Remembering This One Thing Helps Me Declutter Sentimental Items

published Aug 26, 2023
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Credit: Tessa Cooper

Weeks before I got married and moved across the country, I had the arduous, emotionally taxing task of getting rid of an entire storage unit I’d had for about six years. To this day, I’m embarrassed to think how much money I wasted storing things that I could easily have re-purchased (a mattress) and things that I threw straight into recycling when I encountered them again (boxes of New Yorker magazines). 

There were some treasures, though, among these items. I kept many items that had belonged to my grandparents, who had both passed away in the preceding few years. These keepsakes included things like an intricately carved wooden dresser, dozens of original custom-framed paintings, and table linens purchased in Italy by my grandmother. Beautiful objects, collected over a lifetime by people I loved — the “set” of my happy childhood days in my grandparents’ home. 

I held on to these things with the loyalty of a heart tender with loss. And years later, I still couldn’t let most of them go. So, at yet another cost, I packed them up and carted them from California to Georgia, boxes filled with tokens of my ancestral past trailing me into my new life, embedded in the story I was writing for myself. 

It’s been 15 years since that caravan to the South and, three subsequent moves later, I’m still shedding some of these sentimental items. Some I’ll never part with, like my grandmother’s gold and glass jewelry box. But other things have left my hands throughout the years, and I’ve experienced the lightness I always do when I declutter, even if it took longer to loosen my grip. 

I’m well-acquainted with how hard it can be to part with sentimental items, but I’ve also come to find out firsthand how paring down my sentimental items makes the ones I have that much more evocative. 

When I possessed so many of my grandparents’ items, I felt compelled to use everything. I didn’t realize at first that there were some that, sure, were imbued with a memory, but I didn’t actually like them. For instance, my grandmother had some metal hooks shaped like roses that she hung her bath towels on. I kept them and every time I came across them, I felt guilty that I’d never used them. 

Eventually, I gave them away and gradually built up the confidence I needed to say goodbye to the things that I merely remembered from the past or that I still had all these years later. 

As I whittled down my sentimental possessions that had belonged to my grandparents, I was able to see and enjoy what I still had left in a way that had been obscured when they were a few things among a great deal many others. 

The paintings that truly speak to me I have on my wall, among pieces I chose myself. The jewelry box still sits on my dresser; it’s one of my very favorite things, and more special than ever now that it’s one of the few things I own that belonged to my grandmother. 

If you struggle to get rid of sentimental items, remember that the more you have, the more their sentimental potency is diluted. This will help you, as it has helped me, get rid of the stuff you’re keeping only because it’s sentimental. Putting this mentality into practice as you’re decluttering your sentimental things will leave you with a small collection of things that were special to your loved ones and are liked by you, linking the past and the present in a way that truly honors the legacy you want to cherish.