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Family Heirlooms: 5 Tips for Going Through the Stuff You've Inherited After a Death

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

my grandpa would go on yearly fishing trips and bring home a teacup from Canada for my grandma. decorating with them makes me happy.

So, did you ever have family time where everyone had to go around the room putting post-it notes on "what you want when I die" or was it just my family? I was too young to realize what an unusual (kinda weird?) thing this was to do, but my grandpa would decide he was "about to go,"and call a family meeting where we'd talk (again) about who got what. I, being a younger grandkid, was emotionally detached from it, but even I knew the question was loaded when I got my one post-it to put on an item.

Years later, and those grandparents and my parents are gone, and the boxes, bins and baskets have collected and the task of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of has been a necessary thing. On one level, it's not just an antique brass scale or a handmade woven basket, instead those items become overwhelming as it's the person's time, their money, their energy and their feelings about the brass scale. To some extent the item can become them in your head (if I get rid of this, I'm getting rid of grandma). On another level, it's just stuff, of course. If you ever find yourself in the position I found myself in, I wanted to share a few tips as to how to go about it:

Realize they longer need it or want it, nor do they care what you do with it. This was probably the hardest thing for me to separate in my mind (and heart). My parents were collectors, as were my grandparents, and their collections were a hobby for them. My grandparents collected antiques, stamps and coins, while my parents collected Pepsi cans/bottles from different countries, White House Christmas ornaments, books on the first ladies, quarters from 1976, a map with the counties (yes, counties, as in United States counties) they had visited colored in...they saw everything as something to be collected. But the reality is, I hadn't decided to collect these things, so they just didn't mean as much to me.

My dad had a garage filled with tools from my grandfather, plus his own, plus lots of wood chunks, planks and half-cut decoys. Unfortunately, my mother didn't clean the garage out after he passed, so we had double the piles to go through when she died. This was harder emotionally for me because my dad loved woodworking, and seeing half-finished projects made the reality of a life cut short seem that much more real and sad. We called a friend who is into woodworking and let him have the pick of the garage and donated the rest, which made me feel a bit better that it would be used. My mother could be a bit more attached to collections, and had designated a couple of her things to specific friends, but after that, I have to say it was a relief to know she did not care at that point what we did with her stuff. The point is, I didn't need to feel guilt for not keeping the items. When they were alive, I honored their wishes, respected their decisions to keep the collections, but now the items belonged to my brother and me - therefore, the decision we made of what to do with the things was ours and ours alone. THIS is way easier said than done, as I've learned from talking to other friends going through the same situation. My best advice (even though it can be hard): Release the guilt.

Bring along an objective voice: My brother and husband were alongside me cleaning out the garage, basement and house. They were more objective, and while their decisiveness could be upsetting at times, I also knew they were right. They were able to separate the feelings and call it what it was. It's nice to have a friend or relative help you with the cleaning out who knew the person as I feel like this makes them objective, but also understanding of your emotions. Having someone willing to listen to the stories and allow you to have your attachment and sentimental feelings (and maybe tears), yet push you gently is helpful.

brass scales might not be my thing, but apparently the weights are

Decide how much you will allow yourself to keep: If you give yourself a certain space (this corner in the basement) or a set amount of bins, it's easier to push yourself to get rid of extra. I refused to pay for storage on their collections, so the bins we have fit the space we have specifically set aside for family keepsakes. Shortly after this cleaning out happened, we moved out of our house, which made narrowing the collection of things from my parents and grandparents more manageable, as I was forced to narrow it down. Having an idea of the space I would allot for keepsakes helped make the decision a third party decision - in other words, the bins were determining what I could keep, therefore I was working within those boundaries.

What did we keep? We kept things that we truly enjoy looking at and using in our home, but anything we weren't attached to or just didn't anything to our decor, out it went (donated, sold or given to a friend who would appreciate it). I also constantly reminded myself that basically, a collection of brass scales is just... a collection of brass scales. They're cool, sure, but would you go out and buy ten of them today? Probably not. It helped to remember that just because grandpa wanted to collect them didn't mean I had to collect them. Keep one if you think they're pretty (they are), but get rid of the rest and don't feel guilty. Limiting yourself to a certain amount of space or boxes is a helpful, objective way to narrow it down.

one of our favorite pieces my grandpa made, he would sand hardwoods for hours, until they gleamed in the light

My priority was handmade or sentimental-to-me items: My first three points were fairly objective, but I don't mean to imply that keeping things that are special to you is bad! Of course not! Keep it, enjoy it, treasure it. In fact, you could tell immediately what means something to me by what I keep close to me by my desk I'm sitting at right now. A little banjo playing man whittled by my dad, a beautiful wood piece my grandfather gave me, a picture of my grandfather from my dad's side along with his WWII era Navy dog tag, a tiny jewelry box of my grandmother's, and a set of shaker boxes made by my dad. I even have a little plastic Eyeore keychain that isn't worth a dime, but I had gotten it for my dad before he died and have kept it in a prominent place since. When I die, someone could wonder why I had a little old Eyeore front and center on my desk, but to me, it carries meaning and memory. I treasure these specific items on my shelf and would be sad to lose them! That's okay. I have the space, they are dusted and I will enjoy them.

We've enjoyed assimilating some of my grandparents' antiques they collected into our decor, and it becomes a symbolic way to show that what our family was is part of who I am today. I love telling the stories to people who visit our house, especially when nearly everyone who visits points out the giant hutch we have that used to be in a general store. That piece has been passed from my grandparents, to my mother and now to me. I have a corner cupboard from the early 1800's my great-grandma (who was an antique collector herself) gave to me - it's meaningful and useful in our space. To me, it means more if it was made by someone in the family and since my mother and grandpa were authors, my dad and grandpa were woodworkers, and my grandma is an artist, I've treasured those works above all! (But even then, we had to get rid of some half-done pieces, some that I knew they didn't love themselves, etc. I felt okay about this because we kept the pieces I knew they particularly liked and were proud of.) I also kept at least one especially sentimental item for each of my kids that someday I can hand down to them.

Keep the clearly marked pictures with family names, dates, locations: Oh, God bless the parent who clearly labels pictures. My grandmother on my dad's side, who is still living, kept every card I ever wrote her, and kept very good track of pictures and who was in them. We have family histories and family trees from both sides and treasure those, as I know it is unusual to have such complete histories. I keep those in plastic bins and albums so they will not be ruined by water and make sure that I know where they are for myself and for my kids. It is a blessing to know our history and show where our family came from, and who we were.

Bonus: Pray about it. I believe there's a spiritual aspect to this as well. One day I found myself alone in my parent's house, with the majority of the stuff cleaned out, but a whole front room full of things we needed to take to our house. The sense of family being gone was heavier to me than anything, but in the alone moment, there was never a more clear sense of none of it mattering as I much rather would have had them back, not the stuff, so enjoy it here, but don't let it control you. It's not worth it.

Lord, thank you that my family is with You, thank you that the things that can be destroyed here on earth with moth and rust have been traded in for the eternal. Thank you for what my family taught me about appreciating beauty, and being interested in the created world. May I not make an idol of things, people, or even of life itself. Let me place these things in Your hands as I sift through, deciding what to keep and what can go. Thank you for the legacy of faith you have given me, and help me treasure that above all else.

Going through family heirlooms, collections and stuff is difficult and there's no easy way to manage it. Hopefully these tips can help, and my experience can be an encouragement to you. You can do it, you can let go of guilt and the "shoulds" and also honor your parents' memory, but more by who you are becoming, not on what you keep or toss.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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Nikki Ruskofsky
Nikki Ruskofsky
Jul 13, 2023

What great tips and advice for sorting out keepsakes when someone dies. This was very helpful.

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