Three concepts to keep in mind when processing sentimental objects

Sentimental clutter can be some of the hardest clutter to address in our homes. It’s difficult to let go of a drawing from your daughter or an inherited chair (even though you don’t have space for it) from a loving aunt who has sadly passed away.

When I process sentimental objects to decide if I should keep them or let them go, I often remind myself of these three concepts:

  • Objects are not people. Material possessions are made of plastic or wood or clay or cotton. Blood doesn’t pump through veins in furniture or jewelry or tools or linens. If you get rid of an object, you’re not getting rid of the person who gave it to you or the person you were when you acquired the item.
  • You should focus on living, not preserving. Only hold onto sentimental items that you can find a way to honor, that fill you with joy, and/or that are useful for you. There is no need to act like a curator and keep every object from your past in a box as proof of your existence.
  • There are not awards to collect or accolades to be earned for having the greatest amount of sentimental stuff. You cannot win at being the most sentimental. Your loved ones will not value you more for having an unmanageable amount of sentimental trinkets and doodads. And if you aren’t convinced it’s not a competition, remember a well-edited collection is much more impressive than an avalanche of stuff. Two iconic works of art will fetch more at an auction than a hundred pieces of uncared for mediocre memorabilia.

What standards do you use when processing sentimental items? Share your tips in the comments.

35 Comments for “Three concepts to keep in mind when processing sentimental objects”

  1. posted by Adria on

    I agree with you- but I have a mother, who lives ten minutes away, who does not. Her house is furnished with sentiment.

    Her dining room table was my great-grandmother’s. Her hutch was my other great-grandmother’s. China cabinet- grandma’s. Wing-back chairs. Art. Knick-knacks. EVERYTHING.

    And she wants to hand it all off to me (she and dad are retiring and want to down-size). She literally doesn’t want me to buy the two-family house (we’re currently renting half) because it doesn’t have a formal dining room and then where would grandma’s table go?

    To her, my rejecting these things is rejecting my family and my past. She wants me to cherish them as she does and pass them on to my daughter (or son, actually, she’s not fussy about that one). I don’t want this stuff. It’s not my style. It’s bulky. It’s (probably) at least somewhat valuable (I’m guessing by old and in good condition and two generations ago my family was wealthy) and I’d worry about it around my kids.

    So how do I reject the stuff without rejecting my mother?

  2. posted by Annette on

    Even sentimental items must pass the Love/Uselful/Need tests for me. I keep an old romance novel of my grandmothers. It’s worn and a bit tattered but I keep it because 1. she held it in her own hands and 2. I read the story while she was alive and we discussed it. The book is on a shelf where I can see it and read it periodically. It makes me remember her so fondly. Sentimental objects have to be in sight and touched every once in a while. They must be thought about so they don’t lose their relevance.

  3. posted by Jen on

    “You cannot win at being the most sentimental.” – Love that! Maybe this will help me as I try to find a good reason to get rid of some things my mom handed off to me. My parents cleaned out their basement (not my childhood home, they’ve since moved) and she gave me a bunch of old blankets, some of which my grandmother knitted, and old quilt that my mom made, and some other random stuff that I never really wanted. I’m not that in to throw blankets and they don’t get used, they just sit in boxes. But I’ve felt that I can’t justify giving them away. It occurs to me though, that my mom did just that. Without even asking if the recipient wanted them. Maybe it’s time.

  4. posted by Terry on

    When looking through my “memory” box if I can’t remember what the item is for/ from it’s gone. It sounds easy and obvious but every few months I get rid of a lot of “sentimental” junk this way.

  5. posted by HT on

    “There is no need to act like a curator and keep every object from your past in a box as proof of your existence.”

    Oh my gosh, I am so guilty of this. Growing up adopted, I saved every last movie stub and such to show my birth mother when I met her someday.
    I have since met her, and never showed her this stuff (I know she wouldn’t care). I have absolutely no reason to hang onto it now.

  6. posted by Celeste on

    My husband is the one with the curator problem, both from his own life and that of everyone who dies. It’s a REAL relationship problem as our house is overrun with it all, and it even cost money to have this “free” stuff shipped to us. I don’t love any of it. It’s only in the last year that he’s decided to give some of it away to his sister, and I just know it’s making her house be disturbingly crowded. I hate all this stuff. I’ve wanted to get rid of it and make room for something prettier, more functional, etc. but that’s been shot down every time. It’s making me work really hard to get my own stuff down to just the essentials. I see exactly how somebody gets swamped.

  7. posted by Lianne on

    I have a bit of a weakness in this area, though luckily since finishing school it’s a problem that’s no longer growing. I have an enormous amount of stuff from school. Every report card ever, books of poetry I wrote for English class, art projects, everything. Luckily, while in university I finally got rid of my notes from high school, and right after university I got rid of my university notes that weren’t on my computer. They stressed me out when I looked at them. So now I just have a School Days Treasures book that’s stuffed with more stuff than can comfortably fit in it. Maybe I should replace it by making a scrapbook and only keeping a fraction of what’s in the current book. It would certainly be easier to look through.

  8. posted by MissPrism on

    Fab subject! I’m clearing out books at the moment and coming across this a lot. My twopenn’orth:

    1. It’s not necessary to have many keepsakes per person. If someone is important in my life, lots of items will probably remind me of them, so there’s no need to keep any particular *one* of them unless I also love it.

    2. (related) If I dislike a keepsake / heirloom / gift, I feel irritated and guilty every time I see it. I don’t want to associate that feeling with anyone I love, and they wouldn’t want me to.

    3. You have the option to create your own keepsakes. If you loved Aunt X but loathe all her flower-patterned tablecloths and crockery, you can get rid of them, buy a flower vase you do like and think of her when you use it.

    I suppose all of these boil down to “you can be practical about sentiment”! The purpose of a keepsake is to make you happy and prompt happy memories. If it doesn’t do that, find something that does.

  9. posted by aviva shaw on

    I love the comment that objects are not people;blood does not flow through their imaginary veins. It’s so easy to get attached to objects that way. I recently decided to do the big clear out, to become a moderate minimalist. I’ve never really held on to much, but now those items that I have held onto from my childhood I’m letting go of, so as to make room for my own children’s memories (trophys etc.). I’m lucky that my sister has always been jealous of our childhood items that I inherited first, so I’ve just been passing them on to her so they at least stay in the family. It eases the guilt a bit!

  10. posted by Marilyn on

    I was 30 before I realized that stuffed animals don’t have feelings and won’t be sad when I throw them in the trashcan. It was so hard to throw them away and see those sad eyes looking back at me! I now realize that by watching Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer and the island of misfit toys or reading The Veleteen Rabbit when I was a kid every year, I was taught that toys had feelings and began to think that all of my items also had feelings when in fact they are NOT living things and it is ok to throw them away when they have outlived their usefulness. They will not feel bad in the dumpster. They are ok if they are tattered and torn and dirty and cannot be used again and now I am finally able to purge items and not feel guilty. It has been a very long process for me. I still struggle with the sentimental items.

  11. posted by MissPrism on

    Oh, I forgot a perfect example of no.3 on my list!

    My partner’s mother had some inherited jewellery that was unwearably old-fashioned but had a lot of sentimental value, so she took it to a jeweller and had it all melted down and refashioned. The best stones went into bangles for her and her daughter, and there was some gold left over which she had made into earrings – and gave one set to me, which was really lovely of her. All three of us wear the new jewellery regularly. It reminds her and her daughter of the grandmothers they loved, and it makes me happy too because it was such a kind, welcoming gift.

  12. posted by K on

    I’m an only child,and have inherited all of my parents’ things, and there’s a lot.
    I’ve dealt with this two ways:
    First, take good quality pictures of something before you let it go. I have some toys from my childhood I’ve done this with, even setting up a backdrop and making sure the pictures are really nice.
    Secondly, for items I don’t necessarily want to keep but cannot bear to put in a sale or toss altogether, I see if there is someone in my family, or a friend, who would appreciate it. Much of what I have is antiques and they really are lovely but I just have too many dishes, figurines, etc. I do know there are other family members who don’t have any tangible memories of our grandparents and so sharing these items not only reduces my load but blesses them as well.
    And yes, I am careful NOT to give things they really don’t want.

  13. posted by Mletta on

    Very good points Erin. Especially the reminder that we are not curators.

    Although blood does not flow through the objects of loved ones, there is, I and others believe, an “energy” attached to them. (Which I know that many would disagree with and accept their feelings on this as I accept my own.)

    When evaluating whether to keep something of sentimental value or not, there is the issue of “associations” and positive memory. Many friends still have the first book they remember their parents reading to them. I know someone who has kept the dining table of her grandmother because in her family, this was where they gathered and shared so much happiness and good times. She could care less that it does not go with the rest of her contemporary designed home. It is however, the ONLY object, of many she kept. Another has several pots and pans and kitchen accessories that she uses every day.

    Another friend wears, though it does not work, a watch from a beloved relative.

    In our family, I’ve kept a set of hand-crocheted christmas ornaments by our mother. They are on display during the year and on the tree at the holidays. And every day, I use a few dishes from a dear, older friend who passed. When we shared meals together, she used those dishes and now, every day, when I use them, I am reminded of her and our times together. (I did however give away a fur jacket she left me, and it was hard, because it was something she made while employed as one of the few female fur designers in the 1930s in NYC! But I don’t wear fur no matter how lovely or sentimental. I might have disassembled it and had it made into something else –pillows, covers, etc.–but I just don’t like animal fur for anything.)

    The more closely an item is associated with shared activities, happy memories, etc. the harder it is to toss. It’s a highly emotional issue for many of us. But we can be selective and keep just a few items, hopefully those that can be incorporated in our daily lives so that they become as functional in value as they are in sentimental value.

    Adria, I can appreciate your quandry. No one wants someone they love to feel rejected, but there is no logic here on your mother’s part.

    Perhaps there is some way to compromise on this and select one or two pieces to keep for your children. It is not unreasonable for a parent to want some things passed on beyond their own children. (The day will come when you probably will feel this way about some things.)

    In theory, no one should guilt someone into keeping things, however, in reality, when someone we love has a strong desire, we like to meet them halfway, if we possibly can.

    As pressured as you feel, remember that there are families where the adult children would have been thrilled to have anything of their parents and who deeply regretted keeping some things from those parents for their own children.

    And to be honest, and not to guilt you at all, because I respect your choices, it is in a way rejecting someone when you reject their stuff. However, taking something you hate will serve no purpose.

    I think there might be more going on here than the mere transference of objects. It seems a bit “charged” on both sides.

    FYI: I don’t believe in any kind of emotional blackmail (if you loved me, you would take X, Y, Z.) but I also try to get beneath what’s really going on.

    We were not close to our parents at all, for many reasons, but still my brother and I did keep some objects from our childhood home. (Family stuff is VERY complicated!)

    Good luck and speak from your heart with your mom. Focus on what you can take (there has to be something) and don’t assume a time won’t come when you may want something or your children may too.

  14. posted by Mletta on

    Oops. Error. Meant to say: Some folks have regretted NOT keeping items for their own children.

  15. posted by Jeffrey W on

    When I donated my grandpa’s old wooden rocker, I first took several pictures of it from different angles. I also had someone take a picture of me sitting in the rocker. Then I loaded the pictures onto my computer and backed them up on a CD.

    The rocker may be gone, but I can look at the pictures and reminisce.

  16. posted by RebeccaL on

    @Adria- that’s a really good question to post on the forum- I’m sure there are others in the unclutterer community who’ve dealt with your same issue.

  17. posted by Christina on

    Adria, I have had a similar problem and found the best way to deal with it was to let the person know that I just didn’t feel as attached to the items as they did and that they would be better off with someone else in the family who would appreciate them.

    If your mother still insists on you taking the items, let her know that while you will take them off her hands they will be yours to do with as you please even if it means selling them. Then give her the option to reconsider who she gives the items too.

  18. posted by Sky on

    It is nice for parents and other relatives to offer their heirlooms but not demand they be taken. I have things of my parents and grandparents that I really love but I also got rid of things I didn’t want.

    Life is short, why live with anything you don’t like?

  19. posted by Laura on

    I find much more character and durability in older items than the newer stuff. I searched for over 10 years (!) to find a china cabinet I liked … and finally found one in an out-of-the-way antique shop in NJ. I look at it every single day and smile … I am so glad someone didn’t want it and decided to sell it.

    My great-great grandmother was a seamstress in Paris, and for her 1881 wedding made a beautiful half slip that I, too, wore on my wedding day in 1988. It’s still in perfect condition and I’ll pass it along to my daughters.

    If you don’t like something, know that there are many of us out here who cherish older furniture and cookware and clothing and jewelry, and we’ll take it off your hands and take very good care of it!

  20. posted by Sarah on

    Recently found this:

    A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. ~Luke 12:15

    1) Apparently uncluttering is not a new problem.
    2) I find it helpful to repeat this to myself, when running into figures of authority in my life who want me to conform to Christian ideology, and yet take the difficulty of their own decisions from them (i.e., take their stuff).

  21. posted by Blue on

    Thank you for this post! While getting rid of things is not a problem for me, getting rid of sentimental things most definitely is! Bookmarking this for future reference!

  22. posted by genny on

    I had the discussion with daughter last weekend as we worked together to clear a room for the baby. She married two years ago and they both brought too much stuff to the living.
    She has held on to ticket stubs, travel brochures, old letters, little candles, all the girlish and sentimental things of a growing up. She is way past growing up now, and she moved all of that stuff into the house with hubby and a step son.
    She is upset at getting rid of it, but she should have gone through it all before she married and moved. Even when we moved it, it was obvious that much of it was this type of stuff.
    I felt sorry for her because, for her, it was like getting rid of her young and carefree days. One thing that she has not done yet for herself is to carve out space for herself in the small townhouse. I think that she needs to do this. She sacrifices too much of herself and her space.
    But, we had this discussion. Her husband is much more close minded about letting go. If his grand daddy touched it, it stays! No matter what!
    I always try to return from their house with a truck full of stuff to be gotten rid of. If she would just let me at it, it would be done. But, it is not my decision. I have to give them their space, even if it is cluttered to the point of frustration, for all three of them! So, I tell her not to accept things from me, either, unless she really wants them. Now, if she could just stop her inlaws from arriving with a car load of junk each time!

  23. posted by kath on

    I have a few rules of thumb regarding family heirlooms. First, I decide if I want it or it it’s something I would like to keep for my children. Second, if it doesn’t fall into either of those categories, then I ask my siblings, cousins and other family members if they would like the object. Many of them actually would like to have the blanket that grandma knit or great-aunt Mary’s crystal punch bowl, so please always consider extended family when getting rid of stuff. Finally, if no one wants the item then I can get rid of it with a clear conscience.

  24. posted by Valerie on

    Great post! My parents both died recently and I am an only child..the items that mean the most to me that I have kept, are my mother’s hand-written recipes and a few orns.! I also have my grandma’s hand-written recipes. Both were excellent cooks and my love of baking came from both of them.

    I have paired down their enourmous ornament collection to 6, as I am now able to look at and honour those few pieces and am NOT overwhelmed at the hundreds they once had.. The guilt is now gone from not keeping them all.

  25. posted by Sue on

    I SO needed to see this today. My 21 y/o son moved out on his own a week ago and I am going through lots of boxes of his old stuff and stuff that I saved over the years. I had to be ruthless, I’m really exercising my anti packrat muscles lately! I came across a half-filled box full of old Mother’s Day crafts from my sons. I know that they didn’t put a whole lot of love and thought into these projects – it was just something they had to do in school. My sons had no idea that I had saved them so I knew they wouldn’t care if I let them go. I don’t “need” them, I still have my sons around in real life to tell me and show me they love me every day. So, I took a deep breath and put the contents of the box in the trash, telling myself that it didn’t make me a “bad mom”. To paraphrase part of your post, “I don’t need to keep every Mother’s Day card from my children in a box to prove their love”. Ahhh, I feel so much better!

  26. posted by Rebecca on

    What happens if you really do work in a museum? No really!

    Throwing things out goes against the grain for me – especially sentimental stuff. I find it is small things that mean the most though. Not furniture etc but birthday cards from my Granny who passed away a few years ago, newspaper cuttings etc. In true museum style I got myself some acid free paper and clear photo corners and got scrap booking!

  27. posted by chacha1 on

    I am fortunate in this respect – a small, geographically scattered family, in which most of the elders were not sentimental about their own stuff and so they did not “pass on” sentimental attachments to us. AND – worth noting – the elders themselves did not live with the same inherited stuff for a lifetime. They bought their own stuff and changed it out as they pleased.

    My sister and I both got to choose some books, some art, some jewelry etc when our paternal grandmother died – and before, because she had to move to assisted living first. She had asked us several times, over the years, what we might want, and had labeled things accordingly! Very organized.

    Actually cleaning out the home later on was tougher because there was that “but someone else in the family might want it” input from others. Well, someone else in the family wasn’t there helping, their name wasn’t on it, it wasn’t specified in the will. So it’s gone.

  28. posted by Alisa on

    I read somewhere that it’s a good idea to get rid of stuff (sentimental or otherwise) that brings up bad thoughts and/or feelings and I’ve tried to live by that.

  29. posted by Monica {bohemian twilight} on

    “Only hold onto sentimental items that you can find a way to honor”

    excellent way of putting it and exactly how i view such items.

  30. posted by Adria on

    Thanks for the suggestions! I do like some of the things mom wants me to take- just not everything. A big part of it is that I don’t have (and don’t want) a formal house. With a family of four, we live in (and hope to buy) an apartment that is one floor, two bedrooms, one family room, one bathroom, and a kitchen. It’s not really a formal dining room, china cabinet kind of place. I do however, have grandma’s curtains (that I love) hanging, and great-grandma’s candlesticks. I’ll talk to my mom about the big stuff.

  31. posted by Chris on

    I would also add that getting rid of something someone gave you or was handed down to you does not slight the person who gave it to you.

  32. posted by purushottam on

    What you say is absolutely right. In fact, I have been doing it for so many years, without much time to devote to that or even blocking the area in a metro, where space is a big crunch.

    When I am cleaning / rearranging stuffs I feel , I have had no time to go through them.

    But, still I feel certain things needs to be preserved and kept in a well arranged manner. Like my earlier articles and write-up which were published in variouus newspapers and magazines.

    Please suggest better ways to arrange and file these useful articles.

  33. posted by jade on

    I am packing for a big move and somehow swamped in all my clutter!!!

  34. posted by Delia on

    In the complicated world we live in, it’s good to find simple sotluinos.

  35. posted by Nadira on

    I have a new idea that I’m now starting for books. (This is on here because some of them are sentimental)

    We (my son and I) still have boxes of books that we haven’t unpacked from when we moved here 15 months ago. I think that we’ve also purchased as many bookshelves as we can comfortably accommodate.

    Whenever I unpack a box of books of one subject (I’m a retired music historian), I go through all of them to see which ones I think I may consult again, or intend to read. Then there are those that I have sentimental attachments to. The rest of them are going back into the box.

    Then I will go through all the books of the same subject, and use the same criteria. The box will then go back in the garage.

    A few (I’m thinking two) times a year I will take those books to the appropriate library/ used bookseller. They will make at least a small amount of money selling them to someone who might want them.

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