Sorting Through Sentimental Items

Author | Morgan Paixao

My grandmother at Niagara Falls

A common challenge I’ve seen with almost all of my clients in one form or another is not knowing how to handle sentimental items. These could be passed down heirlooms, china sets, paperwork from school, your kid’s artwork, the list goes on and on. Regardless of what it is, deciding to move a piece on is always a difficult decision.

As humans, we tend to collect things over time whether directly or indirectly (passed down through family, gifted, etc...) and assign meaning to them. We associate memories with a particular item and oftentimes are afraid that once something is let go, the memory will go along with it. This can be especially challenging when dealing with the death of a loved one. How do we reconcile this? How do we keep these memories close to our hearts, while preventing our homes from becoming storage units of the past?

How did the item get here in the first place?

Ask yourself - did you bring this item into your home specifically, was it given as a gift, or sent your way when cleaning out a loved one’s home after they had passed? This distinction is very important! Chances are if you were the one bringing this item in and did so intentionally, it’s one you do cherish and aren’t even considering discarding (like the above framed photo of my grandmother!). Think about an item that falls into this category - how different are your feelings towards it compared to the one you are having trouble parting with? Perhaps there’s a sense of guilt with the latter, a feeling that you should keep it and with that, you not only have the physical burden of an item, but an emotional one too.

Discarding as a process

Think about discarding these items as a process. I believe that when we are faced with making decisions about emotionally charged pieces all at once, we become overwhelmed easily and can become paralyzed in the process. Then, nothing moves forward and the process comes to a halt; feeling defeated we give up entirely. So give yourself some grace and view this as a work-in-progress that will take time, but will get easier as it moves along.

I always recommend to my clients to start with ‘the easy stuff’, arguable items in this category are not so easy given the nature of them. So within the boundaries of sentimental items, think about what could be the simplest of decisions to make. For example, say you are going through a box of old papers from graduate school, among them are notes, short papers and the culminating research paper that concluded your studies. You can ditch the lesser important pieces and save that paper you worked months and years toward (and yes, it’s OKAY to have a hard copy)! Another example could be a large piece of furniture from a parent who has passed away. Let's imagine it’s a dining room table. You already have a dining room table, but this one held memories of growing up around it. Here’s where you ask yourself - do I want to replace the one I currently have for this one? Does it go with my home's aesthetic and style, and if it doesn’t - am I willing to overlook this because I am so in love with this table and what it represents? If it’s a resounding YES then absolutely keep the table! If it’s a no, perhaps there’s a photo of you and your family around it that you can frame and keep close by your own family’s table, reminding you of all those sweet memories without having to store the actual table in your basement or garage!

Difficult decisions

Some decisions aren’t so cut and dry, which is why leaving those until later in the process is best - once your decision-making muscle is thoroughly warmed up. This is the point of the process where you have to be very honest with yourself. It goes back to the idea of guilt associated with an item. You should never hold on to something based on the feeling that you should. So very simply ask yourself - do I feel good when I see or think about this item? The answer to that question does have a range and that could go from YES (keep/love it) to meh (make a decision based on logical criteria - space/style/etc…) to no, as in, it brings back a negative association or feelings of sadness/disappointment/etc…(discard or donate!). One thing to make note of here - if you are actively working through a period of grief, it’s best to leave these decisions until after some healing has occurred. During this stage, it’s all too easy for any and every item that belonged to a loved one to bring a wave of sadness when you see it.

Where does it go?

Once you’ve decided what what will go...where does it go? Here are some ideas:

  • Donate - Drop off at local thrift store or post to a buy nothing group

  • Antiques - Contact local antique shops and see if they will purchase key pieces

  • Yard sale

  • Post online - Facebook Marketplace, Ebay, Craigslist

  • Friend/family member - Okay this is a tricky one! Only reach out to someone who you genuinely think would LOVE whatever item you have in mind. Set a reminder for a date in the near future on your phone, if you haven’t seen or contacted that person when your reminder goes off, move the item to the donate pile! It can be so easy to let these things sit and sit and sit when you have someone in mind!

Cherished Items

Okay now that you've done the difficult task of moving along those pieces that didn't truly speak to you, you can enjoy and fully appreciate the ones that do. I love that our home has several items from my grandparents' homes. They remind me of them, my family's history, and the idea that me and my husband are knitting together a story that becomes part of this larger tale. All of these items were intentionally kept and are celebrated in our home. I remember drinking ginger ale out of these daisy glasses almost every time I visited my grandparents as a kid and that memory, combined with my genuine love for these glasses brings so much joy to our space.