Coping with overwhelming inherited possessions

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

Unclutterer reader nana2much asked:

I have also “inherited” my parents’ possessions. I have 5 siblings who have already taken what they want. They have helped some but they all live quite far away.

My mother lived with us so everything ended up here. It isn’t just sentimental objects, but very old photos, some books with family history, many old Bibles, (my father was a pastor) some with family obituaries pasted in or notes written in them. So many letters and “artifacts” saved since my parents’ childhoods…some 90 years old. Many “sermons” my father wrote for individual funerals and memorial services. It is overwhelming. Glass figurines, vases etc. etc.

My father died 5 years ago and my mom 2 years ago. I have given away, donated, sold and even threw out so much but I am finding it difficult to figure out what to do with what remains.

I feel like I’m supposed to be the caretaker of all this stuff. Very torn about it all. Any suggestions on how to continue this process?

Nana2much, I’m sorry to read about your loss. Dealing with a parent’s death is never easy, and you’ve had to cope with two in a short time.

But let me reassure you: You do not need to be the caretaker of all this stuff. It is not disrespectful to the memory of your parents to keep the things that you really want and dispose of the rest.

It sounds like you are ready to deal with the remaining stuff. But if you find some things you can’t quite cope with right now, that’s fine; set them aside and just work with the things that don’t make you upset.

How do you continue? Here are some suggestions:

Decide which things are the keepers

Of the many things you have from your parents, which ones do you really want to hold onto? These are very personal choices. Don’t worry about what you “should” want to keep, but focus on which items really speak to you. Ideally, most of these will be things that are either practical or decorative — things you’ll use, not things you’ll stash in the back of a closet.

How much family history do you want to retain? Again, this is a very personal decision, and only you will know what feels right. You didn’t mention whether or not you have children. If you do, saving items related to family history may be more important than if you don’t. But in any case, saving a sample of things like memorial sermons may work better for you than saving all of them.

When going through photos, you can make some easy choices to eliminate photos that are poor quality (out of focus, heads cut off, etc.) and photos of scenery, flowers, and such. Since going through photos can be very time-consuming, you may want to leave any detailed review to the end of this project, so you don’t get bogged down.

Save photos instead of things

You can take photos of anything you don’t really want to keep but which still has a sentimental pull. For example, that might include taking photos of selected pages of some of the bibles, if you don’t want to keep them all.

Consider who might appreciate receiving your parents’ things

Since you’ve already consulted with your siblings, consider who else might want some of these things. Would members of your father’s congregation want some things to remember him by? Would the church want anything? A local historical society? Any of your parents’ friends? A more distant relative who is into genealogy?

But please don’t feel like you need to put tremendous effort into this. Do as much as feels right to you. Some people really enjoy playing matchmaker between things and people, and can do it without getting bogged down. Others won’t want to bother. It’s yet another personal choice.

Decide whether to sell or donate the rest

Things like vases and figurines can be donated or sold. If they are donated to Goodwill, a charity thrift store, or some other worthwhile nonprofit, they are helping others. That might be something that would have pleased your parents.

Selling might be a bit traumatic — are you willing to listen to people barter over the price of your parents’ things? If not, go the donation route or find someone who can do the selling for you, for a commission. If your finances allow, you might like to donate some of the proceeds to a nonprofit in memory of your parents.

17 Comments for “Coping with overwhelming inherited possessions”

  1. posted by Julie on

    Consider uploading photos of the obituary and family records Bible pages to a place like Ancestry.com – many people could find a “match” with the image, enjoy it and learn from it, especially if you tagged it with the names involved.

  2. posted by Carrie on

    I found a local auction place where I was able to take a lot of the unusual, but usable, but not for ME stuff. I was a nice gap between watching people bicker over pricing (and or outright STEAL stuff) from the estate sale and just donating it. I could drop off boxes full of stuff and they’d auction it off within a month or two and just send me a check. It was better for the stuff that looked old/collectible. It was associated with a local crafter’s mall-type thing. I still donated a ton and we sold a ton at the estate sale, and what’s left in my house is all useable and fits in my guestroom. I donated some of the really unusual Bibles to my pastor. And if I had the estate sale to do all over again, I’d hire someone to prep it and do it. So much legwork and it was really difficult not to take it personally when things disappeared.

  3. posted by nicole 86 on

    Great post ! as an only cild I had to deal with the whole stuff, back to my little appartment I realized my parents ‘ stuf take half the room and I have no spare room in any closet which I find very disturbing. Old photos, genalogy trees and so on, would go to the bin but I feel must keep them in case my grand children (2 to 8 year old) are interested in the future It took me two weeks every two month during a whole year to deal with that stuff, it was frustrating (no vacation during that year), painful and tiring. The money isn’t worth time and frustration. I didn’t dare to ask some one to clean the house and keep the valluable stuff, I would have felt guilty but now I think I was silly.

  4. posted by liz on

    My aunt, before she passed away, instructed me to contact the local hospital guild. They did estate sales and had a thrift shop. They kept a large portion of the proceeds for the hospital guild and I got the home cleared out fast. So, that is an option to look into for those needing to clear out a house.

    Even though your siblings have passed over the stuff, please send them an email/letter to them. They may be relying on you to be the historian of the family and may get upset that you let the stuff go since their child may have wanted that info/stuff down the line. If they don’t respond, send a certified letter. I sent emails with photos to the family, telling them to select what they wanted from my aunt’s home.

    I agree with contacting the local churches and historical society to see if they want the materials. If it shows what things looked like in 50 years ago, they may accept pictures. And there may be “files” already started on the families in the area, so the memorial service notes might be perfect for them. If they can’t accept the papers, they may know who in the area would be interested in the items for historical research.

  5. posted by liz on

    Also – after you have contacted your siblings for the final time to see if they want anything, consider contacting their adult children directly. I contacted my nieces directly to see if they wanted anything from Mom’s house. They did…and my sister was saying they wouldn’t want any of her stuff.

  6. posted by kath on

    I agree with liz! Definitely contact your nieces and nephews directly to see if they want anything. We were very surprised to find items that had meaning to each of the “kids” and maybe one of them is into genealogy and would like to hold on to the family Bible and photos. It will save a lot of resentment later on when someone says they wanted something that wasn’t offered to them.

  7. posted by Meg on

    For the books and paper materials, consider digitizing them using your own scanner or an online service like 1dollar scan. You can also take photos of the things you want to remember but don’t want to keep physically.

  8. posted by Pat Reble on

    Having been through this painful process myself more than once over recent years, I can say this for sure: several years down the track I have no regrets over the things I disposed of. I don’t have heart aching moments when I think “I wish I had kept THAT.” The memories simply attach themselves to the few wisely chosen items that are treasured and the rest slips into oblivion.

  9. posted by Erica M. on

    Check with your local museum or historical society! Or, if the items are from other locations, check with museums in that area. You might be able to find a good home for some of the items, where they will be appreciated and cared for. I’m thinking of the sermons and correspondence, things that relate to specific local history. Most small museums have plenty of old vases, etc.

  10. posted by Cynthia on

    I’ve been dealing with a similar situation for years. Masses of things funneled down to DH and me. We don’t have children, and no relatives want any of it. The biggest roadblock for me has been exactly how to dispose of the things that have no earthly value to anyone else. I can’t bear to think of them in the landfill with the rotting garbage. Paper items can be burned, but what about the rest?

  11. posted by Deborah Fite on

    To all the good advice here I would add two things: first, I called a dealer from a local antique mall to make a house call and was astounded at the items he was willing to pay me for. Second, when you are down to the things that must be disposed of, put them in bags or boxes and ask either a good friend or a company such as 1-800-Got Junk to take them away. Then put them out of your mind – you have accomplished a heroic task and it’s done.

  12. posted by Gail on

    I agree w unclutterer- forget the “shoulds” (after all, the majority of your parents kids have). Keep what you want, give away or sell what you can,and toss the rest with a little ceremony. No need to keep your 5 siblings abreast of your decisions, after all, they left the entire task to just 1 person, you. Give yourself grace.

  13. posted by Nana2much on

    Thank you for answering my question and for the many comments. There are so many people with a similar dilemma. We all have stuff we ‘leave behind’. Someone has to deal with it. Part of uncluttering is leaving a little less or leaving it with instructions where it all should end up.
    I have given some things to our church and to nieces and nephews. I’ve e- mailed photos of things as well. But I will probably repeat the process. I just run out of energy, mostly emotional, and have to stop for a while.
    I might contact an antique store to look over things, as suggested, as well. Thank you all.

  14. posted by Mike Carlson on

    I like your post. You inspire and educate us on your blog. You can really help a lot. Great blogs!

  15. posted by EJ on

    Seriously fantastic advice. My father has given me a really old clock that really I find quite oppressive and dark. While he is still here on earth I have no idea what I will do with it when he goes. It’s currently safe in a cupboard but I think your advice rings true about keeping what will be a part of your home rather than locked away. I especially love the suggestion of taking photos of the pieces you treasure e.g. the bible pages such beautiful sensitive advice for someone having a hard time rather than the old “suck it up” routine lots of other people might do!

  16. posted by Sandy on

    For the love of God, please do NOT toss your family history. As a genealogist I cringe at the hours that probably went into compiling that information — information that someone else would be thrilled to find. Call your local historical society and ask where the local archives are, then offer it to them. One caveat: in this age of identity theft you might want to strip out information on living relatives before donating the information.

  17. posted by Karen on

    I have been interested in family history and have been given many things from earlier generations. I had also done many oral histories of older family members and done a lot of research. I was planning to do detailed histories of each family member, but that started to seem overwhelming. And I wanted to see what things younger family members would want. So I am doing two blogs, one is “Treasures of the Smith Family” and the other is “Treasures of the Doe Family.” Every other month there will be a blog post from each family. So one a month. With photos of the item and a little about the person behind it. So like a trunk my great-grandmother brought with her in the boat from Austria with her initials etched in it, and things about her story. Or my grandfather’s World War I helmet with his story of how he was in the war. I’m not making the blog posts “perfect.” I can always add to them later if I want. The important thing is to just get it done. I don’t think this would be right for everyone. But I have been truly interested in this for a long time and have collected many stories and things. I don’t have children myself but want to pass these along if there is interest. The younger people are more mobile and don’t want to be weighed down with things. But even if noone wants the things in the end, they will be preserved with the pictures and stories. And like I said, far simpler than what I had been planning to do. This is working well for me. This way would not work for people who feel dumped on with things they really don’t want, I think. But it is working for me.

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