What do I do with all the stuff my mother left behind?

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By: Derek HatfieldCC BY 2.0
Four years ago my mother passed away leaving me with four storage units, three cats, and an additional household of items.

Although I have whittled down the collection of items that she hoarded, I still have hundreds of boxes of sentimental items, photos, and antiques.

Does anyone have any strategies for choosing what to keep and what to toss, and more importantly: how do I store all of the items that I do keep? -Laci

Comments on What do I do with all the stuff my mother left behind?

  1. first off, pictures usually get a pass from me unless they’re duplicates or damaged. i keep them in a box and swear i’ll eventually make an album out of them. that doesn’t tend to happen, but maybe one day. organize them neatly and call it a day. they don’t take up that much space.

    sentimental items are usually sentimental because they remind you of something specific. so let’s say for argument’s sake you’re holding onto a dog collar because it reminds you of your childhood puppy, Sniffles. as you go through the boxes, make a pile of things that remind you of Sniffles. once you’ve gone through all the boxes, look at your Sniffles pile. Do you need all seven collars or is one sufficient? do you have a dozen pictures of Sniffles, and if so, is a collar still necessary? examine the items and see if they’re still necessary for reminding you of something.

    I give preference to sentimental items that also serve a purpose and don’t really fade, like dishes, crystal, vases and ornaments.

  2. TAKE PICTURES! I am a very visual person, and I like looking through sentimental items to trigger important memories. But I also don’t have space to store all my memories- until I started taking pictures of an item, then giving it or (gasp) throwing it away.

    I feel for you! It is emotionally exhausting to make all those decisions, especially after a loss like yours, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

    • I love this idea!! I’m in the process of whittling down my household as well.

      I love to give things away. I find it easier to let go if I can donate to the Salvation Army or my local library. Plus: Salvation Army will send a truck to your house and pick that shit up! How cool is that?!? This is perfect for getting rid of duplicates if you’re really dismantling a household ( i.e. extra coffee pots, extra bed linen, extra lamps, etc ).

  3. I have a coworker who doesn’t keep any paper. All pictures are uploaded to the computer, and all kids schoolwork or crafts are scanned or a picture is taken of it. She then creates a yearly digital album that her kids can have later on. Perhaps you can modify this somehow. To use Stitches’s example, perhaps scan in pictures of your dog and keep one of the dog collars, then create a shadow box you can hang up in your house. Or just take a picture of the item and create a digital album specifically for that pet.

    • I love this idea, it’s a great way to make sure everyone will have copies of the family photos so there’s no dispute if there’s a divorce/death.

  4. Would the sentimental items be sentimental to anyone else? Because if you have aunts, uncles or cousins on the maternal side, and you tell them you have antiques and sentimental items of your mothers and no room to store/display them, they’d probably help you thin out the collection.

    • Ohhh yes, I love this. When my grandpa passed away, and we needed to clear out his condo, everyone in the family came over, we had drinks and enjoyed his condo one last time, and everyone went through his stuff and got at lease one momento of him. Then, when my aunt cleaned out his house, she knew that everyone already had something, and that nothing else was needed for sentimentality, and could donate the rest.

      • We did this when my grandmother passed. We all got together, enjoyed sandwiches and coffee and great stories, and divied out her belongings, with dibs going to the original gift giver. Some things we kept for sentimental purposes, but lots of stuff just got tossed (do you really need that stained mumu?)

      • we did something similar when my grandpa passed away. my grandma is still alive but my grandpa had built up quite a collection of things over the years that my grandma didn’t want or need so all his kids and grandkids got to go through and take anything they wanted. surprisingly, it all ended up being done fairly with no one person hoarding all the good things. i got a few of his hats and a set of his USAF wings from when he was in Vietnam. his clothes went to Good Will and everything else went in storage for a while until my grandma felt ready to go through it.

    • Oh how I wish!! This is one of those places where my life story becomes kind of a lifetime made for tv movie. Haha! My stepmom has actually stepped in and helped me store some of the items until I have more room, more time, etc. But as the only child of a mother with borderline personalities, she long since burned the bridges to anyone who would be remotely interested in any of the items. I do need to decide what to display and what is honestly just taking up space!

  5. I live in my mother’s old house, and I understand to some degree what you’re going through. I myself stuck EVERYTHING in the garage after she died (she wasn’t a hoarder per se, but there is 15 years worth of stuff in this house from all the family members.) It took me a year to really be ready to go through things. Congrats on how much you’ve whittled down already!

    Absolutely shift things to plastic bins – get rid of all the cardboard if you can. Plastic bins of uniform size stack better, they hold up longer, you can easily label them (packing tape & Sharpie), and they’re easy to move with. I second the idea about scanning things, but DON’T beat yourself up about what you get rid of. Just because she kept it doesn’t mean you have to, even if it was sentimental. Be very specific about how you label the boxes – pick categories and tell yourself, when that bin’s full, no more memorabilia of this type. If it doesn’t fit, it can’t be kept.

    One easy way to get rid of things is to take your keepables out of one storage unit and then put an ad on Craigslist with a few pics saying something like, “All Free! Come and Take! One Day Only!” Then, just let the people come and take whatever they like. Saves you the hauls to Goodwill or the dump, or at least cuts them down. Or, contact a local antique shop to come and take a look at what you have that you’re willing to part with – many will just give you a bid for everything. If you still have stuff to get rid of. If not, ignore me. 🙂

    Don’t feel like you have to do it all alone, either. Invite a friend over to help. Someone who doesn’t have the same emotional attachments to the stuff, but who will emotionally support YOU.

    Good luck!

    • Plastic bins is the greatest suggestion ever. I’ve started…but have a lot more to go. I never thought about it, but the items do feel magically more organized simply by not being in cardboard!

  6. I think it’s important to separate what was sentimental to your mother from what has sentimental value for you. Pictures that you have no idea where when or who they were taken of/by, you don’t need to keep. The cross stitch piece that your mum loved because it reminded her of her mother, keep, because that has some value to you.

    In terms of storage, work out how much room you do have or can assign to sentimental things. If you have room for a box under the bed only, find the perfect box and as you sort through the items, put things you’d like to keep in there until it is full. Anything else, you don’t have room to keep by that point

    • ONLY YOU can decide what really matters. When my mom cleaned out her house and I had 3 carloads of stuff, she said, “I can’t throw any of this, but you can. Don’t tell me, and I’ll never ask”. Well, geez. I love her christening gown, her elementary school lunch pail, grampa’s WW II coats. I love the hot chocolate china set from the late 1800’s. But I have no children and yeah, I’ll sticker or tag what things are, BUT IF NO-ONE ELSE CARES, THEY DON’T HAVE TO SAVE IT!

  7. I think the first thing that has helped me is to remember that the memory doesn’t go away just because the item associated with it does. It’s easier said than done. I finally got rid of the bedroom set my grandmother left me when she died ten years ago. It was about 25 years old and completely falling apart but I STILL cried when we moved the dresser out. Feel the feelings, and let the stuff go anyway.

    I would personally only keep the things I can house in my current home. If things are sitting in a storage unit or a garage or even in a pile of boxes in a spare bedroom, they’re not getting much love and it’s not honoring the memory of anyone or anything.

    Sort photos into albums and get rid of any that are similar (meaning someone took several pictures of a specific event, pick the best one or two) See if any other family members want the other pictures.

    Letters and papers can go into a scrapbook or a shoebox.

    The other items, pick the things that are not just sentimental, but also make you happy. Would you have bought this item in a store? Would you NOT have bought this item in a store, but it evokes some memory so strongly you can’t imagine life without it?
    Again, see what other family members might want to have.

    Then, with the antiques at least, have the stuff appraised and find it a new home.
    Good luck!

  8. When my Grandmother died, we had a house that was lived in for 50+ years by a woman that was, not exact a hoarder, but let’s just say a member of the depression generation. My mother was (understandably) attached to everything and EVERYTHING had sentimental value. What we ended up doing was bringing in a lady who does estate sales. She helped us organize everything, and being an estate sale/antinque expert, she was able to give an accurate (and sometimes quite surprising) price for certain objects. Sometimes it is easier to let something go (when you don’t want to let ANYTHING go) when you know it will cover a couple of car payments.

    I hope that doesn’t sound cold. We didn’t gut my Grandmother’s house for profit – far, far from it, but it was a way that we managed to whittle down things to what was REALLY important.

  9. Don’t try to do it all in one fell swoop. Decision fatigue is a real thing and it will make what is already a stressful, emotional process more stressful and emotional. So take it easy on yourself and tackle it in bite sized pieces – whether that’s a few boxes at a time or a whole storage unit.

    (Also, I would start with the storage units. I think it would be much more likely to be low hanging fruit since – barring the odd box of toys and home videos – it’s much less likely to be loaded with emotion.)

    • Decision fatigue! Yesssss! Now I have a name for it!

      I wind up sabotaging my clean-up efforts all the time by doing this. The memory of the “decision breakdown” that inevitably occurs after many hours haunts me and prevents me from tackling the job again. In the end it takes as much time end-to-end as it would if I had simply accepted that no, I cannot spend all day doing through old documents.

  10. Sentimental items that can be used in your home are good to keep. I have a whole lot of kitchen stuff from my Grandmother that I love because it’s her quirky 50’s style, and whenever I use them I think of her. Great to have things in your home that have a family history and a story as well. Passing the test of being used in my home meant that the item would find a new life with me, and was a good way of letting go of other things.

    There were a lot of things that I wouldn’t use, and it made me sad everytime I looked at them just sitting there getting all dusty and being unloved. Keeping only useful items meant that I had a happy association with them and they become part of the family life that continues even without my grandmother there.

  11. We (or more appropriately, my husband) have had way too much experience with this aspect of losing a family member. In our six years together, we have lived in his parents home (now ours) for 4 of those years, and he has lost his mother, father, and grandmother at different times.

    My advice is to go slow. I never made my husband get rid of anything he didn’t feel like he could part with. He has done that part over the last several years. Mostly in stages, so now we have his family’s stuff pared down to a couple of trunks, some photo albums, etc. It isn’t easy, and it is not something you should rush yourself in unless there is some sort of time constraint.

  12. Photographs: Depending on the size of the collection and content of the photos, consider digitizing. I would, for example, save an album of her wedding photos, baby photos, and any photos that are similarly precious as actual photographs and albums. But if you have albums of photos of Aunt Clarice’s 28th birthday party, the kids playing at the park on a random Sunday afternoon, and photos of Dad napping on the couch, it might be worth consolidating your favorites to keep as prints, and digitizing the rest. Try seeing if any other family members would be interested in keeping the albums before you actually get rid of them, though.

    Antiques: Ask yourself the following questions. Does it have sentimental value? If so, then put it in a sentimental pile and handle it that way. If not, or if the sentimental value is fairly low, then move on to the next question. Do you have a personal use for this item? This includes decorative purposes as well as functional purposes. If not, then you should probably put the item into a ‘do not keep’ pile. Finally, do you have the space for this item? Even if you have a use for the item, it won’t do you any good if you don’t have a place for it. This is where it becomes harder to be objective, so cut yourself a little slack in this area. Still, there’s not much point in keeping an antique sofa if it’s just going to be sitting on the porch because there’s not anywhere else to put it.

    With sentimental items, first pick through and decide which items will be of use to you. If she’s left a hand crocheted blanket, for example, you could easily turn it into a couch throw or just an extra blanket for the winter. These can go easily into a keep pile. However, I would set a personal limit to the number of purely sentimental, non-functional items you’re allowed to have per person they remind you of. Because, quite simply, you have to have the space to keep these items, and let’s face it; you’re not exactly honoring your loved one’s memories by keeping their things in a storage unit.

    My dad passed away last year, and thankfully didn’t have a lot of sentimental belongings to begin with. But I feel quite content with the things I do have to remind me of him; the flag from his memorial service, which serves to remind me of his commitment to his country and fellow man; a walking staff from climbing Mount Fuji, which reminds me of his thirst for exploration and knowledge, as well as instructions to one day take that journey with my husband, if at all possible; and a collection of memoirs that he wrote at the end of his life, which I’ll be reading to my son when he’s born, and are just a beautiful collection of his thoughts about what it means to truly live.

    These are the most meaningful things for me, and I’ve recognized that by not filling my house with clutter, I’m able to get more meaning from those things that I do keep. It also helped that I had to be able to get these things from California to Tennessee on a plane with limited checked luggage. Hahah.

    Take it slowly, work through one box at a time. Don’t make yourself rush to get rid of things if it upsets you to get rid of them. But do remember that these are just things, and no amount of things will ever replace the memories you have of her. And when you have your pile of things that you want to keep for yourself, I would suggest inviting other family and friends over to pick through the remaining things, and see if there are any keepsakes that they might like for themselves.

    Inviting other people to take sentimental items removes that sense of guilt you might feel over selling Mom’s favorite painting (even though it’s not your tastes at all and would clash with your own home so why do you feel guilty but it was Mom’s favorite! -I’ve been there-), and it’s a good excuse to spend a day reminiscing with loved ones. It would help if you could set things out on blankets or tables, like a yard sale, but where you’re giving the things to people for whom they’ll have meaning. Best to do this inside, or in the privacy of your backyard, until you’re ready to actually have a yard sale. Which, ultimately, will be the last step; purging those things that you’ve ultimately decided don’t have a place in your life anymore, and instead letting them have a new life with somebody else who will be able to create more treasured memories with those items.

    • Seconding digitizing the photo collection : There is a fantastic photo of my grandparents before they had their 12 children, on the beach and my grandmother is in a 2 piece looking amazing. She was so proud of that photo, and all of the granddaughters want a copy but because it hasn’t been digitized nobody has any idea who even has the original now.

  13. I’d say, keep photos and then take a look at your style and what would fit into your life. Then pick those pieces of your mom’s that speak to you in the style that you’re already have. If there’s a sentimental (to you) piece, then keep it…and then I would open up the pickings to other family members. When my great-grandma died we were really hurt that her daughter had a garage sale and all of the things that WE had nostalgic sentiment about were gone to strangers.

  14. Yup, digitize photos as many people have said.
    Secondly, go through, and find things that you want (and have room to) display in your house RIGHT NOW and do it.
    With the rest, grab some plastic boxes and sort things into them. Make one big box “for donation”, and as you slowly sort through stuff, put things into that box, and when it’s full, take it down to the Salvation Army (or similar). If anything is a “I want to hold onto this at the moment, but I don’t have any use for it”, put it in a box labelled “maybe” and date it when you fill it up. Store it away. In 6 months time (or a year, depending on your preference), grab out that box. If you haven’t opened it in that time to look at anything or take anything out – DON’T OPEN IT NOW! Just take the whole thing STRAIGHT to the donation centre. That way you don’t have to make emotional decisions a second time.

  15. It’s an emotionally exhausting thing, I know. What I would suggest is to first pick out the sentimental things that you simply must have. Ask yourself, “If the house was on fire, would I stop and grab this?” and if the answer is yes keep it. Then, if you wish, offer family and friends the opportunity to come do the same. There may be many family members and neighbors who would love a souvenir from your mother, or who could really use that couch/microwave/floor lamp. Then, call in the professionals. There are lots of people who will gladly come in and clean, categorize, appraise and sell your mother’s things for you, in the house, without you having to lift a finger. You will be rid of the lion’s share of the stuff, AND you’ll make some extra money. You can either do an estate sale at the house, or have the stuff taken off site to be consigned or auctioned. I apologize if I sound cavalier about it, but it’s something I do for a living, and I’ve seen many times the look of weight off the shoulders of grieving families once the responsibility of dealing with all that STUFF is gone. Hanging on to every bit of a departed loved one’s belongings can be detrimental to your health. My close friend inherited everything of her mother’s and couldn’t bring herself to throw one thing away…not because she wanted any of it, but because she felt like she would somehow be disrespecting her mother’s memory by getting rid of anything. So the bags and boxes of stuff just hung out, cluttering up her house, taking up space that she needed but couldn’t use, constantly reminding her of her loss. She started to get freaked out by it, the idea that the stuff and the memories were crushing her, but she still couldn’t make herself do anything. So finally, we gave her an “estate intervention”. A couple of us took up a collection and sent her away for a fantastic long weekend at the beach. Then, we cleaned up and culled and yard saled and consigned and donated just about everything that was left. She was so relieved to have it done, and felt no guilt about it because technically she didn’t actually do it herself.

    Whatever you do end up keeping, unless it is something small that you absolutely have plenty of room for and want to keep with you, I would recommend a climate controlled storage unit. Regular storage units/outbuildings can wreak havoc on “stuff”, and if they are things that you value that you want to save for future generations, climate controlled is best.

  16. Quilts! Seriously, if you don’t quilt, go to a craft store for help. This lets you turn bits of favorite shirts and things into one useful object. I am slowly starting this with some of my grandma’s old clothing.

  17. I encounter this problem in my own life, as I’m a sentimental person. Here’s my solution for many things: Take a picture of the item, and then write down everything you remember about that item — where it came from, who gave it to you, why you love it, etc. Put the two together in a scrapbook or photo album. Most things aren’t important, but the stories are.

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