A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 2)


A Legacy of This week we continue with the difficult subject of being overwhelmed with the “stuff” left behind by a loved one who has passed away.

(You can read Part 1 here.)

The struggle is that we are trying to find practical ways to survive having someone’s lifetime-of-stuff joining our own lifetime-of-stuff, while also trying to survive all the emotions that come with this deep painful loss.

Based on the huge number of emails I received after Part 1, last weeks post resonated with many of you. One woman told the story of how for seven years, all of her parents’ belongings were stacked to the ceiling in her basement – furniture, clothes, stuff. So much so that they could not even make a path through it all.

Then her basement flooded and she lost everything. Afterwards, she was amazed at how relieved she felt and how good life was — living without all that stuff. She had zero regrets about what was lost.

And she asked, “Why do people have to wait for a disaster to wreck everything in order to get rid of it? Wouldn’t it have been great to pass on those things to people who needed and would be happy to receive all of it?”

In fact, when we hang on to stuff we-don’t-need-or-use and wasn’t even ours to begin with, it usually as NOTHING to do with the thing itself, but with the tumult of feelings associated with it.

Today, we are NOT covering legal papers or records that you need to keep. We are addressing all the OTHER stuff that has come your way. We’re not trying to get rid of memories. We’re trying to downsize the overwhelming mementos to the point that you can enjoy them. Clutter really gets in the way of your happy memories.

The key point is that you do not have to be keeper of everything, and life will go on if you do not keep every single thing that was left behind.

To get rid of belongings of people who have passed away does not symbolize that you no longer love them or vice-versa, or that you will forget them. Our memories are not in those photos of people we don’t know or a box stuffed with 30 years of canceled checks; our memories are in our mind and in our hearts.

If you are saving something because it has value or is a collectible, that’s different. But first find out more about its value or potential value. You might discover that you are putting hundreds of dollars worth of time and effort into taking care of items that fifty years from now will bring you $17.43 … if you are lucky.

Regarding the rest of the legacy of stuff that you have inherited, here are a few questions to start asking yourself:

  • How much do I need to keep in order to honor this person’s memory? Would one or two items out on display work just as well as a basement full of their things? Maybe this item or collection brought joy to the person who has passed away, but does it bring joy to me as I dust it or look for places to put it or feel overwhelmed by having this taking up space in my home or pay for a place to store it? Do I really want to be a caretaker of this?
  • Does it bring me joy and delight to keep it or am I keeping it for some other reason?
  • Am I keeping this as a sign of how much we loved each other? (But you know how much you loved each other — you don’t really need a sign. Your spouse’s model railroad or your mom’s collection of every card you ever sent her DID mean a lot to them, but not that much to you. If you get rid of these mementos, that won’t mean that you don’t love them.)
  • Am I keeping this out of guilt? (Keeping all this doesn’t ease the guilt and being overwhelmed with too much stuff just adds more guilt)
  • Am I keeping this to honor them? (Instead of packing everything away, wouldn’t it honor their memories better if you gave their stuff away to a family or organization that will cherish and use it?)
  • Am I keeping this because I WANT to get rid of it but I just can’t? (Ask a relative or friend to help you. Ask them to take it away for you and donate it to someone who needs it and will love it and use it and cherish it.)

Know this: You can honor the memory of parents, grandparents, a child, relative or friend by donating their fishing gear, cookware, encyclopedias, toys, books, sports equipment or whatever to a worthy cause, where it will be valued, appreciated and used.

Rita Emmett
Author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook,
The Clutter-Busting Handbook and
Manage Your Time to Reduce Your Stress: A Handbook for the Overworked, Overscheduled, and Overwhelmed


3 thoughts on “A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 2)

  • July 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Good advice. As a professional organizer, I’ve suggested clients also donate some antique items they don’t want or can’t store to their local historical society. This way thousands of people can enjoy it for many, many years to come.

    One sticking area for a couple of my clients was wanting to get rid of their deceased parents’ things but their siblings who expressed a need for these items, never retrieved them. In some cases several years had gone by. My suggestion was to draft a letter or email with a list of the items (including pictures, dimensions) and a “Retrieve By” date. If the siblings don’t respond or or make weak excuses for not taking the steps to get mom’s dining room hutch or dad’s table saw, then the adult child who storing these items gets to sell or donate them as they see fit.

    One of my favorite organizing mantras is “You are not a storage facility for other people’s things.”

  • July 15, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Wonderful suggestions, Wendy – thank you so much for sharing them!

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