When a loved one passes…what to keep

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
― John Banville, The Sea

Something I see often is the anguish of a relative who feels burdened by the volume of things left to them by a loved one, and yet they belabor over the decision whether to part with them. The feeling is a sort of longing, but it seems to be mixed with guilt, as if getting rid of something is somehow an act of betrayal. Or losing the person even more, if that was possible.

To begin with, if this is you, you can turn the tide right now by taking a good look at your belongings and getting rid of anything that doesn’t mean much to you. This will help anyone who inherits your world.

And to those trying to decide what to keep, let me offer this guide:

Can you use it?
Really, if you keep something but it stays in a box for the next 30 years, you really don’t have it. Try to keep things that can be used, displayed and enjoyed to keep your loved one’s memory alive and in front of you.

Some examples of things I’ve kept:
-an old avocado green GE clock that hung on grandma’s kitchen wall for years. It finds a place in my every home, and it’s currently telling time in my laundry room.
-a sewing box from my other grandma. It too was a green color, but a yucky one. I painted it white and display it, and use it. I kept her tomato pincushion in there, some lace, and some other findings that remind me of her, always sewing something.
-jewelry pieces that have been passed down from various family members. Not only do I keep them, but I wear them, and feel close to my loved ones.

Next up: was it quintessentially “them”?
There’s no need to keep the kleenex cozy from the back bedroom just because it was in their house. Think of the things that really defined them. A favorite book from their collection with their notes in it, maybe. Grandpa’s gardening spade. Poetry they wrote.

What about pictures?
If you don’t know who the people are, find a relative who might and ask them to explain the pictures or write names and maybe approximate dates on the backs. If they don’t know either, there’s no use in keeping them.

A final word, your relatives would not want to be a burden. Keep a few things that add to your life, and let go of the guilt of letting go of everything else. Additionally, sometimes it’s hard at first. Give yourself permission to hold onto things for a little while, but also give yourself permission to pass them on later.

Day Fourteen: Photos and Memorabilia

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On the wall in my laundry room hangs an avocado green General Electric clock that hung for years in my grandmother’s kitchen. In my bedroom I have my other grandma’s sewing box, full of my threads and buttons along with her pincushion (although I will admit I painted white over the icky color it started life as). My jewelry collection includes pieces that were passed to me.

Does being a minimalist mean that you can’t keep family heirlooms? Of course not. But you should know that you don’t need to keep them all. Just a few great pieces that fill you with joy and some photos will do.

So how to decide what to keep, and what to do with the rest? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was this object something that my relative really loved? (Or do I really love it?)
  • How do I feel when I look at this? Does it make me happy, or do I feel weighed down by it? (The answer to this becomes more evident if you’re in the process of moving.)
  • Can it be be (immediately) useful to me in some way?
  • Is there another relative who might enjoy this more?
  • Will my children realistically want this?

Photos may require an extra question: Does anyone know who the people in these pictures are?!?

In my case, a lot of things had been passed to me because no one else wanted them. With the photos, I enlisted the help of some older relatives to identify the subjects, kept some, pitched some meaningless ones, and passed on others that would mean more to another family member.

With objects, I tried to keep things that would be useful to me or that I could display and enjoy regularly. After all, what’s the point of keeping something that stays in an attic or storage unit?

When you’re finished, get some photo boxes, albums, or frames for your pictures. Make sure you try to list the subjects on the back. Otherwise, future generations may not enjoy them. Display or use your other memorabilia. Sit back and smile.

Day Fourteen: DONE!