Letting Go of Other People’s Stuff: How to Declutter Family Heirlooms

Aunt Ada’s 24-piece floral tea set, Great-Uncle Bill’s rusty old tool collection, Grandma Bessie’s antique china cabinet. Sounds like you may be holding onto other people’s stuff. Nevermind the fact that you don’t drink tea (and you hate floral patterns). You’re not the least bit handy (i.e. you couldn’t use a wrench to save your life). And that china cabinet? It’s in your storage unit; collecting dust. Do you wish you could declutter family heirlooms without feeling guilty, fearing you’ll offend other family members or being obligated to store other people’s stuff?

The good news is, it is possible to free yourself from the guilt, fear, and obligation which have been shackling you to other people’s stuff for far too long. You can let go of other people’s stuff and reclaim your personal space, style, and joy. Here’s how…

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Letting Go of Other People's Stuff: How to Declutter Family Heirlooms

Other People’s Stuff: Why We Hold On

Are you holding onto unwanted family heirlooms out of guilt, fear, or obligation? Are you afraid that, if you give up the family heirlooms you have been entrusted with, you will be banned from the annual family reunion? Perhaps you were nominated as your family’s curator; even though you never wanted the role. More than likely, your guilt keeps you from eliminating what you still (mistakenly) think of as other people’s stuff.

Some people begin to feel guilty whenever they so much as think about decluttering family heirlooms. The question is, why? One reason we may feel guilty is because a loved one who has passed away thought enough about us to gift us their treasures. (Whether we wanted them or not). We tend to feel even more guilty if the person who gave us the item is still living. What if they find out you sold/donated it? Will they be angry or think you are ungrateful?

Many people are afraid to face the potential fall-out from their fellow family members. As a result, they allow unwanted family heirlooms to occupy space in their homes. After all, isn’t it more important to “keep the peace” than to take back your personal space? Unfortunately, this can lead to feelings of resentment between family members. Eventually, you’re bound to grow tired of storing other people’s stuff.

Often, you are burdened with unwanted family heirlooms because, for one reason or another, other family members thought you would be the best caretaker. Maybe you have a large home or storage unit. Perhaps you are “settled” in life and do not have plans of moving. It could be that you are simply more responsible than other family members. Or, maybe no one else wanted the clutter so you took it in just to save it from the landfill. As a result,  you feel obligated to hold onto everything just in case someone else decides they want something…someday.

How to Declutter Family Heirlooms

Give yourself permission to let go of family heirlooms

Whatever the reasons are, the fact is you are now burdened with other people’s stuff. You need to let some of it go, but you aren’t sure where to begin.

First and foremost, you will need to give yourself permission to declutter your family heirlooms. It’s time to release yourself from the guilt you may be experiencing. Understand that you are not going to upset the deceased. Once someone has passed away, they no longer care about what happens to their stuff.

Know that you cannot control how other family members may react to your decision to declutter family heirlooms. If it bothers them so much, suggest they take on the responsibility of storing the items. Maybe that will change their tune. {smile}

Imagine for a moment that the person who left their belongings to you were still alive. Do you think they would want their possessions to be a burden to you? Or, would they want you to be happy by only keeping the items that you truly love, have space for, and can take care of?

Declutter Family Heirlooms: First thing’s first

It is vital that you stop the flow of other people’s stuff into your home. From here on out, if a friend or family member offers you something that you either do not love, have room for, or cannot maintain, you should politely say “no”. Explain to the person that you value the memories you’ve had together and that those memories will live on in your heart. Physical objects can never take the place of people we love.

If the person is offended or feels as if you’ve rejected them (instead of their stuff), apologize to them but do not waiver in your conviction. Suggest they give the item to another family member who will use/appreciate it. If no one else wants it, perhaps the person offering the object can sell it and use the proceeds to travel or donate to charity.

How to let go of other people’s stuff

Once you’ve given yourself permission to declutter your family heirlooms, and have dealt with the feelings of guilt, fear, and obligation, that may have once plagued you, you can (finally) begin the decluttering process.

The first step when decluttering family heirlooms is to decide which items to keep. When deciding which items to keep, make sure you save only the items you truly love, have space for, and can properly maintain. For example, if Grandma Bessie left you her entire house of antique furniture, but you live in a 300-square-foot studio apartment, you are going to have to part with a few many of the larger pieces. (Unless you enjoy paying for off-site storage). In this case, you can choose your favorite (smaller) pieces (even if it means breaking up a set), and let go of the rest.

How to Declutter Family Heirlooms

Display the items you decide to keep in a place of honor in your home. Don’t hide them in damp basements or dusty attics.

Next, to properly declutter family heirlooms, you’ll need to find homes for the items you do not want to keep. Before rehoming family heirlooms, you may want to take photos of some of the more sentimental items. This way, you can retain the memories without having to possess the actual item. Here are several options to get you started:

  • Ask if anyone else in the family wants the item(s); or, if the original owner is still alive, ask them if they would like the item returned to them
  • Donate items of historical importance to area museums (including military museums)
  • Donate to your local preservation society
  • Contact the History Department of State Colleges
  • Donate to thrift stores such as Salvation Army or Goodwill (often, larger thrift stores will pick up items for free)
  • Donate the items to a charity auction
  • Sell valuable pieces to antique dealers
  • Sell items via classifieds, eBay, Facebook, or Craigslist
  • Have an Estate Sale

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There’s no need to feel guilty earning money from the sale of family heirlooms which legally belong to you. If for some reason you do, you can always donate the proceeds to charity.

“Memories are the key not to the past, 

but to the future.”-Corrie Ten Boom

When decluttering family heirlooms, it’s important to remember that we do not honor our loved ones by holding onto the stuff they once owned. Rather, we honor them by the memories and stories of them which we treasure in our hearts and minds. When we share the memories and stories of our loved ones with others, we are ensuring their legacies live on.

We do not live on through our things, but through the legacy, we leave behind.

By choosing to declutter family heirlooms, you will not be erasing the memories of the past. You will simply be making space for new ones.

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How to let go of other people's stuff without feeling guilty, burdened, or as if you are somehow dishonoring the person who left something to you.

Great advice here! I have so much stuff lying around my house that isn't even mine! I have been worried that if I get rid of anything that my Grandmother left me, I would dishonor her memory.

About Cheryl Lemily

A wife, mom of 3 boys & 2 dogs. A minimalist raising a minimalist(ish) family. Living a small, slow, simple life. Helping others declutter & simplify.

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