My friend Donna has no space to store the fine china her mother would love to pass on to her. Derek has no desire to display his deceased mother’s antique Chippendale furniture—the mahogany color and elaborate carving don’t mesh with his home’s modern decor—yet he wrangled with guilt and family pressure when he decided to sell it.
I have written before about the Tyranny of the Family Heirloom: Many people simply don’t want to hold on to much of their parents’ “stuff,” but often their “things” may hold memories. When an object from a loved one’s life holds stories, they can become the best heirlooms.
Of course, they still amount to “stuff,” and stuff you very well may not have room for. Discover meaningful ways to preserve the stories behind those items that do hold emotional value before you donate or sell them: the process of remembering, of reflecting on what your parents meant to you while they were alive, is healing and rewarding unto itself, and at the end you will have a family heirloom that is beloved—and takes up less physical space.
It’s the memories of the things that matter, after all.
Why am I revisiting this topic? Because an article in this week’s New York Times reminded me that it is a topic that is not only incredibly relevant now, but that will become even more so in the near future:
“As baby boomers grow older, the volume of unwanted keepsakes and family heirlooms is poised to grow—along with the number of delicate conversations about what to do with them. According to a 2014 United States census report, more than 20 percent of America’s population will be 65 or older by 2030. As these waves of older adults start moving to smaller dwellings, assisted living facilities or retirement homes, they and their kin will have to part with household possessions that the heirs simply don’t want.” —Tim Verde, NY Times, Aug. 18, 2017
Resources for Handling the Things You Inherit
If you are facing the quandary of soon disposing of the beloved things your parents would love for you to inherit, here are a few articles that may be of assistance:
- Which heirlooms matter—and which ones are even “heirlooms”? How to determine which items hold dear memories, and how to capture those stories for posterity.
- After a death: How to make the process of going through your parent’s photos easier.
- Check out Allison Gilbert’s book Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, which describes 85 practical and innovative ways to remember and celebrate deceased family members, including how to transform their things into meaningful keepsakes.
- And read Gilbert’s grief and resilience blog, which is worth a visit for anyone who has lost a loved one, no matter how long ago.
- The Healing Power of Remembrance: Memories are the connective tissue that binds one generation to the next, and the active nature of remembering is healing.
- Notes from a Funeral: Memories of even the smallest moments, once shared, provide comfort and connection. Stories are a balm to our bruised hearts.
Reflections on What to Do with All that “Stuff”
The comments section of the aforementioned NY Times article is rich with ideas that provoke thought—and are sure to keep this important conversation going. A few of my favorites:
“...what I wish I held onto? [My father’s] journals and other writing. After the pain of grief subsides, it's a way to get to know someone over again. Hasty disposal of many things can lead to regret.” —Andrea
Antidote to Angst
The joy of giving your stuff to people who will really appreciate and use it (after all, the sterling silver fork is still only a fork) while you can still realize the benefit that these folks will receive is, to me, the antidote to the family-related angst... —Sfojeff
“The best gift you can give your kids is to downsize BEFORE you're too sick to do it, and for the love of God, when your kids say they don't want your stuff, believe them and don't lay on the guilt trip.” —Layla1st
“I do not expect my kids to want much of what we have, and this does not hurt my feelings at all.... However, as far as furniture goes, I might remind the younger folks that if they are really as environmentally conscious as they profess to be, they should realize that ‘antiques’ are furniture being recycled and reused.” —Coopmindy
Generations of Junk
“...you’re not only inheriting your parent’s items, you’re taking on everything they received from older generations that they couldn't part with.... Now they’re my problem. I’m 53; I don’t plan to pass on the problem to the next generation.” —Larry
“Ms. Beauregard doesn’t have to keep the Lenox dinnerware, but why does she have to ‘break it to her mother’ that she’s going to get rid of it? What will that accomplish except for causing her mother pain?” —Diane
The Practical Approach
“Just use the china and silver—for everyday use. It doesn't need to sit in a closet.” —Arb
One Millennial’s Perspective
“I donate every month just to clear my clutter because it drives me nuts and I know others my age who do the same. It's just a different mentality. It’s not that we don’t care about memories or treasured items from generations past—we just connect with those memories differently. (In a simpler, less-cluttered, no-storage-unit-required kind of way). :) —Andrea
“Stuff is not memories.You get to keep the latter when you get rid of the former.” —Peter Scanlon