Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

11 Comments for “Sorting through sentimental keepsakes”

  1. posted by Gail on

    I agree with you 100%
    Gentleness, grace, and knowing when to be quiet are what I try to give my loved ones.

  2. posted by Richard on

    My mom had many albums of old photographs. I scanned all of them and threw the originals out.

  3. posted by Julie Bestry on

    Asking what someone meant to you is a great approach, Dave. With my organizing clients, there’s initially a sense of overwhelm and obligation, as if they were supposed to feel sentimentally attached to everything that belonged to their loved ones, and thus they assume what they feel (overwhelm) is actually sentiment.

    I usually point out something of theirs — a coffee cup, a sweater, whatever — and ask if they would want *their kids* to feel obligated to keep those items 50+ years from now, just because they owned/once held that item. The realization that perpetuating that sense of obligation to *stuff* ends with them is the key to moving forward and actually focusing on value and connection rather than mere possession.

  4. posted by Elaine on

    I have had to do this several times as loved ones have passed. Thank you for the kind way you handle this. Also, thank you to your grandfather! I have admired the design of Oneida pieces for their function and beauty for many years and before the internet, drove miles to get them.

  5. posted by Jane on

    This is hard and it takes time. Don’t nudge him too much. Let him keep all he wants for at least a year if that is what he wants and you can bare it. It’s so hard to know at first. I let a couple of things of my mother’s go that I wished later I had not. But later it was much easier to let go of some other stuff. Just be patient and gentle.

  6. posted by teri on

    How do you get the mother in law to start sorting (downsizing)her things before this happens?

  7. posted by Diane on

    The job is made harder when your key keepsakes are paper and archives, not visible art. So as family archivist, having old letters and photographs – takes time to scan, convert, organize – AND TO BACK UP AND KEEP UP WITH CHANGING TECHNOLOGIES FOR PRESERVING. Also, often nothing like the original tangibles, historically.

  8. posted by Carolyn on

    This has gotten easier to do the more times I have to do it. The one item I struggle with is a pair of bronze baby shoes that were mounted into bookends. Those and 1 picture are all that remain of the life of my mom’s baby brother, who died back in the Depression as an infant. Mom always stressed over how my grandmother scrimped and saved during such a hard time to have those shoes bronzed as a keepsake. I don’t particularly want them but can’t throw them out either. (No, no one else in the family wants them.)

  9. posted by kathny on

    I have been through this a couple of times now and there are some things I recommend. First, choose the items that you really like, want and will cherish. Next – and this is very important – invite the extended family over and ask them if there is anything they would like. We were surprised to find certain things that grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews always admired and were thrilled to take that none of us really ever thought about. Once the entire family has been consulted and all wanted items were claimed, everything else was sold or donated and there were no hard feelings or guilt. My final piece of advice is to start de-cluttering your homes NOW! After we moved my mother-in-law into senior housing and had to find homes for many of her possessions that wouldn’t fit in her new place (my MIL is an organized person so we were stunned at the amount of stuff she had. It was just very organized so we didn’t notice how much there was!), all of my husbands siblings decided that we need to start getting rid of our own stuff now, before it became the responsibility of our children. As I’m cleaning out my own home, my main questions are: 1. Do I still love this? 2. If I had to move, would I want to take this with me? 3. (for craft supplies, tools, materials, etc.) Over the course of the next 35-40 years or so that I might still walk the earth, will I want to make the time for or have an interest in using these items? If the answer is no, out it goes!

  10. posted by DDG on

    I am in the process of clearing out my mother’s condo after her death. I found that leaving an item out on a table where it is visible, sometimes for a few days, can help me decide whether it is something I want to keep or not. It is a long slow process but I end up discarding a lot more than I keep.

  11. posted by Jason Adler on

    Understandably, these can be very tough situations. Trying to determine what is a keepsake versus what should be thrown out can truly be a lengthy and exhausting process. It is important to take your time with these matters. After all, what you toss out can never be returned to you. You and other family members need to be sure that you are in a general consensus about what needs to go and what needs to be kept. This can prevent a lot of headaches and family turmoil further on down the road.

    Once you have decided what should be tossed out, your best bet is to rent a dumpster from a well-reputed company. This way, you don’t need to worry about tossing everything out and hoping that the garbage truck will pick it up for you. It is also a lot more convenient than having to load the items up in your personal vehicle and driving them to the dump.

    There are dumpster rental companies out there, such as ours, who can even drop-off and pick-up the dumpster for you when you are finished using it. This helps to make this trying process that much more simpler and convenient for you. When you are ready to learn more, please call and we will be here for you.

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