you just can't bring yourself to part with, don't. This is always your choice.

While respecting your feelings, you can probe them more deeply. What does this item mean to you? Do you feel guilt or fear about letting it go, and can you define the guilt or fear? As much as decluttering can be good for your home and your life, if your emotions surrounding the item(s) are strong, keep it (them) for now. As your wants and needs change, so will your stuff. You may evaluate these belongings differently in the months or years to come. Now might not be the time to remove them, but that could come later.

Keep sharing the stories of your loved ones and your past. As you reinforce these irreplaceable memories, you may find yourself holding less tightly to physical mementos.

If you've ever dreamed of living in a beautiful little cottage, you need to downsize. If you want to stay in your current home but make it more spacious, easy to care for, and expressive of your true values and preferences, you need to downsize.

If you want to make the eventual process of clearing your home less of a burden for your loved ones, you need to downsize.

Downsizing can be hard, or it can be easier. My book, Downsize Now: The Joy of Decluttering for a Fresh Start,* will give you the tools and inspiration to get the job done so you can start enjoying all the benefits.

* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

You may be interested in dealing with your stuff now so the people you love don't have to do it later, but the person who's going to benefit the most is you. You get all the joy of a clutter-free, fresh start, plus:

  • less stress
  • less indecision
  • less cleaning and dusting (and fewer allergens)
  • more focus and concentration
  • more energy and creativity
  • more gratitude for all you have
  • more time, more room, and more money for what matters most to you

Look for Downsize Now on Amazon, in paperback or as an e-book.


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