Decluttering: What to do with sentimental items

Bookshelf with decorations, flowers, old instruments
Greeting from my grandpa: instruments from a Cessna.

Mementos, memorabilia, sentimental stuff – we all got it. And sometimes it’s hard – maybe even impossible – to let go.

Growing up with grandparents who were the embodiment of the postwar generation’s “Let’s keep that just in case”, I know the drama. There’s the “just in case” factor that still weighs heavy on me even though I’ve been working on this issue for the past 5 years. Moreover there’s the sentiment that comes with ‘sentimental’ – I’m afraid of letting go because I’m hanging on to people and things from my past. This may sound familiar to some of you.

It can be hard to remove items that may symbolize a sort of connection to people you love or loved – especially when they are dead. I still got a shirt from my grandpa that I would never in a million years get rid of. I sometimes still wear it, I got a photo of him wearing it the last christmas before he got diagnosed, I will probably keep this shirt until the day I leave this world. To use Ryan & Josh’s concept this shirt adds enormous value to my life even when it’s just hanging in my cupboard. To me it’s a bond to my grandpa, we are wearing the same shirt. Still it’s mainly a sentimental item and I wouldn’t wear it to work or such, because I don’t want to risk any wear and tear.

Letting go does not mean forgetting (someone) …

Most professional organizers and full-time minimalists emphasize the fact that our memories and feelings do not depend on keeping or decluttering mementos and heirlooms – just because we give something away does not mean we forget someone. Joshua Fields Milburn says in his essay on the death of his mother: 

She obviously hadn’t accessed the sealed boxes in years, yet Mom had held on to these things because she was trying to hold on to pieces of me, pieces of the past—much like I was attempting to hold on to pieces of her and her past.

I realized my retention efforts were futile: I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me, my childhood, and all our memories without ever accessing those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from 25 years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.
[…]
Our memories are within us, not within our things.
Holding on to stuff imprisons us; letting go is freeing.

I know he’s right. I’ve already experienced how awesome it feels to let go, to remove things I don’t need anymore, to let go of certain items from my past. I will not forget those times, whether good or bad, just because I gave away my cocktail shaker or tons of CDs I loved 20 years ago but haven’t listened to in ages. So yes, letting go feels great. It feels equally great for items you once cherished but now don’t need anymore. But it’s still not easy.

Cherish the past …

I got two technical instruments my grandpa (who was an aviation mechanic) removed from a Cessna on one of my bookshelves. They bring my great joy but they not only represent my grandpa, but also a part of my life long lost – my childhood, growing up in the safe space that was my grandparent’s home. Some see holding on to the past as less than great; but sometimes it adds great value to our lives.

Dominique Loreau says in regarding keepsakes, mementoes and the like in her book L’art de la simplicité:

Objects are often said to have souls but should our attachment to the things of the past clutter our future, or keep us trapped in the status quo?

And

Remember: living in the past, for memories alone, means overlooking the present and closing the doors to the future.

Oh my stern french minimalist, she sure knows how to make point. Referring to objects having souls – a concept common for Shintoism and popularized by Marie Kondo in her request to thank the items you want to get rid of for their excellent work, thereby acknowledging their existence and importance in your life as a sort of entity – does not make it any easier for someone like me easily riddled with guilt when removing keepsakes and heirlooms given to me by my grandma (especially).

Keepsakes are a mixed blessing; some add huge value to our lives, even as minimalists. Others feel like a burden, because they were given to us even though they have no deeper meaning to us. We know we should cherish it, but the feeling simply won’t come. The souvenirs my grandma got from her children are her mementoes, not mine; a well-meant gift that is of no use to is meaningless, even if you got it from your mother. So why should we keep these things.

One word: guilt.

… But not out of guilt

Just because something has a special meaning for my mom or grandma, it doesn’t have to be special to me – so why should I keep it?

Since moving in a care home, my grandma is the queen of downsizing. In doing so, she likes to give for the sake of getting rid of the stuff NOT because she takes into consideration what any of us would really want. I was well into my thirties when I first said “no” to my granny even though she insisted on gifting my old christmas decorations – which I can’t even use because I don’t celebrate christmas. A fact my gran is well aware of. She just wants to have stuff out of her room, out of sight, out of her responsibility to take care of it. She may not be the only one acting that way. And I get her point, wanting to travel a little lighter as the path gets more difficult to walk. Still, with all the love I have for her, I’m not a dumpster.

Because fact is that apparent heirlooms, keepsakes, and mementoes also come with an extra portion of guilt. I’m afraid many of you know what I’m talking about. It’s your great-grandfathers antique bureau – no matter you didn’t know the guy and live in a studio apartment, you WILL make room for it and enjoy it’s dark and gigantic presence in your tiny living quarters or else … GUILT.

Apart from apologizing for pretty much everything including the fact that I exist I’m also great at feeling guilty. That’s why minimalism, downsizing, and decluttering for me is much more than just the newest lifestyle fad. It’s stepping into a new sense of freedom. I’m allowed to say ‘no’ and I can remove and donate things that have no special value for me other without feeling guilty for simply being me.

Long story short: Don’t feel obliged to keep items because they are of importance for others. If they are given to you and you love them, fine, but if you feel like you have to hold on to your grandmother’s wedding stockings because she told you this was her most prized possession ever, just don’t. We should love the things we share our life, space, and energy with. We should definitely not waste energy on feeling guilty.

This is not a competition

In the end every one of us decides what living with less looks for her/him. Some live with rooms full of plants but prefer ebooks over physical books and magazines. Others – like me – still got three selves stacked with books which they value, but are frantically downsizing on clothing, decorations, and bathroom items. It’s different for everyone of us, and most importantly, we are in this together, not competing against each other.

As Courtney Carver writes in her guest post on becoming minimalist.com:

Unless you are on a mission to live with less than a certain number of things, why not display some of your sentimental items? Less does not mean none. Paring down your objects of memory does not necessarily mean ridding yourself of them all. Instead, paring down your sentimental items allows you to focus on the most meaningful.
[…]
Sometimes we hold onto things to hold onto people that have left our lives. Honor the ones you love by sharing what was theirs.

THIS is a sort of minimalism I want to celebrate. Feeling and being free about how to handle your stuff. I still have some keepsakes and mementoes around – most of them I love dearly and don’t want to part with. Some I still don’t know what to do about. But that’s ok. Some things take time… 🙂

So long, thanks for passing by – take care! 🙂

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