Why do so many people hit a brick wall when it comes to decluttering sentimental items?
Let’s start by facing facts. It’s not just the overly sentimental or all-out hoarder class that have issues about letting go. We all get caught up in the memories of our possessions. Face it: decluttering is hard. But it’s with sentimental items, the family keepsakes, and treasures where most of us tend to hit a brick wall. Truth be told, there is an art to learning how to let go of sentimental items.
I speak from experience. My mother died when I was in my early thirties. She was a truly wonderful person. But my mother was also a hoarder of epic proportions. She came by this naturally from my grandfather. The two of them were competing for the title of “most notorious family hoarder”. The house I cleared out had the effects of both of them crammed into every corner imaginable. That even included the space between the ductwork and the ceiling in the basement. Yep. My mother used the ducts as extra “shelving”.
Here are some hacks that may help you tear down that brick wall – or at least maneuver around it. These tips will be interspersed with personal asides which will be marked so they can easily be skipped.
Please excuse the repetition: This was deliberate since I am assuming that most people will focus on specific sections.
Some ground rules for decluttering sentimental items…
Beginning with a basic outline as to how to proceed is essential. If you don’t organize your plan, you will keep getting bogged down in the mud. This is what I suggest:
Declutter the easy stuff first!!!
If you are paring down all your possessions – decluttering sentimental items should come LAST. If you start with the keepsakes and treasures, you will never make progress. Instead, start with things that are easier to sort. Things like bathroom and kitchen items that are utilitarian and NOT sentimental. You shouldn’t get too sentimental over things like blenders or bottles of nail polish – at least I hope not!
A personal aside:
Don’t make the same mistake I did. When my mother died, everyone told me to do the easy stuff first. Of course, I didn’t listen. In my case, the kitchen was my biggest nightmare because it had formal flatware and china from two households with hoarders. I tell the story in a previous post about decluttering for a downsizing. If you are curious, you can find the story under tip #4.
Decide how much space you can dedicate to keepsakes and stick to it…
One way to accomplish this is to purchase some plastic bins. You need to decide how many of these your space can handle. If you have a larger home, perhaps you can dedicate a closet or a good portion of an attic or basement area to your sentimental treasures. The same can’t be said if you are living in a small apartment with no excess storage. In that case, you might be limited to one or two storage bins.
Do understand that if you are undergoing a downsizing, you may not know just how much your new space can handle. In this case, pare things down as much as you can, and once you move, you may have to declutter even more – or perhaps not.
Also, please note that this does not include items you actively use or were able to successfully integrate into your decor. Those sentimental items have made the transformation into useful daily items that are part of your overall decor.
If you are overwhelmed – please get some help…
Almost everyone hits a major roadblock when they start decluttering their sentimental items. But this is magnified 10-fold if you are decluttering for a major downsizing or clearing out the effects of a deceased loved one. In these special cases, please consider getting some help. Whether it be from family, friends, or if necessary a professional, there are times when we all need extra support. I will add that there is something to be said for hiring a professional. They have mastered how to help you let go of sentimental items. After all, they do it every day.
A personal aside:
A friend of mine came to the rescue while I was cleaning out my mother’s house. It was a 3000sf home crammed to the gunnels with stuff and some of it had value. She put me in touch with an organizer friend who was also an expert in antiques and fine art. Having her with me on several occasions was tremendously helpful. Even if only for moral support.
One day, after a major clear out of about 20 garbage bags and 10 boxes of things to donate, she turned to me and said “Well, if your mother didn’t save it, your grandfather did!” I know this sounds strange, but it really helped me to understand that this was a monumental task. People kept pestering me as to why I wasn’t “finished” with the house yet. And her assurance that this was a massive cleanout really boosted my morale.
She was also invaluable in finding the right resources to sell some of the things that had value. This can be very tricky. So please seek help if you need it
Do NOT try to declutter too fast…
This is particularly true of decluttering sentimental items. Spending more than about 2 hours a day is too emotionally draining.
A personal aside:
I made this mistake in spades with some of my mother’s things. Mom was a writer, radio interviewer, and singer. As such, she had scrapbook items all over the place. But her final illness took a lot out of her and there were a lot of loose ends when it came to scrapbooking. Unfortunately, she had about 20 copies of everything. A major portion had not been organized at all. About a year following her death, I had finally gotten all these things into one pile. It wasn’t really one pile. It was bags upon bags and boxes upon boxes. I had two weeks to sort it all before I started graduate school.
It was a very difficult two weeks. Nevertheless, I pressed ahead because I was afraid that once I started the graduate program, it wouldn’t get done. Since my mother had had such a colorful and vibrant career, I wanted what she accomplished preserved. 2 weeks, a ton of tears, and 5 scrapbooks/albums later, it was done.
Now, I am not a hoarder or crazy sentimental by nature. (I’m kind of in the middle of the road on the sentimental scale.) But I would NEVER in a million years do that again. Although the results were worth it, I was an exhausted emotional train wreck.
After I move, I will be addressing these physical books and converting them to virtual books that I can have printed. This will save a great deal of space. For those too young to remember – this was the way it was done in the 1990s when my Mom passed away. The only place I had internet access was in the lab where I worked. At that made me an exception to the rule. Back in 1996 I actually had an email address!
Accept that your first round of decluttering sentimental items will not be your last…
This can be true of all aspects of decluttering. But it is particularly true of sentimental items and (sometimes) important papers and documents. This is really important to grasp. You are more likely to get rid of something you will regret if you force yourself to “do it all” the first time around. Once you have been through the process, subsequent rounds of decluttering will be far more targeted and successful. Don’t be afraid to say “This is all I can bear for now. To be continued later”.
The basics for decluttering sentimental items…
Here are some basic self-help hacks that will help you in selecting what to purge and what to keep.
Put groups of things together so you know what you have…
It’s really hard to sort through things if you don’t know what you have. If you have a lot of things to cull, it is best to divide and conquer. If you have a lot of china, for example, separate it out and put it in its own group. Then tackle that grouping as its own unit.
This helps you see what you’ve got, how much you’ve got, and how much space it takes up. It can give you a realistic picture of how much you need to pare down in any given category. How much china do you really need? How much do you really use?
Once you know what you need, you can select what you cherish the most. Think also about how this would work in your day-to-day life. Then you can start the purging process with confidence.
This is particularly true if you are downsizing. Deciding whether to keep a large display cabinet or the family’s prized grandfather clock is a much bigger decision than making a decision on a small decorative item. In the case of the grandfather clock, you really have to think about whether you have enough space for it. It may have been in the family for generations but when you are living smaller, space becomes scarce.
When downsizing, that space has to work for your life first and foremost. Although you will probably keep some of your family heirlooms when you move to a smaller space, the ability to be a repository for family antiques is sharply curtailed. Some may well be of substantial size. But each will need to be selected with great care.
Suggestions for large pieces such as furnishings…
- With large pieces, it is imperative that they blend with your personal style and decor. What you keep in terms of major furnishings needs to blend well into your life and personal style.
- In a case like a grandfather clock, you might want to canvas your family to see if someone really wants it.
- Some large items, such as furnishings, can be repurposed and modernized. While I don’t suggest this for a prized antique, repurposing a family piece to suit your needs and style is an option. Pinterest has a trove of information that can help you convert sentimental but dated furnishings something stylish, practical, and loved. I have a Pinterest board devoted to DIY furniture repurposing. It might be a good place to start.
- But please don’t try to guilt other family members from taking it off your hands. They probably have space issues as well.
- If there are no takers, it is time to consider donation or sale.
Decluttering gifts from family and friends…
We all have family members and friends that like to give decorative items as gifts. This seems to be a particular bone of contention when it comes to decluttering.
When it comes to items that are inherited, things can get tricky. People often feel a strong responsibility to retain and pass family treasures that they inherited. But if your home is morphing into a family museum, things have gone too far.
When you are dealing with tchotchkes or furnishings that were part of an inheritance, things can be a bit trickier. It often becomes tied up with preserving the memory of the person that passed and family history. This is understandable, but it must be kept in perspective. Most of us will keep some of these items. But you need to let space constraints control the urge to preserve everything.
Word to the wise for the under-50 crowd. If you keep everything that was gifted/inherited by deceased relatives, sooner or later, the load will overwhelm your home. Your home should never become a museum. It should be first and foremost a space for you and your family to live their lives.
This should be a word to the wise for gifters: If you want to give someone a gift, please resist the urge to give them a tchotchke to display in their home. Sometimes it seems as though the entire world is filled with loving family members and friends that want to gift us a sea of knick-knacks. When space is limited, this becomes more of a burden than a gift.
Hacks for decluttering sentimental family items…
- As far as decluttering tchotchkes that you can’t use – please banish all guilt. Many people feel guilty about donating or re-gifting knick-knacks that they don’t have space for. But does it really honor the friend or family member to hide the item in a closet and bring it out when they come to visit? Do what you need to do. There is nothing to feel guilty about here.
- Is this a useful item? Something that you could use in your daily life that will remind you FONDLY of a friend or relative? Unless it’s a crazy large object that you don’t have room for, for goodness sake, keep it! This is a win-win.
- If you saw this item in a store, would you purchase it? If the answer is yes, then you should keep the item. This also helps you determine if your attachment is more to the person who gave it to than the item.
- Is this a decorative object that fits your style and decor? Can you integrate it easily into your current decorative scheme, perhaps on a rotating basis? If so, this is an item you should really consider keeping.
- If this item fits into none of these categories, you need to ask yourself why you are keeping it. What is it about the memories that it holds that make you feel you must keep it? There will be more about this in the next section.
- If it really is time to let go, consider taking photos of the items to help preserve the memory. Or trying to find some other way to honor the person it came from.
- Understand that unless you are not at all sentimental you will not discard EVERYTHING that has no useful purpose. But remember your space constraints and stay within them.
If worst comes to worst, the court of LAST resort is to rent a storage unit. Although this is the ultimate (and expensive) crutch, there are times when it is necessary. A particular case can be made if you are downsizing and are having a hard time figuring out how much can comfortably fit into your new digs. It may be a necessary expense to reduce stress and to prevent you from making mistakes you might regret. If you do this, it is a good idea to make a time pledge. Giving yourself a year to sort out what you are keeping and dispose of what you are not. Otherwise, the temptation is to let it drag on and that can add up to big bucks.
Remember, if you are spending significant time and energy on decluttering, it stands to reason that your clutter is interfering in your life. If there are too many things you can’t let go of, you need to rethink why you are hanging on to things. (See the next section).
A personal aside:
My father had a letter opener. I hadn’t really used letter openers, but I noticed how practical it was when my Dad used it. When I brought his things home after he passed, I found that the letter opener was not only a nice family piece, but it was also very useful. It also was an item I remember him using daily. So this was a sentimental item that I wound up keeping and putting to good use.
How to let go of sentimental items when you are truly stuck…
Sometimes we just can’t seem to let go…and that’s fine as long as you and your family are not being buried by things you have no space for. If you have to move too far outside your comfort zone, you may need to ask yourself some additional questions:
- Ask yourself what memories this piece of memorabilia bring to life?
- If the memories are about a person or an event, do you have other items that will bring up the same warm feelings?
- If there are other items, ask yourself the following: Which one is your favorite? Which one fits in best with your home and lifestyle? Is there a way to pare this small collection of objects down to one special item?
- Will family members want to keep this piece within the family after you are gone? Be honest here. Often these things are of more value to you than to your children or grandchildren. If so, could you gift it now to the person who would appreciate it the most?
- Would creating a photo or page in a scrapbook about this item and the person or events that surround it help you to finally let go of it?
- If it’s a fine antique, would a collector be the best caretaker of such an item? Collectors usually display and care for their collections. That might be a better testimony to the person who owned it than having an unused collectible sitting in a box or drawer.
- Would donating the item to a charity where someone who really needed it could have it, help you let go?
- Would you consider selling the item?
For more on dealing with decluttering and letting go, here is an excellent post on helping people let go of physical items while retaining the memories they hold. Decluttering Sentimental Items: A Gentle Guide.
For those who are really struggling, you may have to ask yourself why you have trouble parting with things in general. I’ve watched quite a few videos on this topic. This one struck a chord. I’m not promoting the book because I haven’t read it. But I felt the video had good insight.
If you have the space to store items you wish to display on a rotating basis, this creates some leeway to keep a few additional pieces. As I mention in the section below on hoarders, my grandmother (and my mother) did this. While I have owned a house, I too have done this with success. The trick is to make sure these items fit your decor style and are not just serving as dust collectors. In this regard, keep only what you know you have a place for. Don’t cheat!
How do you declutter large collections?
When we talk about decluttering sentimental items, we are generally thinking of just one item at a time. But one of the main sources of clutter can be collections or sets of items. Many people accumulate collectibles. Many people have collections of things. But some just can’t stop at one or two collections. For some, collections can multiply like bunnies and that can put a tight squeeze on space. There are people who collect coins, dolls, baseball memorabilia, fine china – you name it, people collect it. I have a friend who collects Coach bags. An unusual thing to collect, but she eventually converted it into a cottage business by reselling them. My mother had an elephant collection and a demitasse spoon collection among many others.
- This does not need to be an all-or-none situation. When we have collections, we tend to think of them as a whole. Do we get rid of the collection or keep it? Why do we do this? I’m not entirely sure, but one thing I do know is that there is a third alternative. Keeping one to two pieces of a collection and letting the rest go.
- One tip is to make that single item a stand-out piece that can be easily integrated into your decor. This is far better than having the entire collection locked away in a box somewhere because the collection is simply too large to display. Also, to preserve the memory of your collection, you can always take photos of the total collection before gifting or selling it.
- Another alternative is to turn an active collection into a small business as my friend did. It can allow you to keep an active collection and add new items so long as you cull the “herd”. You also can make some extra income on the side. Ebay is great for this.
If you are dealing with certain collections like fine china, breaking up the set to keep a couple of pieces might devalue the entire collection when it comes to selling it. So this is something you really do have to keep in mind.
A personal aside:
That’s what I did with my mother’s elephant collection. When she passed away, she had a collection of over 30 elephants. I kept the one elephant that was most special in terms of the family. It belonged to my great grandmother originally and was part of a matched set. If you have collections like this, you should seriously consider keeping one or two of your favorite pieces of the collection while letting the rest go.
Now that I am downsizing yet again, I’m looking at one collection that I kept intact partly for sentimental reasons. Towards the end of her life, my mother started collecting David Winter cottages. They were a big collectible during the 90s. She really loved them and they gave her a lot of happiness during her final illness. I wanted to keep them for that reason.
Luckily, they suited my style quite well and I used them to add a decorative touch to several bookcases. But times change. With digital downloads, I have cut way back on the number of books that need to be shelved. Fewer shelves frees up space, but it means there is less room for these items. I will keep 2 or 3 as decorative statements and the rest will be donated or sold.
Decluttering sentimental items when you live with a hoarder…
Decluttering sentimental items is tough enough. But if you live with a hoarder I feel your pain. Whether you are downsizing to a smaller space or your current space is exploding with stuff, working with a hoarder is very difficult.
Let’s face it when we discuss how to declutter sentimental items, we are assuming that the person who needs to declutter is being rational. There is kind of a large fuzzy gray line that separates hoarders from the rest of us. Technically, anyone can be driven to hoarding behavior. Sometimes all it takes is a pandemic to trigger the urge. However, a true hoarder has crossed over that line which separates rational attachment into something more extreme. They are often totally unwilling (or perhaps not able) to part with anything.
I lived with my mother during my twenties and she was a massive hoarder. It can be very difficult to deal with. It is pretty much impossible to get them to change their ways. My Mom was perfectly Ok surrounded by a sea of clutter. To her, every item had meaning and was endowed with its own memories and personality. Getting her to part with anything was impossible.
One suggestion might be that you agree to give your partner one closet for all their memorabilia. Of course, this only works if you are living in a reasonably large space.
The court of last resort is often a storage unit. Yes, most minimalists would consider them a crutch because they are expensive. They also merely postpone the necessary culling. But this may also be your only salvation if you are dealing with a diehard hoarder. Sometimes you hear stories about how hoarders can be converted to minimalism. But after living with one, I have to ask whether such conversions are simply an urban legend.
A personal aside:
My grandfather was a natural hoarder. Because he collected so much stuff, my grandmother had a habit of rotating items that were displayed. My grandfather was adapted to seeing things disappear and reappear. My grandmother’s secret was that along the way some things just disappeared altogether. It was the only way she could control his clutter-bug tendencies.
Over the years, a few of these items were gifted to her housekeeper. Iris was glad to have some of these pieces. When Iris invited my grandparents over to her home for dinner, my grandfather rediscovered some long-lost “friends”. He greeted each item happily. “Well, hello! I haven’t seen you for a long time. I’m glad you are in such a happy home.”
My grandfather wasn’t being snide or sarcastic. He actually meant it. After all, he hadn’t really missed the pieces and knew full well his collections needed culling. Having them in the home of someone he knew and liked made him happy. The items were in a place where they would be cared for and appreciated.
The point here is that there are many people who collect the same things you do. If you can’t keep everything, you can often give your collections a happy home where they will be appreciated and cared for.
Final thoughts on decluttering sentimental items…
It’s never easy to let go. But for some, it is a lot harder than it is for others. Remember to give yourself a break when you feel you are not making progress. Work slowly and diligently. Take photos, build a virtual journal of all your fond memories if you need to. But in the end, when you finally declutter, you will feel that a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. The space you call home will have the breathing room it didn’t have before. Cherish the memories and enjoy the peace of an uncluttered home.
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