Processing Sentimental Items

Birthdays. Holidays. Gifts from loved ones abound. Some gifts are long-lasting, physical items like clothing and accessories, books and other media, and trinkets. Others are short-lived but enjoyable consumables like dinner-dates and bottles of wine. Some sentimental items are left to us whether we wanted them or not--whether the items are gifts or just the possessions of someone who is no longer with us. It's the long-lasting gifts and other people's left-behind posessions that can present the most challenge in our efforts to declutter.

There are a few facets of gifts and other sentimental items that can make parting with them difficult. In the case of the gift-giver still being alive and in contact, not wanting to part with an item might come from a place of guilt or feeling that the giver could be hurt if they knew you discarded an item they gave to you. In the case of the gift-giver having passed away, not wanting to part with an item might come from a place of needing to hold on to good memories of the person. For the purpose of this post, I'm going to categorize sentimental items into two types: Living Items for those given by someone who is still alive, and Items of Loss for those given by someone who is no longer alive.


Processing Living Items

In the grand scheme of minimalism and decluttering, it will ultimately be easier to discard Living Items than it will be to discard Items of Loss. With Living Items, you have the advantage of face-to-face, or at least text or email conversation with the people who have given you sentimental items. There are a couple of ways I've found to part with sentimental items given to me by people who are still alive:

  • Donate/discard the item without telling the gift-giver. This is easiest if in-person visits are infrequent, or if there's little chance that the giver would notice the absence of the item. Think of an item through their eyes: How would they feel knowing you kept something you didn't want to just because they gave it to you? Would you expect them to keep something they didn't like just because you gave it to them?
  • Donate/discard the item after telling the gift-giver. I find that with clothing especially, I can generally tell the giver, without guilt, that the item no longer fits me and that I have donated it to charity for someone else to love. Generally, turning the discard into a good deed will prevent a gift-giver from feeling hurt. Giving an honest and brief explanation will be more comforting to them than none at all.
  • Donate/discard after the gift-giver tells you to. It's rare, but sometimes a gift-giver will come to visit and say, "You still have that old thing?" Sometimes we hold on to gifts not out of liking the gift, but out of the feeling of guilt we'd have if we were to get rid of them. Sometimes, very vocal and outgoing gift-givers will be surprised that you've kept something so long. With their blessing, say goodbye to the item and let the relief of their approval to discard it wash over you.

Sometimes we outgrow, don't love, or just plain don't need items that other people give us. We should tailor our belongings to what we love, want, and need, and not get caught up feeling guilty if a gift just doesn't suit us well. Guilt is a natural thing to feel when discarding gifts, but it's also natural to want to get rid of something we don't fully love. Whether you involve the gift-giver in your decision to discard something is up to you. You do you. It should be that simple. 

Processing Items of Loss 

It can be painful to hold on to items that were left behind by people who have passed away. Memories have a habit of attaching themselves to physical items, making Items of Loss extremely difficult to discard. What's worse is that throwing an item away can feel like you're throwing out the person who left it behind, and donating an item can feel like you're giving part of that person away to a stranger. Unlike processing living items, there's no chance of talking face-to-face, over email or text, or over a phone call to the giver of an Item of Loss. The onus falls squarely on you, the recipient, to care for and decide what to do with an Item of Loss. There are a further couple of categories within Items of Loss that come with their own challenges: Gifts, and Things Left Behind.

  • Gifts from someone who has passed away can be the hardest things to give up. After all, a gift is an item that they put thought about you into. It's very natural and okay to feel guilty for even considering to discard a gift like this. But it's also okay to let it go and to find a new loving home. It might help to treat gifts similar to how I explained Living Items above. Think about if the gift-giver would still expect you to have the item at this point. If you knew them well enough, try to make up a conversation with them about the item. If you think they wouldn't mind that you let the item go, then let it go.
  • Things Left Behind are a wildly different beast from gifts. This category encompasses everything from clothes and shoes to furniture, decorations, and even cars. 
    • Clothes are an everyday essential that usually helped define someone's identity and personal style. Sometimes, clothes are kept for so long with the intent of wearing them or maybe making a quilt from squares cut from each garment. But if neither of those ideal visions are carried out, clothes can take up a lot of space. Clothes can be very sentimental, but they're also one of the best things to donate to charity as long as they're in good shape. If the person was religious, perhaps ask their church/temple if they would accept the clothing to help disadvantaged community members. Non-profit organizations that conduct rummage sales will likely also gladly take clothing to resell. And there are always shelters that could use clothing to keep someone warm.
    • Furniture and decor can be bulky and hard to deal with, but generally I've seen these items be the easiest for families to part with after someone has died. Of course, there are usually some decor items that were very personal or unique and are worth keeping. But generally, furniture and decor are just utility items that very few of us probably pour a lot of emotional thought into. If you can't use them or don't have space for them, give away or resell bulky furniture and decor items.
    • Finally there are odd and huge things left behind like cars. These can be tricky to get rid of, especially if they're antique or classic cars that the person poured time and love into maintaining. With newer cars it might not be the same case. Newer cars might be nice to keep in the family, especially if someone needs a new vehicle. Cars with a bit of age that aren't vintage or classic might be a bit easier to part with, and can either be sold to a third party or donated to an organization like Habitat for Humanity. Vintage, Classic, and Antique cars can be incredibly difficult to handle once someone has passed. I'm sure most people are, at least somewhere deep down, excited by old cars. But if not, some classic cars could mean a financial windfall if sold to the right collector. Or if you love someone's old car and have a place to keep it out of the elements or plan to drive it yourself, that's a wonderful option as well.
    • There are also likely to be small trinkets and photos left behind. These items are likely the easiest, and honestly probably the best to keep around long-term. Little items like costume jewelry, class rings, photos, and film negatives are tiny and easy to store... and probably brought the deceased person a lot of joy. 

With items of loss, there's no real strategy other than "You do you." Nothing has to be discarded or donated if that's not what you want to do with it. It's okay to also just pick and choose a couple of items to keep or discard instead of wholesale keeping or discarding everything in every category. It's normal to attach memories to loved ones' items they've left behind. In the end though, you need to keep what feels right to keep. If you need to keep everything a bit longer, that's fine. It's also fine to get rid of everything if you have no strong feelings about it. Take your time and allow yourself to grieve as you go through someone's old things.

Sentimental items are saved for last in many minimalist decluttering methods for a reason. They can be emotionally-charged and take years to finally decide one way or the other on whether they should be kept. We attach memories to items, but an important thing to remember is that we can keep the memory without needing to keep the item. Sentimental items are the most "You do you" category of objects. There's no simpler way to put it, which is why I've used that phrase three times now. In the end, you're in charge of every sentimental item you have. You do you, and process your memories and emotions attached to objects in the way that best suits you.