Ask Unclutterer: Parting with a cherished item that has been broken

Reader Lirpa submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have something that I love that recently broke by accident. It has sentimental value (passed to me from an aunt), it is aesthetically my style, it was useful, and it made me smile whenever I saw it. It is still all those things, except that it can no longer be safely used (nor repurposed). It’s also not reparable, and I don’t know where I could get another one to replace it.

How do I get rid of it? Any other object like this would go in the trash, but I love it so much. There’s really nothing that can be done with it even if I did save itโ€”it would be clutter. How do I walk myself through this process of getting rid of it? Seems silly to be grieving such a simple object, but I am.

When accidents happen to objects we used faithfully and loved, it can be difficult to let them go. It’s certainly not easy for me. The objects feel like trusted friends who were there for you when you needed them.

I think the first thing you need to do is thank the object for its service. You could literally say something aloud to it, or you could just spend a minute or two thinking about all the good times you shared. It seems a little silly, but it helps to have the formal goodbye.

Once you’ve acknowledged its service, you can decide how to proceed. Obviously, you can just dispose of the object and be done with it. However, you might need a little more than this to help ease the pain.

You can make a visual tribute to it. Get a shadow box and decorate it with pictures of you and your aunt using the item and maybe a piece of the actual item that broke. Hang the tribute on the wall as long as you need to until your time of grieving has past.

If you’re a journal keeper, you could also glue a picture of it in your journal and then write down the things you thought about it in your formal goodbye.

Since you don’t say exactly what the item is, it’s hard for me to know if you sincerely can’t repurpose it. My guess is that you could break off a chunk of it, drill a hole into it, and make a small piece of it into a bauble on your key ring. If it’s soft, you might be able to sew a piece of it onto a quilt or something else that you use in your home.

I’m sorry you have lost a favorite item. Be sure to check out the comments where our readers may have even more ideas for you.

Thank you, Lirpa, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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34 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Parting with a cherished item that has been broken”

  1. posted by Nancy on

    I recently said goodbye to a neon sign from our defunct family business. It hurt because I cared enough about it to not risk moving it to another state, but my sister had left it in our vacant house for months. A realtor or potential buyer broke it, but didn’t admit it.

    I will be more diligent about taking photos of the items I care about while they’re still in good shape.

  2. posted by Liz on

    If you still have a connection with this item, do not throw it out until you are ready to. One part of you is saying this is “clutter” and there is another part that says it is not. Wait. There is a grief process that you do need to go through.

    There has to be other things in your place that you can declutter. I think there is nothing wrong in saying that you still want to keep it and maybe next year, I’ll get rid of it.

    For some ideas – “repurpose” it into an art object. The shadow box does reduce the dusting aspect, but there is nothing wrong with putting something on a book shelf as a decorative piece.

    Can it be used to hold other things, such as a plant, real or not?

    If it is china or something like that, can you turn the pieces in a mosiac something that you would use. There are some artists that can make pieces of china into jewelry.

    Can it be repurposed into a holiday ornament to enjoy every year?

    If the object is old but still intact, is it something that you can donate to a local history museum? They might be interested in the object and will not care if it functions. My small local musuem has a display of a 1940s kitchen and it is fun to look at the old stuff. Please note that musuems do have procedures for accepting items – it has to relate to their mission, be something that they can use as well as store properly. But, it is still an idea.

    It would help if you can relay what the object is, so we can be creative in figuring how you can repurpose it.

  3. posted by Liz on

    A follow-up on the local history museum – when I was cleaning my aunt’s place I found some items that related to places, events etc that none of the next generation had any interest in retaining. However, when I called the local historical society, they were happy to get pictures,yearbooks, advertisements, newspapers and a variety of objects that were related to the growth of the city. I’ve did the same thing with papers I found in my parent’s house.

    It was better than just tossing the stuff into the trash. Just call and ask about what they want and need.

  4. posted by Jessiejack on

    What a great idea to use a small piece as a christmas ornament!

  5. posted by Celeste on

    If it’s china, I know of at least one place that makes jewelry out of broken pieces, provided it’s not shattered into dust.

    But as others have noted about the grieving process, in this case I wouldn’t call it clutter but I might put it into its own box while I think about what to do next. I think it would be better to throw it out only when you feel that it’s the right thing to do.

  6. posted by Lizzie on

    First, I’d say that if it still makes you smile when you see it that it might be worth keeping, even if it isn’t functional. (After all, things don’t have to be BOTH beautiful and useful.)

    But if you don’t want to, and if it really can’t be repurposed, maybe you could give it to a very good friend to do with it as he/she wants. My best friend’s daughter has a very hard time getting rid of clothes she’s outgrown but she’s happy to give them to my daughter. So my friend asked me to ALWAYS take the clothes–even if they go straight to the Salvation Army. Sometimes you just need a middleman to let go of things you love but don’t suit your current situation.

  7. posted by gypsy packer on

    Check such sites as eBay for a replacement. No, it’s not the same as the original item, but you might want one anyway. Duplicates are useful–a family member’s deceased relative did some great cooking with a vintage mixer she inherited. We found a second at a flea market, and made a deal that if hers broke, she could have mine for parts. Behold, two hundred miles away at a second flea market, I spotted a second, and now three of us have the item covered. Remember that a picture posted on an antique mall bulletin board may get you parts or a replacement.
    South of the Mason-Dixon, we have homemade objects known as “redneck wind chimes”. These are constructed with barn board or driftwood, and we hang anything we please from the wood. You may want to construct your own objet d’art from the pieces, or have an imaginative friend do it.

  8. posted by Ericka on

    I had to do this recently with an item that had been broken for quite some time. I enlisted the help of a friend and told her that my only requirement was that it not end up on a junk heap. She took the item away and I don’t have to deal with it or worry anymore AND I know that it got a respectful burial. It CAN be done. Having really great friends around to help you through the emotion of it all is invaluable.

  9. posted by bookmom on

    I agree with giving yourself time, because what is cherished is not immediately clutter. Love many of the ideas here, like the ornament idea. I have actually had conversations with things before getting rid of them. If you can’t handle displaying it in its broken condition, tuck it away and make a note on the calendar to check in on it six months from now. Keep repeating that until you can let it go, or find another way to use it. We went through this when our dog died – most stuff went out immediately, but it took more than 6 months before we could let go of her box of toys. (and I kept one of my favorites)

    My daughter had a cup/saucer from a grandmother and in moving things, the cup broke. She was devastated. Until we found another one on ebay.

  10. posted by Sky on

    I have a tiny teaset my Dad brought my Mom from japan in 1953. I dropped the teapot and it broke. I couldn’t bear to throw it away so I glued it back together. It isn’t perfect but at least I still have it.

    Most things that break get tossed but there are a few things I just can’t part with.

  11. posted by EL Fay on

    As someone who works in an archives department, I second the museum donation suggestion. This is a great option for anyone decluttering. Not only are you relieving yourself of extra possessions, but you’re giving them a new life and insuring their continued survival and usefulness. I donated a ton of old stuff about my high school athletic career to a local historical society who were thrilled to have them.

  12. posted by Jodi on

    I think it depends on what it is. May I share a story?

    My friend is a clutter-bug. The first time I went to her house was to help her unclutter. Her husband almost refused because their home was sooo bad. I assured them for weeks there would be no judgement before they got desparate and agreed.

    This process went on for years (we lived in different states). She has 3 severely handicap children that she is raising, as well as works 2 jobs. Every time I would visit (with one exception) was to help unclutter. Every time we made progress she was able to sustain, but it had gotten so out of hand for so long this process went on for over 6 years.

    The last trip I made was actually unexpected. Her husband was deployed and there was an emergency inspection that got scheduled while he was gone. Panicked (the risks were high if they failed this inspection), she called me for help.

    My husband (then my best friend) and I flew out to help, and because of the high-stakes involved (and our history), I was given free-regin to get rid of anything I felt needed to go.

    We still had power struggles over a few things (things still in the “box to go through” from my last visit years before, etc). I prevailed on every item. When the stakes are as high as they were, priorities tend to shift.

    The house looked amazing (and for the record, it still does today-four years later)! It was time to move to the back yard.

    We found everything from overgrown weeds to beer bottles from the PREVIOUS owners in bushes. By that point, my friend was agreeing with every recomendation I made to unclutter. She hadn’t challenged anything for two days (this was a 24/7 sleep there project).

    I found this old, beat up plastic pink toddler bike in the back yard. It was missing 3 wheels, had huge holes in the sides, broken handle bars. I asked someone to throw it in the trash pile, when my friend (in the familiar panic) stopped me, insisting with a vengence that she was keeping this broken plastic thing.

    I took a deep breath, and started explaining all the new toys she could get her kids once this was gone, how they couldn’t even play with it because it was in such bad shape.

    My friend interrupted me, and with three words had me walking around warning everyone that plastic bike was off-limits and to be protected and kept no matter what.

    “It was Amy’s.”

    It was the last toy; the only tangible reminder of the daughter they lost unexpectedly to a brain tumor over a decade earlier. I was intimately familiar with her home and belongings. I knew she wasn’t hoarding too much. I knew we had achieved a level of success in organization that we could be objective.

    Its broken. Its not usable. Its not excessive.

    Its Amy’s. Its ~one~ broken, “worthless”, sentimental item in a home otherwise organized. And its good.

  13. posted by Nell on

    A teacher gave me a cat-shaped vase and planter when my mother died when I was 12 years old. I was super attached to it, even after there was no longer a plant inside. It always reminded me of the thoughtfulness and caring that I desperately needed at the time. One day my boyfriend knocked it over and it broke into small pieces. I cried hysterically as if my mother died all over again. After I explained to him how sentimental it was to me, he managed to glue it back together. Although it was glued together perfectly, it looked terrible. It looked like a puzzle that was put together wrong, but it now again served its purpose. Every time I cleaned up, one part of me wanted to throw it away and another part of me could not get rid of it. This went on for years. Finally when I got ready to relocate to another state, it was one of the last things that I made a decision on what to do with it. I looked at it, spent a little time with it, and finally said, “It’s time.” I threw it away. Now it is a beautiful memory of how it got me through a tough time.

  14. posted by Caroline on

    I saw in the paper yesterday that during the 104 mph winds we had this week, a lady had her 50 foot Blue Spruce pine tree blow over in her front yard. She had planted that tree in the early 1970s. I was impressed with her quote in the paper – – that it didn’t hit her house, nor the neighbors house nor the mailbox – it landed perfectly.

    You cannot tell me her heart was not breaking for the death of a cherished friend. It will be cut up and taken away for firewood. She will most likely keep a piece of it, and probably has pictures.

    All of that will not stop the grieving process. But she will live on, with that cherished tree in a special place in her heart.

    Like Erika, I have also given some broken china to a friend when I was cleaning out my Mother’s house. Bless her – I just could not handle throwing it away, and it went away with one of my most cherished friends. That is now a warm memory for me.

  15. posted by Sue on

    Nell, your story made me think that the vase–broken and glued together, but imperfect–symbolized your broken heart from your loss and grief. I am sorry for your loss of your mom.

  16. posted by Michelle on

    I read somewhere not to long ago that when you throw out/sell/donate an item that is no longer of use to you it is ok to remember the person. However, rememeber you are NOT throwing out/selling/donating your aunt. Sometimes it is hard to seperate the item from the person. You are still going to have all those wonderful memeories of your aunt and the item that she gave you, there is no way that those memories will ever be thrown away. Knowing that has helped me let go of things that I know longer had space or use for.

  17. posted by Lisa on

    In the past, when I have been in your situation, I have put the item in a pretty box, tied a ribbon around it and literally had a burial for it in my back yard. It is a fitting tribute and closing to something that has been a part of your life and given you pleasure and memories.

  18. posted by Debbie M on

    When I got rid of my first car, I held a funeral for it. (Actually a wake/slumber party.) A friend made a cake in the shape of a coffin. I looked for pictures with my car in it and had them on display. I wrote and read a poem about my car and the places it had taken me.

    I didn’t even much like that car, but it was fun party. So, if your item was something that touched many people, it would be even more fun than my party as you gathered to tell stories about the things it was used for. If not, you could still write your own obituary for it and save that.

  19. posted by mili on

    Jodi – ‘it’s Amy’s’, indeed. That really made me well up. Thanks for sharing it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lirpa – I agree with Liz and others who said to go with a wait-and-see approach. I have personal experience with getting rid of objects that (also) had sentimental meaning before I was ready, and it was by far the dumbest uncluttering-related move I’ve ever made (if you want more detail about what I mean, check out this thread: http://tiny.cc/vvnfn – I don’t want to clog up the comment thread repeating something that’s already elsewhere and that might not be directly useful :-))

    The thing I’ve kept from my experience is that the quest for uncluttering perfection is in itself a kind of mental clutter; it might be more useful to think of uncluttering as a tendency rather than a state or level of attainment. In your case it sounds like you definitely engage with the tendency – in fact, it sounds like you are already pretty much where you want to be clutter-wise, so I don’t think it’s worth the energy to make yourself declutter when and where you are not ready – you can be confident that you WILL do it when it’s time.

    And even if it’s never time for this particular item, so what? items kept for sentimental reasons often seem completely useless to anyone but the person for whom they hold meaning. You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. posted by Terry on

    If an item has broken into small, interesting-shaped or colored pieces, how about making (or having someone else make) a pendant for a necklace or pair of earrings from one or more of them? China, crystal and other materials can be matched with pretty silk cords or traditional gold/silver chains, adding interesting backings, wires, beads, etc. to create a showcase for the piece(s). I especially like the idea of a pendant because I can wear something that was dear to me close to my heart. Another plus is the likelihood that people who see your interesting new piece of jewelry will ask you about it and you’ve got a wonderful story to tell. Chances are, you’ll also inspire them to use or pass along the idea themselves for the next time one of their own cherished items needs a reincarnation. Best wishes for finding the right solution for your object.

  21. posted by German- lavado de alfombras on

    I think you should throw it away, things have to let go, if you have a sentimental value, the memory is good

  22. posted by bandicoot on

    i have had a few friends lose literally everything to floods and fires over the last few years and it has given me a lot of food for thought.
    all stuff is temporary and there is no security in it.
    enjoy it while you have it, but don’t get too attached to it.
    this object has seen good use by you and your aunt…..let it go.
    and keep an eye on ebay…..they really do sell everything imaginable there!
    once i realised that i could have pretty much any thing or any book that i wanted just by looking online….the urge to acquire things slowed down incredibly.

  23. posted by April on

    “Lirpa” here. I’m pretty sure I submitted this question with my name, but somehow a part of my e-mail address got used instead. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I kept my question vague because I thought if it got answered on the site, maybe it would be helpful to more people struggling with this same thing if a specific object wasn’t named. But now that it’s been answered by many people, I’ll name it.

    It’s a glass jar with a cork stopper. It’s shaped like a rectangle that was twisted in the middle. It was made in Italy. I kept tea leaves in it.

    It accidentally fell over and a corner shattered into slivers of glass. The hole is placed so that now the jar can’t hold water or anything. It’s also quite sharp, so it’s not safe.

    It made me so happy, but now when I see it, it makes me sad. It can’t be reused safely, and the slivers were too small and sharp to be turned into ornaments or earrings (I threw those pieces away already anyway).

    And I’m kicking myself because I saw another jar very much like it at a thrift store last year. I considered getting it, but decided I didn’t need two. Now I wish I had gotten it so I had a back up (it’s not at the thrift store any more, of course). I have never seen a duplicate elsewhere.

    I don’t think of it as my aunt or anything. She just has various jars of all kinds holding grains and whatnot in her kitchen, and I admired her collection since I was a kid. About half a year ago she culled some of her collection and let me take my favorite piece. I had only used it for a few months when it broke. I’m so mad at myself for trying to grab it when my hands were still damp from washing dishes.

    I submitted this question a while ago but the item is still sitting on my kitchen counter. It’s in the way, it makes me sad to see it, but I still am having trouble getting rid of it. I just wish so much it hadn’t broken! ๐Ÿ™

  24. posted by Jeni on

    If I were your aunt I would let you pick another jar – I bet if she knew how you feel she’d love you to have another. I would be thrilled that what I gave you meant to much to you.

  25. posted by Liz on

    Ahh… Question for April – is part of the issue the fact that your aunt is still alive and may ask about the jar? Trust me, I can relate with my mom giving me things and expecting to see them. If I wanted to get rid of something, I was supposed to ask her first, to see if she wanted it back. My sister would not accept the item or get rid of it and deal with the consequences. I learned to give her items that we both liked, so I am keeping them!

    Depending on your aunt and your relationship with her, can you explain it was an accident and you would love to have another one of her jars to keep your leaves?

    Chances are – she broke many of her own things as we all do. Since she was culling her collection, she may be ready to give another one to you.

    Since it is glass, find someone who works with glass, preferably one with a kiln. They may be able to grind the edge so it is safe to handle. With a kiln, they may be able to heat it over a particular form that you like so it becomes a plate, a spoon holder or whatever. If you wait for an artist fair, look for the glass workers and show them a picture of the item. They may have wonderful ideas on how to make this object artistic and useful.

  26. posted by Katrina on

    If it were my glass jar, I’d arrange it so the hole was hidden and take a photo of it. Then I’d keep the cork and dispose of the jar.

    The cork could be used for lots of things – eg a new jar, a pin holder, etc. Or a cork for a jar … if you find a new one you like.

  27. posted by Linda on

    Isn’t loving something part of a reason to keep something? I have a hand-made teapot that I bought about 30 yrs ago, and once upon a time when it was wrapped in a towel to keep the tea hot… my cat snagged the towel and pulled it off the counter. I glued it back together. It is not useable, but I want to keep it. I have a friend who is a potter and she may be able to reproduce it, but the original has special memories. I am happy just as it is, I’m not stressing because it is no longer “useable.” Don’t give it up before you’re ready, if ever.

  28. posted by April on

    She has no other jar like it. I can find another container for my tea leaves, so that’s not the issue. I just really liked the way this particular jar looked, and it made me feel grown up to use it (a silly notion since I’m nearly 30) because it was one I’ve seen her use all my life and admired her tastes.

    I think my biggest hurdles are I’m afraid to admit to her I broke it so quickly after receiving it (though I know she won’t be mad, I can’t help but feel guilty), and I’m so upset at myself for breaking it. It’s silly, but it’s like I subconsciously believe that if I wait long enough it’ll unbreak itself or something. I know it’s not true, but still….

  29. posted by Celeste on

    I second the attempt at glass repair. I think you might even enjoy the piece more because it was reclaimed, and you’ve put your own history to it.

    Glass items break, especially in kitchens. I don’t think you should beat yourself up over it. Acquaint yourself with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi; it might be very comforting.

  30. posted by Kate on

    If an item is small , weatherproof like glass or ceramic, and has tremendous sentimental value,I suggest burying it. Take a photo first, so that you can always see the item, and then bury it someplace that you know you can always find.
    For instance, ahem, consider burying it under the flowers you plant at the person’s tombstone. You will always know right where to find it even if you move away from your current home, and it is highly unlikely that anyone else will be digging up your relative’s tombstone. Planting flowers there also explains why you went to a cemetery with a shovel. {{{smile}}}

  31. posted by chacha1 on

    This is such an intensely personal issue that I can only tell you what *I* would do. If I had an item given me by a loved friend or family member, and I used and cherished the item, and then it was broken, my reaction would probably be “oh damn, oh well.”

    So I can’t really relate to the level of distress that’s being described here. I can’t imagine being upset all over again every time I look at something (because I’m an unsentimental person who just “gets over it”). But I know someone who IS hyper-reactive like that so I recognize it.

    If I were in that state, it would be very out of character – so I would look for a counselor to help me figure out what was really going on. If this is a state that is recurrent with different types of issues, then it’s just part of who you are, and that’s okay.

  32. posted by Tim on

    I take a picture, then thoroughly destroy the item in a ceremonial process.

    I don’t like to hang on to something that no longer has a purpose, but I can’t stand the thought of it sitting forever in a landfill. If I have to get rid of it, then the whole world needs to be rid of it, too.

    To that end, I will burn old notes and cards, cut up or disassemble old projects. I might even take a video of the destruction process.

    For a jar, I would smash it into as many pieces as I could, so as to make it unrecognizable as the object it used to be. Then, to me, the jar no longer exists physically — the atoms have lost their identity as a jar and are now just pieces of glass.

    This probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

  33. posted by Jackie on

    I second the eBay idea… Any chance it looked like this… :

    http://www.ebay.com:80/itm/FOO.....0343455365

  34. posted by German fiestas infantiles on

    I think things are valued and even if they have sentimental value and it cost us having to lose, but it is the law of life for all, if it can not recover is to let it go and there is no more, sorry that is sincere but if something no longer useful it is best to throw it away, because if we keep the same disorder as you say.

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