Ask Unclutterer: Feeling guilty about parting with sentimental items

Reader Laura submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

While helping my sister unclutter for her move, I came across some dolls in dresses she’d worn as a baby and a huge (unfortunately not her style) afghan a great aunt had crocheted. We both agreed that if it were just up to us, we probably wouldn’t keep these items … but instead of our own voices in our heads saying, “You can’t get rid of that!” it was our mother’s. How do you unclutter when it’s not really sentiment, but more guilt, that stands in the way?

Guilt is such a complicated emotion. We feel it when we’ve actually done something wrong we’d like to correct, and we use it as a monitor and guide to keep us from committing bad acts in the present and future. Unfortunately, it also plagues us at times that have nothing to do with right or wrong. Choosing to keep or get rid of some dolls, baby clothes, and an afghan isn’t a question of morality, yet guilt can prevent us from making a clear-conscience decision. In this situation, guilt is even plaguing you after you decided not to get rid of something. You’re feeling guilt no matter what you choose.

The first thing to do is take a break and acknowledge that this isn’t a situation where you should be feeling guilt at all. No one’s life is on the line when making decisions about processing clutter, you haven’t broken any laws, and you’re not being asked to do anything unseemly. Put things in perspective — you’re trying to decide how to unclutter for your sister’s move, not decide if you should rob a bank.

Once you can see the larger picture, you can let go of the guilt and make a more rational decision. Ask yourself:

  • Does this object have utility? Can it make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need? (Would you use the afghan if you kept it? Could your child wear the baby clothes?)
  • Do I already own something like it that has the same function or holds a similar sentimental meaning? (Do you have other objects from your childhood you treasure more? Do you have pictures or objects from your aunt already in your home?)
  • If you keep the objects, where will these objects live in your home that reflects your respect for them? (Hint: Storing them in a cardboard box in the attic or basement isn’t respectful.)
  • Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life I want to live? (Do I enjoy looking at and/or using these items? Do they reflect what I value most?)

Only you and your sister will be able to answer these questions, but hopefully you’ll be able to avoid feeling guilty about your decision. Often with sentimental objects, it’s emotionally easier to get rid of the items if we know the objects will be used and appreciated by their next owners. The dolls, baby clothes, and afghan (if they’re in good shape) would be great donations to make to a women’s shelter. Children in need could find comfort from the dolls, babies could use the clothes, and a woman and her family could benefit from the warmth of the blanket. If the items aren’t in good enough shape to be donated to charity, this might help you answer the four questions listed above.

I find great inspiration and joy in the sentimental items in my home, and I think this is because our house isn’t overwhelmed with them. We’ve chosen to keep only our favorite pieces that we really treasure. We found that we saw nothing and appreciated little when we kept every sentimental object in our lives — as the saying suggests, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. If you and your sister treasure these dolls and the afghan, keep them! If you’re keeping them only because of misplaced guilt, it’s probably time to let them go.

Thank you, Laura, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help! Check the comments for more suggestions on how to handle sentimental items from our readers.

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41 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Feeling guilty about parting with sentimental items”

  1. posted by s on

    Isn’t everything about “fear and guilt?”

  2. posted by weavermom on

    These are the type of things that I put down somewhere obvious and tell my husband that I would not miss them if they disappear. Not a sentimental bone in his body, so he doesn’t mind! I cannot actually do it because it feels so… wrong, but somehow it is ok if he does. Completely illogical, but it works! 🙂

  3. posted by Julia on

    Recently while “disassembling” my parents’ house in preparation for selling, I had a couple of rules – and we had a firm rule as a group.

    1) If you are the one who things “we can’t get rid of that,” you have adopted it. Can’t say “YOU have to keep this.”

    2) For me, if it didn’t immediately evoke strong (and positive) memories of the person who owned it – I didn’t want it.

    I did keep some very utilitarian things (mostly kitchen stuff of higher quality than my own), though not many. But when I look at the 1.5 bookshelves filled with these things, I know why I brought them home – and I’m glad I didn’t bring any more.

  4. posted by Darci on

    It might help you to part with sentimental items by helping someone else.

    You can always donate your gently-used blankets and sweet baby clothes to battered women’s shelters. Your items could bring comfort to others who sometimes have nothing but the clothes on their back.

  5. posted by Amy on

    I like the comment about onky keeping what you truly cherish. My favorite family things are few and used daily or on display.

    I read somewhere recently that the Boomers are the last generation that can be “guilted” into keeping the family heirlooms, that the young people of today could care less about old antique things from ancesters they never met. My daughter-in-law is like that. She only likes new stuff from IKEA.

  6. posted by Jonathan Blundell on

    “If you keep the objects, where will these objects live in your home that reflects your respect for them? (Hint: Storing them in a cardboard box in the attic or basement isn’t respectful.)”

    EXCELLENT ADVICE!

    This is a tough area for me. Getting rid of things that are sentimental. I just got rid of a few things that had some sentimental value and I’ve questioned it over and over again but finally it came down to, “It’s broken. I don’t use it and even if I fixed it, I don’t have anywhere in my house to use it.” So I passed the items along hoping someone else could find a better use for it.

  7. posted by Ragabond on

    To be shed of “sentimental” items I have been gifted I had to be willing to be the “bad” person. I’ve always heard actors say in interviews that it’s much more fun to play the bad guy. I don’t know that I’d agree with that personally but I do have much less stuff to tie me down and I like that.

  8. posted by Christine Simiriglia on

    For sticky sentimental situations where something should be a “trash” or “give” item when decluttering, but it was a gift to you from great aunt Maddie, you might want to do the following. Take a picture of yourself wearing or using the item and make sure that great aunt Maddie has an occasion to see the picture. Take the picture right now while the item is still being held in limbo. Now that the guilt factor is taken care of, put it in a bin and move on.

  9. posted by chacha1 on

    We’ve got a couple of guilt items in the linen closet right this moment. One is a big crocheted tablecloth that my grandma made. It is so NOT our style! But lovely work! Nobody else in the family wants it! What to do!! 🙂

    Actually I’ve just decided what to do with it. I’m going to use it as a bedspread. In our climate, the breathability of it will be a good thing.

    The other item is an embroidered tablecloth from DH’s grandma. It’s really homely – in a good way – but not at all in tune with our preferred tablescapes. This one is a stumper.

  10. posted by Pam on

    I love this:

    If you are the one who thinks “we can’t get rid of that,” you have adopted it.

    What a great rule for putting the responsibility right back on the person who wants to be rid of an item without actually getting rid of it (ie, by guilting someone else into keeping in the family)!

  11. posted by Pru on

    Ok, I get that if it’s not useful that it’s clutter, but how on EARTH do I get rid of the box of stuffed bears that I used to tell myself stories with when I was 6? They are in terrible shape, no shelter would want them. I don’t even much want them anymore. But as an only child who was usually pretty lonely, it’s like getting rid of a box of old friends just because they are unattractive. Sigh.

    I have really no problem getting rid of other things, just, these have FACES.

  12. posted by tabatha on

    just take some pictures of the stuffed bears, your probably more likely to look at the pictures than open up a box of musty stuffed animals anyway!

  13. posted by Creighton on

    @Pru – An animal shelter might want the bears. They sometimes accept stuffed animals along with old towels and blankets. They could give comfort and warmth to a cat or dog – who might destroy them, yes, but they would be loved again for awhile and could make the animals feel better. If the bears have small parts that could be swallowed that might not be an option, but it’s something to look into. Hope this helps!

  14. posted by Rebecca on

    We have this challenge with knitted afghans. We have about 6 made by various family members, most now deceased. I hate them (the afghans!) they aren’t very warm, don’t wash easily and are hard to fix when they tear. But my husband won’t let me give them away.

    On the flip side, My mom has tons of lace doilies made by family that I don’t want. I picked one I liked, and am having it framed as a piece of wall art to grace our laundry room. I can honor my great grandma’s ability and not have them cluttering up every table I own.

    Have also just decided to take my daughter’s baby blankets which I couldn’t bear to part with and make them into throw pillows for her new big girl bed!

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  16. posted by Elaine on

    I’m sure I’ve touched on this before, but it’s worth a repeat. Whether or not you decide to get rid of something, it could always be “gotten rid of” without your OK — I’m talking fire or flood. I once passed an apartment building that had had a fire. A huge pile of items from one of the apartments had been put out for the trash. Once upon a time, all of these things had been new in a store or just made — clothes, dinnerware, knick-knacks, sports equipment, etc. But now it was soggy, burned, ruined, lying on the grass. And the people who had once owned it and taken pride in it could do absolutely nothing to bring it back. It was GONE. And yet, life goes on. So if you’re debating whether or not to get rid of something like an old afghan, picture the afghan ruined by fire or flood, sitting out on the curb waiting for the sanitation truck. Then visualize yourself, getting on with your life, spending a typical day, and I’m sure that afghan won’t loom large in your vision. You may not see it there at all, which puts it into perspective. Bottom line, things just aren’t important, and as “permanent” as they seem, nothing lasts forever.

  17. posted by JC on

    http://www.apartmenttherapy.co.....ion-118333

    This was a cool solution. Might be good for the teddy bears.

  18. posted by Kerri on

    I have found that it is easier giving away items I don’t want but that have some sort of sentimental ties to them by giving them away to an individual instead of an anonymous organization. For example, after my grandmother died I ended up with a large box of mostly costume jewelry. After picking a few items I liked, there were still a good amount left. Yet I kept them packed in a box for two moves. Finally I posted them on freecycle and chose to give them to a grandmother who liked to make new jewelry out of old with her grandchildren. The items went to someone who really appreciated them, and I felt good about it.

  19. posted by Queen Lucia on

    My mom has done a very good job of passing on things that were not just hers, but also belonged to all of my grandparents, great grandparents, etc. And I have a MIL who does the same. Both of them are deeply sentimental and expect me to be also – in fact, my MIL often attaches a guilt-laden note to the item about how she knows we’ll cherish this precious thing for the rest of our lives….but I digress.

    My rule now is if I wouldn’t buy the object for myself and I have wonderful memories, photos or another object I do love to help me remember the person, then out it goes. First I ask if other family members want it – even the person who gave it to me, nicely, of course! Then I donate it. I’ve allowed myself one storage box with small things that I think my kids may want later – but if they don’t, fine. I’ve made clear to my daughters that if they feel guilty about something, let me know – if I think it’s important, then I’ll save it.

    Recently I got rid of a few things that belonged to my grandfather. Although I was sad when he died, he was a terrible man who made my father’s life hell – why would I want to remember that? I choose instead to honor my dad’s mother, whom he loved dearly as did I, by keeping her costume jewelry.

  20. posted by jbeany on

    My mantra as I did a decade overdue full-house sort this spring was “If it was destroyed, would I be upset?” Anything that got a NO answer was immediately rerouted to the appropriate pile for trashing, donating or selling. YES answers stayed, and MAYBE answers were set aside to be resorted at the end. Most of the MAYBE stuff went away in the end as well.

    My mother passed away 11 years ago, and I had boxes of things from emptying out her house. She collected dolls, among many other things. It may have taken me a decade, but I’m now only in possession of 3 dolls from her collection of over 1000. I still have two tiny porcelain ones she made for me, and one that was her doll when she was a child. These and my favorite childhood toys are now packed away with the Christmas things. They make an adorable display at Christmas under a tree or propped on a table and sprinkled with twinkle lights, but are tidily packed away the rest of the year. @Pru – you could do the same, or wire all the bears into a wreath for the wall.

    It occurred to me as I sorted – I don’t even LIKE dolls!

  21. posted by Meg on

    Keep the love–

    but get rid of the stuff.

  22. posted by Camille on

    ‘I read somewhere recently that the Boomers are the last generation that can be “guilted” into keeping the family heirlooms, that the young people of today could care less about old antique things from ancesters they never met. My daughter-in-law is like that. She only likes new stuff from IKEA.’

    @Amy: I don’t know where you read that, but what a generalization to make! I’m 29 and admittedly too sentimental, even when it comes to things that belonged to distant ancestors. My great-grandmother’s steamer trunk is sitting in my (recently deceased) grandfather’s crawlspace. It’s in terrible shape, but the thought of dragging it to the curb horrifies me—as does the notion of buying anything from Ikea!

  23. posted by Jay on

    After my grandmother died, my aunt asked family members what we wanted to keep. I selected an iron skillet that my grandmother used for 50 years. (Talk about non-stick!) My aunt held an auction and got rid of almost everything else.

    Several months later, my aunt mailed me a box of stuff that had belonged to Grandma. The box contained several afghans, books, papers, etc. The auction had somehow missed these items. I photographed everything and threw the entire box into the trash. I felt NO guilt. If these items were so great, why didn’t my aunt keep them for herself? Answer: she did not want the clutter. Why did she mail them to me? Answer: because she had her own issues with throwing them away and was unable to do so.

  24. posted by Ellen on

    One of my clutter free mottos is “I am not the keeper of other people’s memories”, in other words unless I am sentimentally attached to the item I am not keeping it just because someone else was.

    I have kept a few of my nana’s things that I love, but to be honest I think of her more often in life (especially when baking or if I hear someone use a saying she used) than when I look at ‘stuff’.

    Laura – let the dolls and Afghan run free:)

  25. posted by DJ on

    Ellen, I feel the same way.

    A relative once tried to offload a couple of boxes of “family memories” on me by telling me it was my turn to hold onto them, she was finished.

    No, no, and no. They ended up sitting unwanted in the garage of a different relative, who felt too guilty to say no.

  26. posted by Lee on

    We have learned to offer any family items back to the oldest member of the family to choose what to do with it. That way we don’t have the guilt or have to take the heat from getting rid of it.

    I gave one item to my DIL that belonged to my late aunt. I asked her to let me know if she doesn’t want it any more (she did ask for this item) and I will ask other cousins if they or their children would like it before she puts it in a garage sale or donates. That’s just family courtesy.

    Two words of caution:

    1) If you’re young, your tastes may change. Grandma’s pearls may not be your style now but you may enjoy them later. Or you may marry a woman who enjoys them. Just something to think about.

    2) Please don’t throw away family history information. Put it in a box where it won’t deteriorate and try to ignore it. Someone else may want the records or pictures (not all 72 vacations worth) later and will appreciate that fact that you have it. If possible, pick someone in the family who would like to be the family historian. I will be forever thankful that a now deceased distant cousin took that role, and that a cousin from the next generation was willing to step up when he died. My grandfather knew nothing about his family and felt very alone. I wish I could tell him about the extensive family he had but was never able to meet. This cousin was almost in tears when she told me how hard they had looked to find my greatgrandfather and his children but weren’t sucessful. And I was able to find another group using only 2 names in a letter and the return address (from the 1880’s). If some of this was put together an organized, there might be more interest from family members.

  27. posted by Carole on

    I have always saved letters, postcards, greeting cards, photographs, and souvenirs from trips and events. I have dishes from family, dolls and toys from my childhood. I do not consider these clutter. Since I retired ten years ago, I have enjoyed looking over these things, and I wish I had more, especially items from my parents and siblings who are now gone. My collection helps evoke the memories I need to write my memoirs. I’m glad I have this time to recollect the meaning of my life. I hope that my children will want to keep a few things, but that is up to them. It will be too bad if they declutter in haste and regret at leisure.

  28. posted by Becky on

    I certainly understand the dilemma when you hear your mother’s voice saying, “You’ve got to save that!” With the help of a friend, I’ve been able to get rid of boxes and boxes of stored items (and just plain junk), because I asked myself if I loved it, needed it, or wanted it. Most of the time the answer is no. Do I feel guilty for getting rid of some things? Sure, because I’ve been trained since childhood to keep everything. But I see the results of my mother’s hoarding in my house, and I don’t want to pass that along to my kids.
    @Elaine: I’ve added your thought to my mental questions. Would I replace it if the house burned down? The answer is no. I wouldn’t spend the time, effort, or money to track down replicas of anything I’ve gotten rid of! And my house is much more peaceful now that my eyes have spaces to rest on instead of the constant visual stimulation the clutter supplied.

  29. posted by pamela munro on

    My problem is that I LOVE old stuff of every sort! My mother was the “toss” kind & threw out an old maple rocker that just needed to be re-glued – ouch! And if I do toss something, I will ultimately MISS it. DARN.

  30. posted by Shawn on

    I like the idea of taking pictures of things that I “love”. Then I can get rid of the item, but still remember it. I see some things a lot more now than I did when they were in boxes in the garage.

  31. posted by Jen on

    My mother will one day be going to a small apartment and she has already been telling me that she wants me to take the piano. It is an upright in need of refinishing that I had to take piano lessons on(which I hated) as a child. I really don’t have room for it, and don’t want it and she knows that but the piano means so much to her, is such a good piano, etc. This piano has a TON of guilt tied to it. If I put my foot down and reject the piano, it really feels like like I am rejecting a big part of her, and it will be sore wound that likely won’t heal. What to do……

  32. posted by Jen on

    btw- there is no other family member who can take the piano. There is just my brother and sister who both live in small apartments. It really is a dilemna. This piano is major clutter to me because even though it is only one object, it takes up a lot of space!

  33. posted by Kelly on

    One alternative is to keep a tiny portion of a fabric item, as a bookmark, etc…. My daughter had a pair of pj’s she would not part with even though she had very much outgrown them- we took the striped pants and made a small bed pillow, and cut the design that she liked off the shirt and sewed it onto the pillow. Can be tossed later when she is over it!

  34. posted by Corrie on

    @Jen- I bet a church would love to have that piano. Do you have a church you have been going to for a long time? If so, you might suggest that as an alternative. That way, your mother could still enjoy it, as could many others.

  35. posted by jen on

    Corrie: that’s a great suggestion. We don’t havea church but I will make the suggestion to my Mom. Thanks!

  36. posted by michelle on

    I once heard of taking a picture of the item and then getting rid of the item because it’s much easier to store a picture. Unfortunatley I found I was storing a lot of pictures and never had time to go back through them. Here’s how I resolved that.

    First I too had a blanket that I just couldn’t part with so I took a really close picture of it and set it in black and white. It has become an interesting art piece in my home and a topic of discussion where I can talk about the blanket.

    Second I completely covered my desk at home with clear desk pads. (You could use glass but I have a two year old.) My most memorable pictures have been slid under them so that when I work I can see them. I have pictures of vacations and post cards of places I have been put under there as well. (We have also done this with my sons artwork on the coffee table.)

  37. posted by Melinda on

    I use the technique Jay mentioned for tossing, but still enjoying the memories of sentimental objects. I take digital pictures of the important objects from past vacations, times in my life, etc (or scan letters, cards, and old photos I would like to keep record of) and toss the actual items. I’ve even found that I’m more likely to look up the digital photo of an object if I’m in a nostalgic mood than to sift through two boxes of the physical item. Plus, a couple CDs to back up the info takes up far less space than those couple boxes.

  38. posted by Jay on

    JEN

    I am fairly confident that the upright piano can fit in your mother’s, sister’s, or brother’s small apartments. Heck, the piano could have fit in my 10 by 12 foot college dorm room! (I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it in there, but it could have fit.) These family members don’t want the piano in their homes cluttering up their living spaces or making them give up something else to make room for it.

    I would say no to the piano. No one can dump a piano in your home without your permission. As long as you say no, the piano will remain elsewhere. No one else seems to be troubled by saying no to the piano; be like them. If they keep trying to push it on you, explain that you never liked piano lessons and that it will bring back unpleasant memories.

    If they insist that they have no room for it, tell them that you are sorry they are unwilling to make room for it. Then, give them the address of a storage unit where they can store the piano.

  39. posted by JeanineE on

    I loved this post. As I’m working on learning more about the art of de-cluttering my own life this past year, I’ve enjoyed reading here and moving myself along in the process.

  40. posted by Belinda on

    This is a great article for me – THANK YOU! I am from a long line of “keepers” – so now with a large family of my own, I need to learn to “purge”. Thank you for all of the wonderful suggestions so far.
    @chacha1 – Have you thought about using the other tablecloth as a “throw” ? We use pretty tablecloths on the back of most of our antique wooden chairs to help soften the back. Just an idea.

  41. posted by Mike on

    We had a family member pass away way to young. She was an artist and had many wonderful sculptures that she made. We are the only family members in living in the area so we have been the ones left to hold onto her artwork and store it for her children until they are old enough to enjoy it or sell the art for her children’s college fund. We totally don’t have the space but now have about 300 sculptures stored in our basement. It is especially hard to part with items that a family member has made. And it is even harder when they have not been left to you but to minors who do are not old enough to take possession of them. Many family members feel the sculptures are priceless and will be worth money. Not sure if that will ever be the case…but how can you “unclutter” when this is someone else’s possessions…or possibly someone’s college fund?

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