Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tackling the Sentimental Clutter: 4 Lessons Learned

Naomi Seldin

Naomi Seldin is one of my favorite bloggers, so I was delighted when she agreed to write a guest post for my blog. Here's Naomi!

A few years ago, I was living alone in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment with high ceilings, hardwood floors and ample storage space. I had more than enough living space, but it didn't feel like a home.

My living space reflected my state of mind at the time, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Three people I loved had died, including my father, leaving major holes in my life. I'd gone through a difficult breakup and move. Some of my things were still in boxes, and much of it was disorganized. I had a lot of things packed away that I didn’t use or need. I didn't want to be where I was, and it showed.

Facing my feelings (and my clutter) was hard, but it's one of the best things I've done. When it came to things like my dad’s cancer, I was helpless. But I was perfectly capable of getting my stuff under control.

Sentimental clutter was the hardest to tackle, by far. To paraphrase professional organizer Peter Walsh, it wasn't just about the stuff. It was about who or what it reminded me of. But I found creative ways to deal with it all.

Here are four sentimental items I found while getting organized, and what I did with them:

wine bottle

1. The bottle of wine

When my stepfather died, one of the things I inherited was a really good bottle of wine made the year I was born. I was saving it for the "perfect" occasion, which of course never came. So one day, I found it on a closet shelf and decided I was tired of waiting.

I packed it up, flew it home to Colorado for Christmas, and opened it (with great fanfare) with my family. I'd waited too long, and the bottle had gone bad, but it didn't matter. We toasted Neil's memory and shared a wonderful evening. Opening the bottle was the special occasion. And I had one less thing to fit back in my suitcase.

Lesson: Don't wait for the "perfect" occasion to share what you can today. Read more here.

2. The old sweat shirt

When my dad died, the only piece of his clothing I had was the old sweat shirt that he used to wear when he mowed the lawn. It was so torn and stained that I never wore it, but it reminded me of things I loved about him.

I found it while cleaning out my closet one afternoon and decided it was time to let it go. Enough time had passed by then that I was able to see that the sweat shirt wasn't my dad, and that he’d left me more meaningful things. Tossing it helped me make peace with those facts and move forward.

Lesson: You don't need to keep everything to honor a loved one's memory. Read more here.

dog and pillow

3. The funeral dress

The dress I wore to my dad's funeral hung in my closet for years. It was a "funeral dress," too tainted by bad mojo to donate or give to a friend.

I knew I didn't want to wear it again, but throwing it out felt wrong. One day at work, I mentioned it to a coworker. She suggested recycling it. So that's what I did.

A friend who can sew took the dress off my hands. Some time later, she stopped by my office with a big paper bag. Inside was my funeral dress, reborn as something new: a pillow. It was beautiful, and her work turned something that once held painful memories into something comforting.

Lesson: Something bad can come out of something good. Read more here.

totem pole

4. The totem pole

One of the most unusual things I inherited was a totem pole. For years, I kept it in the back of my closet because it never really seemed to fit any of the places I lived.

The totem pole was the first thing I wrote about on my blog, Simpler Living. I wanted to give it away, so I asked my readers for suggestions. Someone named Ed encouraged me to keep it, and said something that's stuck with me since:

"What good is a sentimental item if you’re keeping it in the back of the closet? Day-to-day, it’s like you already haven’t had it."

Ed was right. Once I took the totem pole out of the closet, I realized how much I liked it. And I kept it.

Lesson: Some things are worth keeping. And when you remove the clutter around them, you give the things you keep more room to shine. Read more here.

Naomi Seldin is living well with less and writing about it at Simpler Living.

[Photo of Naomi by John Carl D’Annibale/Times Union]


LeeAnne said...

This is fantastic. Thank you for the ideas - sentimental clutter is the hardest for me, for sure.

Simpler Living said...

I'm glad you found it helpful, LeeAnne! Many people find it difficult to deal with sentimental clutter.

The main thing I've learned from what I've done is to edit my memories. It was hard at first to let some things go, but it got easier over time. And I genuinely do value the things I chose to keep even more than before.

Lisa said...

Okay, here is my question. My husband was murdered half a world away, and I am still overwhelmed with guilt that I somehow was not able to save him. It's been 5 years and I am still unable to part with anything of his - not even his old socks. Part of me has a crazy notion that I want to be buried with a lot of the stuff I'm keeping, sort of like Tutankhamun or something. Am I crazy? Any suggestions how to break this feeling?

Danby said...

Lisa, in letting go a little, you might consider what your husband would want for you. I can't imagine he would ever have wanted you to be burdened with guilt. And he probably would also have an opinion on the sanctity of his socks. I suggest going through his stuff and ask yourself what was really precious to him. Keep those items.

For the rest, your best bet is to give them away in a meaningful way. I recently had to get rid of a lot of clothing -- much of it I had kept for sentimental reasons. It stayed in garbage bags because I couldn't stand the idea of releasing it to a thrift store. Finally, I farmed it out to friends. It helped to think that it would make them happy.

For those items that you can't give to beloved friends, wait for a day when you feel strong and centered, drive like lightning to a dump or thrift store, empty your car, and don't look back.

Dawn said...

I have a similar totem pole from when my aunt traveled to Alaska. She was very special to me and I took it when I was cleaning out her house. Unfortunately it is still in the desk drawer (also from her house). You inspired me to take it out. I don't like knick-knacks, but this is an exception.
Thank you

Nana said...

Men's clothing is ALWAYS in short supply at homeless shelters and at the agencies that help men get back on their feet (Working Wardrobes).
When 'releasing' stuff, I always like to think about how someone else will enjoy / benefit from something that's been living in my closet or storage space and benefiting no one.

Simpler Living said...

Hi, Lisa:

I don't think you're crazy, but it sounds like you're still experiencing extended grief. I'm hesitant to give you advice because I've never been in your position and I'm not a professional organizer, but I think an experienced therapist might help you work toward letting go of some of his things.

I miss the people I lost every day, but letting go of stuff has been a healthy part of my own grieving process. And it can be hard, but doing it is important and does lift a burden.

I also agree with what other people have said about how good it can feel to be able to donate and share things with other people. That's another way to keep someone's memory alive.

I wish you the best of luck, and you have my condolences.

Simpler Living said...

@Dawn: I'm so glad my totem pole story encouraged you to take your aunt's out of its drawer! I hope it continues to bring you good memories.

I forgot to mention this in my comment to Lisa, but when my stepfather died, one of the worst parts was having to bag up and donate his clothing. It was hard to do at the time, but in retrospect, it was the right thing to do because I couldn't use them.

Instead, I picked out my favorite "Neil tie" -- the one I liked the most and remember him wearing. It's OK to keep some items, but selecting just a few will lighten your burden and make the ones you keep more special.

Since Jeri has much more professional experience in this area, I'm hoping she might have other advice for you.

Julie said...

This is a wonderful post, with such positive comments. Another suggestion about clothing - you might wish to make a quilt out of some of those pieces that have sentimental value. If you feel you are unable to do this yourself, there are many quilters who would take on that labor of love on your behalf. (Ask around at a sewing shop for information on a local quilters group.)

If you search online for "t-shirt quilt", you will find online places that do that service, as well as instructional sites for doing your own. (You can figure out how to adapt the idea if you're working with other clothing besides t-shirts.) You would then have a special blanket to wrap yourself in, particularly when you are missing your loved one.

Another option with some sentimental material, strange as this sounds, is to take pictures of it before giving it away. You can then keep those photos somewhere private (apart form other photos you might share with others), and if you feel like reminiscing, you'll still have something to hold in your hands and look at. (I would recommend keeping the photos loose, not in a book. There is something about holding a photo in your hand that might be special.) You may find, too, that you don't look at them much - but the photos are there and you can relieve yourself of the anxiety of never seeing that item again, because you can still see it whenever you want.

Best wishes to all with dealing with sentimental clutter.

re-A-rangers said...

This was an absolutely wonderful read & very, very inspiring - thank you so much! I am a terrible sentimental horder and its really taking its toll on me lately. It's time to renew my commitment to organization, serenity & authentic living. Earlier this week I decided to take the "what's really important" attitude in letting go (aarrrggghhh!) and I want to echo what another poster suggested: taking a picture. I can keep it all, including the story behind it, by taking a picture & then blogging, or scrapbooking, about it. Cleansing & refreshing - and theraputic. Very theraputic.

Jeri Dansky said...

Wow - thank you all for the thoughtful comments.

Lisa, I'm so very sorry for your loss. The other commenters have already mentioned the strategies I often suggest for handling sentimental clutter: take a picture, turn (some of it) into something else, donate to a place where the items are truly needed.

As just a fellow human being, not an organizer, I join Naomi/Simpler Living in hoping you have found someone to help you cope with the horrific thing that happened to you. My first thought was a therapist, but a grief support group or grief recovery specialist might also help. There are many of these, around the country. Here's one I know:

Lisa said...

Thank you to all who posted regarding my situation, I truly appreciate it, and your condolences. Jeri, thanks for the link to grief counseling, I live in NYC and it's harder than I would have thought to find anything like that here. But I will ponder the suggestions given here, and thank you all again.

Jeri Dansky said...

Lisa, I'm glad you found the responses useful.

Regarding grief counseling: While in-person counseling may be what we all think of first, such counseling can also be done by phone, if a good face-to-face option isn't readily available. (And on-line support groups are also available.)

Janice, the woman I linked to, offers a free consultation, as I'm sure many other people offering this service also do. (Janice just happens to be the person I know, and she's a good lady. I've used her Eldercare consulting services.) You could always call her and see if what she offers matches what you feel you need. See

Geralin Thomas said...

Love this post!

One more idea is to take that special wine bottle and turn it into a lamp; use the cork as a finial.

Deb Lee said...

What a great post! I love the positive tone of the lessons learned, and that each action really did lead to simpler living. =)

@Lisa ... I'm so sorry for your loss. I wish for you lots of support from loved ones as you work through your grief, and I hope you'll be able to find some measure of happiness from your memories of him.

Cathy said...

What lovely and insightful words! Letting go of things that belonged to loved ones is so tough.
Paint is a beautiful thing. It makes old things new. If your taste changes or little totem just doesn't work with the room decor any longer, a fresh coat of white, or black, or whatever could make it shine. I use one of my husbands golf trophies as a kindling holder for the fire place. There are no rules, just like your dress.

Lisa, wishing you lots of good things that make you smile.

Simpler Living said...

I second Jeri's advice about grief support. I hope Lisa also sees Julie's suggestion. My mother made quilts from her racing T-shirts (she ran marathons). I find my pillow comforting, and I think a quilt would be even more so in this case.

Thank you, all, for your wonderful comments and positive feedback. It's good to know I'm not alone in navigating these issues and finding ways to deal with them.

Melanie Dennis said...

Had this conversation today with a client who inherited boxes and piles of treasures. We decided that just a sample of each would remind her of her mother's legacy. A big church hat to remind her of faith, big crystal platters to remind her of the gift of family meals and an old quilt that reminds her of warmth and love.