By far, sentimental items are the most difficult category of things to declutter, and of those, inherited items are the most challenging. Your great grandmother's china. A grandfather’s war medals. Mom’s linens. Dad’s fishing gear.
First of all, if you’re starting your organization journey by decluttering sentimental items, STOP. Step away from this category and focus on areas less likely to stir intense emotions, like a hall closet or one of the junk drawers in your kitchen. Sentimental items are for later in the process, after you’ve decluttered other spaces and have had time to build up momentum and practice.
The biggest challenge when sorting and decluttering inherited items is facing and dealing with the emotions and memories that they trigger. I recently had a client with a large clown collection she had inherited from her grandmother. She wanted to fill her hutch with vintage bakeware, dishes, and glassware, but so much of it was taken up by clowns that what she wanted to display simply wouldn't fit.
First, we took all the clowns out of the hutch and spread them out on the kitchen table. There is something about seeing the collection outside its home that makes you look at it differently and more objectively.
We talked about the collection and the memories and emotions it triggered. She picked two smaller clowns for the hutch and a Christmas ornament. Then I asked whether there were any others that she really loved. Her surprising answer was that she really didn't like any of them. In fact, she finds the collection a bit creepy. But her and her grandmother were close. She was very special to my client, and anything that preserved that memory was precious. Including the clowns. The thought of parting with any of them made her feel terribly guilty.
And that’s the key: guilt. That’s why so many of us can't part with inherited items that we don't really care for, don't use, and don't enjoy. It's the guilt. We feel like we're somehow insulting the memory of a loved one or throwing them to the curb instead of simply offloading a ceramic clown. Or you feel guilty simply because you don't really like the items, and each time you see them, you're reminded of this. So, what do you do? How do you get past the guilt, declutter, and still preserve the memory of someone you love?
Facing the Emotions
First of all, give yourself some grace. You will feel sadness and guilt. It's a natural reaction, and there is no right or wrong way to feel when confronting these memories. This will not be easy. Do you love and use these items? If yes, then keep them! If no, ask yourself whether your loved one would want you to be burdened by clutter that you do not enjoy. If, like the clown collection, they once brought joy to someone you love but they are not things you personally like, why not pass them on and increase the likelihood that they will bring joy to another? What better way to preserve the memory of a loved one then by giving someone else joy? It's ok to pass these items on to someone else. Give yourself permission to grieve and feel sad and feel guilt. Then give yourself permission to let go.
Preserving the Memory
How can you let go of the inherited items and still preserve the memories? The most important thing is to remind yourself that the memories you cherish of your loved one do not reside in the objects themselves. You will have these memories with you always, even if you send out the clowns.
1. Spend more time cherishing other items that more closely align with your current interests. In the case of my client, she had other things from her grandmother, including some cherished recipes, that she still uses and loves. Every time she cooks or bakes from one of these recipes, she remembers time spent with her grandmother.
2. Find a family member who would enjoy the collection. A UPS box filled with clowns recently arrived at the home of my client's cousin. She is delighted, and my client is comforted knowing that the collection has a home where it will be appreciated.
3. Keep a smaller portion. My client chose to keep three small clowns from a collection of over 60. This can help lesson the guilt while still keeping the memory alive. Try keeping a tea cup and saucer from a set of china or your favorite pillow cases from a linen collection.
4. Display the items you've kept. There are now two small clowns in the hutch with my client's vintage bakeware and another waiting to be hung on this year's Christmas tree, and she enjoys them more now than she did when she had the entire collection. Enjoy what you have. Look at it. Discuss it. Display a picture of your grandfather and his metals in a shadowbox that you can hang in the hall. Do the same with a picture of your father and his favorite fishing lures.
5. Create something new. If a particular collection or inherited item does't bring you joy, perhaps there's a way to create something new that will. Mom's linens can be pieced together to make a quilt, blanket, or pillows. China cups can be Christmas ornaments, and cups and saucers can be made into bird feeders.
6. Take a picture. Take pictures of the collection or special items and then let them go. You've still have the memory triggers without the clutter. You can also write notes of the item's significance to keep with the pictures to help preserve the memory.
The emotions triggered by sentimental and inherited items can be a formidable barrier to taking back your home. Sadness associated with the memories of a loved one who is no longer a part of your life and guilt stemming from the possibility of decluttering something that they once found precious can make the most determined of us feel overwhelmed. But with a little grace and thought and self-forgiveness, we can let go of inherited items and still preserve the memories of the people we hold dear.
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I'm Jen, a professional organizer ready to help you take charge of your space, free up your time, and lead a more organized life! (Read more about me here)