How to Declutter and Let Go of Family Treasures
By Ruth Soukop
Are you holding on to gifts or family heirlooms out of guilt? Learn from one family’s struggle to let go of extra stuff.
Excerpted from Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind & Soul by Ruth Soukup…
Every time I write or speak about clutter and the process of getting rid of it, without fail, the most common question I get, and the most common complaint, is “What do I do with all the other people’s stuff in my life? How do I get rid of that?” Through the years, I have discovered, both in my own life and through countless conversations with others, that the hardest things to get rid of are the things that come from other people—the gifts, the heirlooms, and the piles left behind when someone dies. Other people’s stuff, it seems, comes attached to a whole lot of guilt.
We were faced with a death in the family when my sister-in-law Linda succumbed to a long battle with cancer. It was a devastating loss. With no children of her own, she left everything to my husband and our daughters. While she had been careful to set her financial affairs in order before she died, we were once again faced with the task of sorting through someone’s entire life to decide what to keep and what to leave behind.
The guilt was terrible.
You see, Linda was a shopper, and she loved to collect nice things. Her home was beautiful and filled to the brim with her various collections—expensive paintings, Longaberger baskets, Lladró figurines, Halloween decorations, hundreds of pigs in all shapes and sizes, and even a whole dresser full of Silpada jewelry. These collections represented everything she had lived for, and yet they weren’t our collections or our passions. We had no need for them. Our own home was already too full. Even so, it felt like we were literally throwing her life away, and again, we kept far more than we actually wanted.
We returned [home] to Florida with boxes and boxes full of stuff. We got an even bigger storage unit.
And it wasn’t just the stuff from Linda’s own house that we had to contend with; it was all the gifts she had given us over the years. For years, she had showered our girls with elaborate presents—beautiful dresses, customized handmade teepees with matching sleeping bags, a dollhouse, stuffed animals, toys, games and so many things it was almost impossible to keep track of them all. She sent care packages for every minor holiday and hauled suitcases full of gifts to give in person for the major holidays. She truly loved my girls, and her way of showing it was with stuff.
Her death hit us hard.
Not surprisingly, my two daughters, who had absolutely adored their auntie, immediately started connecting all the things Linda had given them to still being connected with her. Linda and all the stuff she gave them over the years became one and the same. Whenever we wanted to weed out a too-small dress, a no-longer-played-with toy, or a set of ripped pajamas, we were greeted with a flood of tears and shrieks of, “But you can’t throw that away! Auntie Linda gave it to us! ”
We realized that our girls were simply doing the same thing we had done, first after my mother-in-law’s death and then after Linda’s death as well. We were assuming that throwing away someone else’s stuff meant we were throwing away their memory. And we couldn’t bear the thought of throwing away someone we loved.
We struggled with this dilemma for a long time until one day, it finally occurred to us that stuff and memories are not the same thing. If everything is special, then nothing is. The only way we would ever really become unstuffed is to finally give up the guilt.
Separating the Memories from the Stuff
In my own family, eventually all four of us had to come to grips with the fact that hanging on to the piles of stuff Linda had given us—every single fancy silk dress, special toy, blanket, basket, figurine, card, piece of jewelry, and funny singing Hallmark stuffed animal—would not bring her back. Even more importantly, we had to come to accept the hard truth that by equating the person she had been with the stuff she had given us, we were only diminishing and cheapening her memory, not retaining it. Not everything can be special.
The reality was that Linda was so much more than all the silly stuff she left us with! If we really wanted to honor her memory, we needed to do so by remembering the person she had been, the love she had shown, and the impact she had made, not just as an auntie and sister, but as a school principal and community leader, as a daughter and cousin and friend. If we wanted to honor her memory, we could talk about our favorite funny stories, the laughs we shared, the tears we cried, even the fights and frustrations.
Actually letting go of all the stuff has been an ongoing process, one we’ve had to tackle a little at a time. We still have a storage unit we would like to be rid of completely someday. For now, we are content to tackle it in small bites.
I don’t think my family is alone in this struggle to separate the people we love from the stuff they leave behind or to separate a favorite memory from the stuff that gets attached to the memory. And as we just saw, this guilt doesn’t just happen in death either, though death can certainly amplify the guilt.
The only real solution is to learn how to make a clear distinction between our memories and our stuff. In order to give up the guilt that causes us to hold on tight to other people’s stuff, we have to first reset our thinking. We have to accept, at our core, the fundamental truth that people and things are not one and the same.
Memories take up space in our hearts; stuff takes up space in our homes.
Memories last forever; stuff breaks, gets lost, and fades away.
Memories bring joy; stuff brings stress.
Memories are honoring; stuff is diminishing.
Memories bring peace; stuff brings chaos.
Memories actually matter; stuff really doesn’t matter at all.
The sooner we can make this mind-set shift and stop equating other people’s memories with the stuff they leave behind, the sooner we can give ourselves permission to stop clinging to the things we don’t need or even really want, simply because we feel that without them, we are losing the person we loved. That’s no small feat.
Chances are that this mind-set shift won’t happen overnight either, especially for those of us who have held on to this guilt for a very long time. It’s not always easy to accept the thought that just because we might be letting go of their stuff, we are not actually letting go of that person. But the simple fact we must continue to remind ourselves of, especially when the guilt starts to creep in, is that memories and stuff are not the same.
Memories and stuff are not the same.