How to Let Go of Family Heirlooms You No Longer Want to Hold Onto

published Sep 14, 2022
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Receiving belongings passed down from family members can be a special moment or they can come into your possession unexpectedly when someone passes. Inheritance can help you establish your identity, find personal meaning in your ancestry, or even immortalize people after they are gone. It’s the perfect opportunity not only for deep storytelling but also for creating beautiful, unique aesthetics in your home. 

But inheriting items can come at a heavier price over time. What do you do with it? Are these things truly meant to be carried on forever and passed down with care? And how do you choose which ones to keep without letting the guilt of letting go consume you?

As a professional organizer who is also deeply sentimental, I work through this personally and professionally. When my nana was alive, there were parts of our relationship I held sacred, like her handwritten “straight to the point” message on every birthday card or the books she purchased from the library where she volunteered. When she was gone, we all got to pick a few items from her belongings that had meaning.

I wasn’t looking for valuables or expensive antiques. I was looking for items that tied her memory to me so powerfully that when I was around it or thought of it, it was like I was transported right back to that very moment. I wanted those used library books or that tiny sherry glass she’d drink from in the evenings.

Beyond that, there were some historical items, including a large printed scroll of Ellis Island arrival dates and black-and-white images of our ancestors in front of their homes before coming to America. The more I tried to latch on to items that would keep the legacy of nana alive, the more I realized there was a difference between items that grounded my relationship with her for eternity and those that made me feel like I was forced to keep to honor her. 

Credit: Karin Hildebrand Lau/Shutterstock

I created a system for myself: I refused to keep things that didn’t matter to my perception of our relationship or ancestral items that didn’t allow me to easily pass our history down the line. Just because an item has history does not mean you have to be the one who keeps it. There can be a lot of guilt around feeling like you are the sole carrier of your family legacy, especially if there’s a generational history of loss or if it took a long time to gather artifacts.

There are resources out there that can help organize information so that you don’t have to be physically burdened by it, such as The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. For some, however, family history might not be easy to look up online. If that’s the case, here’s what you can do: build a portfolio of what you have and sort through what physical items can be let go of. Physical items can be written about to form a family history story. After all, the entire reason we even know about some families is because of word of mouth, the most powerful form of storytelling. When we can move some physical items into documented stories, it helps us release them with less guilt. 

If you no longer want to be the holder of keepsakes, choose the items you are ready to let go of and offer them to another family member. Let them know if someone else does not want them, you’ll be donating them. Give people the opportunity to claim their legacy items and memories. There can be a lot of tension in families when someone owns something and doesn’t give anyone else a choice before they throw it away. That also comes with boundaries: if someone wants something, provide them with a time frame to come get it or mail it to them/drop it off. You are not responsible for their process of letting go and the emotions they need to face, so avoid taking on the responsibility of holding on to things for an undetermined amount of time. 

Remember, people let go in layers. Decluttering, especially when it is emotional, doesn’t have to happen during a big clear-out. But it should be tethered to revisiting the items consistently until everything has been processed and final decisions can be made. I needed more time with the items I saved from my grandparents to see if they held any special memories that would make a difference in my life. And ultimately, I whittled down to belongings that made it easy for me to honor them and let go of the rest.