Is the trash or treasure question equivalent to the flower or weed question? Does the answer lie completely in the eye of the beholder?
Like a lot of things, it’s not as simple as that.
For instance, soil content, and climate can play a role in whether a flowering plant is content to be a docile garden specimen or will become an invasive force that will take over the yard. Here in Michigan, we go to the garden store to buy things my mom used to rip out of our South Carolina yard.
And so it is with the things that get passed down in the family. There’s a lot to consider.
Having lost both my parents unexpectedly and simultaneously, I have some experience making the trash or treasure decision. My sister and I had an entire household to sort through. Worse, because our parents loved to travel, we had no idea what they had picked up on a lark and what was truly meaningful to them.
Asking the Internet what it thinks, I find that the majority of advice comes from decluttering experts. With due respect to their expertise, decluttering is only one of many valid considerations when you’re trying to decide what to keep and what to let go of.
Here’s some the insight I’ve gathered from my own experience and research:
Make Decisions Over Time
In the weeks and months immediately after a loss, it’s hard to think rationally, much less make good emotional decisions. There will be somethings—like the paid bill stubs from two decades ago—that are easy to put in a trash bag. Still other things, like wedding rings or that hand-stitched quilt, we know we’ll always treasure. But, that leaves quite a few things in the middle.
Decluttering experts are right. You’re not expected, much less required, to keep everything you inherit. However, there is also such a thing as regret.
We were lucky in that I had basement space and my sister had attic space to store things until we were ready to make decisions. Although a storage unit can be expensive, it might give you the time and distance you need.
Know Thyself As You Make Trash or Treasure Decisions
Whether something is trash or treasure depends on who you are and what memories you hold dear. That cuckoo clock on the wall might evoke fond reminiscences. On the other hand, it might remind you of not ever being able to sleep because of the dang thing’s maddening cuckooing.
You also know your own tolerance for “clutter” and how much you’ll treasure mementos. The stock advice is to take pictures. For some people, that works. But not always.
For instance, I love handling the little material manifestations of relationships past. My childhood dog’s ID tag; the thread-counting magnifying glass my dad used as an industrial engineer in the textile industry; the plastic horse my maternal grandpa kept and loved to tease me about, saying my Barbie dolls couldn’t ride it; and of course, the horse-care version of a Swiss army knife that my paternal grandpa carried during WWI.
For another person, these things might be clutter. For me, they’re the repositories of precious emotional connections.
Inherited “stuff” has all sorts of value. Genealogical value, historical value, sentimental value, investment value, and of course, cash value.
For many items, it’s not so much a determination of value as a discernment. What did the items mean to the departed? What would they mean to you? What would they mean to another family member or dear friend? Would they be better appreciated in a museum?
Somethings are Absolutely NOT Trash
Whether you hold on to them yourself or pass them on to someone else in the family, some things are “keepers” by definition. Yep, that’s the genealogist in me talking.
If it’s an original document for a significant event, it’s a treasure. Scanning and keeping digital copies of the documents is not the same. A copy does not hold the same amount of historical or genealogical value
Do not throw away birth certificates, death certificates, or marriage certificates of your loved ones, even if they have passed away. Even letters can have great emotional significance. Think hard before you let go of those. (See also Family Love Letters Aren’t Just for Lovers.)
Digitization of old photos, slides, and albums can be a great solution, especially if the digital copies are shown and shared throughout the family. As many of you know, I like Legacy Republic’s services for that. [Full disclosure: That’s an affiliate link and I will earn a commission off of orders placed.]
Finding an Alternative Home for Items
It’s easier to part with material things if they’re going to an appreciative home. My sister and I, for example, we happy to pass on our parents’ bedroom set to a cousin who was just setting up housekeeping.
And even if you like something, sometimes there’s a better home for it. For instance, Mom’s jewelry box with “ELLEN” in inlaid wood that she inherited from her aunt Ellen went to my cousin, who was named after that same aunt.
Likewise, in Handling inherited clutter, part 1, Erin Doland cites a beautiful example of how the family dealt with her farmer-grandpa’s closet full of overalls after his death. They arranged for a family photo in which every relative wore one of the pairs of overalls. Afterwards, each person got to take home the ones they wore and make their own determination if they were going to keep them.
What items did you inherit? Which ones have you gladly held on to? Which ones did you reluctantly part with? How did you dispense with the items you decided not to keep? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.