Just because you inherit something doesn’t mean you have to keep it!
When my mum passed away earlier this year, I inherited everything she owned. Everything. And she had a lot of stuff. Like… a lot. We didn’t anticipate her dying so suddenly, so she didn’t have any time to go through her belongings herself to help me in this process.
*Note to parents of adult children: If you can, start purging your belongings when you’re healthy so that your kids don’t have to do it for you!
When my mum died, she had actually just sold her home and was planning on downsizing to an apartment anyway (she had planned to purge her things, just didn’t quite make it that far). This meant that since there was a closing date on her house, I had very little time to go through all her things and make informed decisions about what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to toss. And, I was so emotional at that time that it was hard for me to throw anything of hers away. So a lot of it ended up in a storage locker until we could move it to our house a few hours away.
Fast forward a few months… It’s a new year and the chaos of the holidays are over. We’ve moved into our new house, and I’m a few months removed from the emotional trauma of my mum’s death, so I can make less emotional decisions on what to keep and what to toss. It’s a good time to start purging!
Here are seven tips from my experience on what to let go and how to let go. I hope they help!
Tips on what to let go
1. If it has no clear purpose, toss it.
Some things just make sense to keep, like my mum’s beautiful (expensive) cordless Dyson vacuum cleaner. We owned a giant, clunky vacuum cleaner from the 90s, so of course we were going to keep hers. That was an easy decision – we needed a better vacuum, and she had one we could have. At first, these were the only types of decisions I could make. If it had a clear purpose (i.e. it would make our lives easier), then we kept it. If it was a double of something we already owned, or we just didn’t have any real need for it (and there were no memories attached to it – more on this below), we tossed it.
2. If there are no memories attached to it, toss it.
I kept a lot of my mum’s things, initially, because I just couldn’t bear to part with them yet when it was time to pack up her stuff. But after we moved and I started unpacking her belongings in our new house a few months later, I noticed how many of her things had no real meaning or memory attached to them. There were countless beautiful dishes and knick knacks that she had accumulated over the years. Most of these items were lovely, but really meant nothing to me and didn’t have a place in my home either, other than to collect dust. So I donated a lot of really beautiful pieces knowing that someone else would love them much more than I would.
3. If it doesn’t bring you joy, toss it.
Thanks to the book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, I’ve learned that if something doesn’t bring you joy, there is no need to hold onto it. I have used this method a lot with our own things over the years. I’ll ask myself “do I really like the way this shirt looks on me?” If my immediate reaction is no, then it’s gone. I did this with my mum’s things too – especially for those items that had no memories attached to them but could have possibly been useful or pretty to display in our house. If they didn’t “spark joy”, they went in the giveaway pile.
This process is definitely more difficult for the items that do have memories attached to them. When we were deciding what to keep and what to sell/donate (before packing everything up to go to the storage locker), I experienced a lot of conflicting feelings about various items that I knew meant something to my mum and had memories attached to them, but I also knew I didn’t want in my own house. For example, my mum had this great print of a Salvador Dali painting, which had hung in her house growing up. She had inherited it from her parents and it hung in my house ever since I can remember. But I just couldn’t see myself hanging it anywhere in my new home. Rather than sell or donate it, I gave it to a family member who wanted it instead. This helped me to feel less guilty about getting rid of something I know meant a lot to her.
Tips on how to let go
4. Express gratitude, especially for those hard-to-let-go-of things
Another tip from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is to express gratitude for items before discarding them. Say something like “Thank you for your service to [insert name of loved one]. Enjoy your new home!” and see if that brings you any closure and allows you to part with it more easily. This might sound hokey, but for me, it really helped. I didn’t do it with everything, but I found it really helped when I felt conflicted about whether to keep something or to get rid of it, like the Salvador Dali painting, or the crib board I learned to play cribbage on when I was 12.
5. Photograph beautiful pieces or memorable items
I started this practice with my own things that I want to remember, but don’t necessarily want to keep (like all my daughter’s artwork). Ideally, I would have thought of this before I packed away all my mum’s belongings. I would have gone around her house and photographed her shelf by the fireplace with her elephant collection on it, and her beautiful displays of orange flowers in the living and dining areas so that I could remember them just how she had them. Instead, I started photographing things after unpacking them, and I created a folder on my computer to keep all the memories in one place. Even though I know I probably won’t look at these photos very often, it gives me peace of mind to know that I have access to them in case I need to take a trip down memory lane.
6. Donate, sell, recycle
We sold some bigger items on Facebook Marketplace, which was way easier than I thought it would be, and we had a yard sale before packing everything else up to put into storage. This was a great opportunity to get my family together, go through my mum’s belongings and get some closure. I offered my family first dibs on anything I didn’t want, and everything else was laid out on the driveway to be sold. I loved seeing neighbours so happy with the great deals they got, and anything that didn’t sell was packed up and sent to the Salvation Army.
The more difficult part was going through the never-ending piles of paperwork. This process is ongoing, since I think my mum kept every single bill, receipt, manual and card she ever owned, as well as every single piece of artwork and school project I ever created.
So far, any bill, prior to the year she died, has been shredded. I kept a handful of cards that either I sent to her or she sent to me, but the rest were recycled, and some were photographed. Most manuals can be found online nowadays, so we recycled all of those too. I photographed or scanned any artwork or schoolwork that was remotely good, and recycled the rest. Finally, all important documents like birth certificates, passports, tax records, etc. are being scanned and saved to a hard drive before being organized into a simple accordion file folder.
7. Take baby steps
Whenever you lose someone close to you, it’s always a difficult process. Go easy on yourself and take baby steps. Everyone will process their feelings differently and at different times, so don’t push yourself to get rid of things before you’re ready. Start small with easier decisions and work your way up to the more difficult decisions. And above all else, be gentle on yourself.
With love and gratitude,