by Susan McCarthy
People who want to hold onto a lot of their parent’s stuff get a lot of attention. After all, if you keep too much stuff you can adversely affect your well-being and budget by squeezing stuff into your home or paying for storage. But what if you aren’t compelled to keep everything? Are you being heartless or sensible?
As a professional organizer, I talk to a lot of people who want to declutter the stuff they don’t want or use. And while the techniques I offer are useful to them, sometimes I think the biggest transformation comes from being told that it’s okay to get rid of stuff. Really.
The same thing happens with individuals and families sorting through a parent’s belongings. In some cases, they feel the need to hold onto things that they have no interest in but seems like something they should keep “just because.”
The Lure of Someday, Just in Case, and Just Because Items
If you’ve ever done some decluttering around your own home, you likely found yourself holding onto things ‘just in case’ you could use them someday in the future. Chances are that you didn’t know exactly when that would be. And you probably couldn’t describe the situation in which you’d use the items you were holding onto.
But you kept the things. And then, three years later, when you returned to that drawer or cabinet or room to take care of the clutter that had accumulated over time, you find yourself faced with the stuff that you thought you’d use. You didn’t.
The same thing can happen with items from a parent or grandparent. We see something that we might know was important to them…or we think they found importance…and we feel compelled to hold onto it. It was important to mom and so it should be important to me. Right?
But if those items get packed into boxes that get stored in your attic or basement or even a corner of a room…and forgotten, what does that say about its importance to you?
Finding the Sentiment in Keepsakes
After a parent dies, your emotions can be all over the place. And sorting through, touching, every one of the items they accumulated and kept over their lifetime can add to that emotional experience. So, how do you make decisions when your feelings can cloud your logic?
Here’s a little secret, if you find yourself thinking, “I should keep this,” then you may be convincing yourself to take on something that you will see as a burden. In short, you don’t really want it.
You know that it was important to your parent and letting go of the item feels like letting go of your parent’s memory. It isn’t. but if you aren’t going to pull out your parent’s yearbooks, then can you explain why you want to keep them.
If you find the pictures of your parent important to you, scan or cut out those images and make a photo collage or shadowbox that you will display in your home. Are you appalled by the idea of cutting up your parent’s yearbook? Hundreds were printed for the students. You could always check with the school, town’s library, or the historical commission to see if they are looking for copies for their files. Maybe these groups would know of someone looking for a copy of the old yearbook.
If it isn’t special to you and you can’t easily find someone who would take it, it’s okay to let it go.
Will You Horrify Family and Friends if You Get Rid of Your Parent’s Things?
A lot of time people end up holding onto things that belonged to a parent or grandparent because other family members insist that this is family history and must be preserved for future generations. But here’s the thing, future generations might not find any attachment to these things because they won’t have known their grandparent or great-grandparent.
It will be an heirloom, but it might not have an emotional draw. In some cases, people will look for the stories behind the items. The postcard collection may seem like a dust collector until it’s made clear that great-aunt Eunice traveled the world on her own at a time when this wasn’t proper behavior for a woman. Does this make the postcard collection more interesting? That becomes for the family to decide.
If you find items that you know you’ll stick in boxes that will go up into your attic, and this makes you pause to question their importance, you can then ask other family members if they want the items. Tell them that you’ve decided they just aren’t that important for you to hold onto.
This can earn you so much backlash that you decide to devote part of your attic to this collection of stuff. Until, someday, when you declutter or downsize and have to face that you won’t have the space to keep these obligatory keepsakes.
So, if you don’t want something, offer it to others. They may insist that you are the one who should keep the items…ask them to clarify. If it comes down to their belief that you have the space for these items, point out that you don’t. Or even if you do, question how storing the items in the attic will honor the memory of your parent.
What to Do with Items You Don’t Want to Keep
Now that you’ve come to terms with the idea that you don’t have to hold onto items that you don’t feel sentimental toward, what can you do with them? In some cases, families hold onto things for lack of other options. This can require some creative thinking, so get others involved…even kids.
Would the items be appreciated by artists who would upcycle the objects into something different? Contact local art colleges and art departments?
Could the items be used as props in plays (or even movies)? Seek out local community theater as well as high school and college dramatics departments. Do an internet search for “movie props for rent.” If a business rents items for movies or parties, they may be interested in purchasing the items you have.
Check with stores that sell vintage and antique items. Remember, each store has their own clientele and so they purchase items that will meet their customers’ needs. This means that one shop might not want to buy everything you have.
Look around for specialty museums that may accept your donation. They may pay you for the items, but chances are that small museums rely on donations. Knowing that others will have the opportunity to see your parent’s items and appreciate what they had. Be specific when you do an internet search – museum of walking sticks, museum of telephones, museum of vintage postcards. Play around with different wording to see what results you get. And check with the museum to get their approval before shipping off things that a small group of volunteers may not be able to handle.
If the trash bin seems to be your option, you can create a ceremony to release the items. Use or view the items one last time. Take pictures of a representation of the items if you can’t take one of everything. Thank the items for bringing joy to your parent’s life. Say goodbye.
I’m sure there are a lot more options out there. Again, start up conversations with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and complete strangers (if you’re the chatty sort). You never know who will have an idea for you.
It’s Okay if You Aren’t Sentimental
If you aren’t all that sentimental, that doesn’t mean that you are getting rid of everything without a second thought. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t plan on keeping anything. In fact, you may be sentimental, but you’re sentimental in a practical way and realize you don’t have a lot of space or money to devote to storing items that you aren’t interested in displaying in your home.
In fact, if you aren’t so sentimental that you feel you must keep everything (and then move it into storage because you don’t have space to display so many things), then you’re likelier to put the things you keep on display. You may even seem more sentimental because you are able to honor the memory of your parent by showing off some of their possessions.
Release obligations to items:
It’s okay to let go of things so you can better appreciate the things you do keep.
Other Helpful Resources:
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.