Sen•ti•men•tal (adjective) a tender, nostalgic, emotional feeling, often attached to a thing, object, or particular memory, place, or event.
We have all been there.
We have held in our hands a letter or birthday card that was sent to us by someone who is no longer here. Just the sight and feel of it evokes a memory, a moment of remembering when someone extended thoughtfulness and love toward us.
Let’s ponder for a few minutes the connection between a true relationship and the things that represent or remind us of a relationship.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we are digging through a drawer looking for a pen, and we come across a set of keys, or a pair of glasses that belonged to a beloved family member…and we pause, and perhaps pick up the item for a moment, then feel emotion welling up inside, and then we put the item back in the drawer, forcing ourselves to keep moving forward with the task at hand - finding a pen that works.
Before we opened the drawer to look for the pen, if someone had asked us to share what the previous owner of the keys, our loved one, meant to us, most likely we would be able to share many fond memories of them. It’s not like we had forgotten about our loved one, and then suddenly remembered them when we came across their glasses or their keys, or a card in the drawer. Yet, somehow, seeing an actual object that they touched, used, or routinely kept with them spurs strong and meaningful emotions. It almost feels like if we hold something that they held, then we are, in some way, holding them, doesn’t it?
It is interesting how love and loss can do that to us. Yet, at times, this nostalgia is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it is comforting and can bring a smile to us in a heartwarming way. But sometimes it can lead us to hang on to objects, equating that particular object with the relationship we shared with that person. It may inadvertently hold us captive, unable to move forward, stuck in what or who we wish was still here. It is perfectly normal to take time to grieve, and to yearn for what once was…and this season plays out differently for every individual. No one can tell you “time is up, stop grieving now.” But sometimes “things” and objects can delay the grief process, and cause misplaced attachment to innate objects that do not truly benefit the health and well-being of the one with whom they reside.
When we open the drawer and see the set of keys, have we stumbled across the love that we shared with the owner of the keys? No, we have not. The love was already with us. The love did not end when the person passed away. Holding the keys in our hands does not enhance the love, nor reinforce that relationship that we shared with our loved one. The relationship, the love, the memories…all of that was intact BEFORE we came across the object in the drawer - yet - the object caused us to pause and remember, and perhaps, to deeply feel again, all of the emotions connected to the person who previously possessed that item.
There are varying degrees of attachment to objects that remind us of people, places, and events. No two people attach themselves to things in exactly the same manner. If you've ever watched the television show, “Hoarders”, then you know how the practice of possessing items can spiral out of control. When people in those situations feel safe enough to open up and truly be honest about their feelings, it is often revealed that they experienced significant loss, neglect, or fear in a prior season of life that left them with the feeling that they needed to cling to certain objects, or surround themselves with an abundance of things, in order to feel secure, or perhaps to preserve a memory of an individual who was important to them.
On the flip side of that, we may have encountered people who suffer a significant loss, and within a day or two, have bagged up any and all remembrances of anything connected to the loss. There are diverse ways that humans process and manage grief and loss. Sometimes, the loss is not a death, but rather it might be a loss of health or physical strength. It might be a child going away to college or getting married and moving away. All of these events can easily cause us to want to hold tightly to things that remind us of “what was”. It might not even be a sad event! It might be good circumstances, yet we find ourselves in a position of moving or downsizing or remodeling…and some things need to go. As in, GO…out of the house…away from the premises…and not just stashed away in a box in the attic or storage unit.
Compared to the rest of the world, most of us possess far more than the majority of people in other countries. Our closets are full of clothes that we bought but never wear, or that we “hope” to fit into someday. Our garage is stacked with storage bins from 3 moves ago, or filled with objects that we “might need” someday…or things that we keep out of guilt or obligation because of who gave/gifted/left them to us…which leads us back around to think about the “why” behind certain possessions that we keep.
Why do you keep that chair that doesn't go with anything else in your home? Do you have your parent’s faded brown velour La-Z-boy recliner in your basement because you feel guilty about getting rid of it? Do you have memories of them sitting in those chairs watching television in the evening? Does getting rid of it feel disrespectful or dismissive of the relationship you shared with them? Do you have boxes of vintage china or bags of costume jewelry, or salt & pepper shakers that your grandparents collected as they traveled the globe after retirement? Are items under your bed preserved like a time capsule because they belonged to someone you love?
Most of us do not have the luxury of turning our homes into a museum that pays homage to the amazing people who once walked among us. But then, how DO we honor and preserve the legacy of the people we love? How can we reflect upon their importance to us without surrounding ourselves with ALL of their belongings? How can we remind those who come behind us of the beautiful heritage they have been given by those who walked before them?
Here are just a few ideas for preserving the special memories, moments, and “things” that are attached to the people we love.
Remember that people are not their things.
Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the person from the things they owned or with which they were associated. Perhaps we have a box of yearly achievement awards that our father received in his long, illustrious career. To throw them away seems horribly dismissive of his work! But are those awards your actual father? Was he still an outstanding employee, even if those wooden plaques with the engraved brass plates exist only in photos? Yes, he was still an exemplary worker for his company. You can still be proud of his accomplishments, even if you no longer store his trophies and awards in your attic. Maybe you can just keep his first or his final award, and take a photo of all of the others, and then remove/recycle/discard them. This idea also pertains to awards, trophies, ribbons, certificates from every event our kids participated in through grade school and college. Perhaps keep a few of them in a memory box, and give the remainder of them to the person who earned them, and let them decide to keep it or not.
Giving something away does not diminish the significance of the relationship you shared with the person that the object represents. You will not forget about the person simply because that object no longer resides in your home. NOTHING can change the relationship you shared with that person. The object to which you are clinging is not that person. Keeping or giving the item away does not change the relationship. This is so important to understand.
We often confuse guilt and obligation with sentimentality and nostalgia. They are easy to get mixed up, especially when memories and emotions are present! The “stuff” is merely a symbol of the person or the event or the memory. The legacy is the love you shared, not the object.
You know that Pyrex dish with the faded pink flowers that you keep because it belonged to your Aunt Irene who made the most delicious homemade cranberry sauce every Thanksgiving? It’s ok to donate that dish to charity, and serve Aunt Irene’s cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving in your own dish. It would be a thoughtful gesture to print out Aunt Irene’s special recipe, and share it with everyone in the family, so that the legacy of her amazing cooking can live on and be shared with others at subsequent holidays. The Pyrex dish is not Aunt Irene, nor her cranberry sauce, nor the appreciation and love you have for her. Her recipe holds value for your family, and her memory is important, but that dish is not as important as those other things. What if the dish was accidentally dropped and shattered all over the kitchen floor? Would that mean that Aunt Irene no longer mattered to your family? Of course not! Would that mean that no one could ever make Aunt Irene’s cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving ever again? Nope. Even without that faded pink Pyrex dish, Aunt Irene and her cranberry sauce are still a cherished memory at every Thanksgiving, and THIS is something that can be passed down and enjoyed by generations to come in your family. See? It wasn’t the dish that held the nostalgia…it was Aunt Irene herself, and the comfort of family traditions and time spent around the table together that holds the true sentimental significance.
Do you have a collection of books that were valuable to a beloved family member? One idea would be to gather up two or three of the favorites, and tie them together with a ribbon in the favorite color of your loved one, and display it as a vignette on your mantle or coffee table. The remainder of the books could be donated to a library.
Important papers and photographs can be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored in an airtight box. Select the documents that are the most special to YOU, or that represent significant moments in your family history. A marriage certificate can be framed or photographed and added to a family photo book.
If you have a closet full of your loved one’s clothing that you do not know what to do with… perhaps select a few of your favorites and have them made into a keepsake quilt. T-shirt quilts are fairly easy to make from a DIY tutorial on YouTube, or you can ask around to find a local quilter nearby who would help you create a quilt or blanket from those clothing items. The remaining clothing can be donated to a local charity or shelter, or consigned at a shop like Evilena’s Red Dresser. Jewelry and housewares are also great items to consign! Money that is earned from selling these items can be used to take family or friends on a trip or to an event where memories can be made that will be cherished forever.
If you are tasked with sorting through the belongings of a loved one, be sure to go slowly and pace yourself, and give yourself time to process your grief and your emotions. This is a complicated task. If you wait until you are “ready”, you may never feel entirely ready. But it is something that will eventually need to be done, so it’s best not to put it off for too long. Only you know when the best time is to tackle this difficult endeavor. Some people welcome the help of family and friends, while others prefer to work through this process in privacy and solitude.
It is usually best to begin in a “less sentimental” part of the house - like the bathroom. You can toss containers of shampoo and lotions, and throw away old towels and bathmats. Next, you may want to work through a linen closet or the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. Generally, the living room and bedroom tend to be the most sentimental, and sometimes a garage or craft room is very nostalgic, if the loved one had hobbies or a workshop in those spaces.
As you sort through these areas, it can be helpful to sort into piles such as “Keep”, “Sell”, “Donate”, “Throw Away.” If you are able, it is always nice to offer things to family and friends first before donating, selling, or throwing away. Give them a chance to keep an item that is special to them, or holds a memory, or was a gift that they gave to the loved one.
Things that occupy space around your home demand thought and take up space in your head as well as in your home. It takes time to navigate around “stuff”...to keep it clean…to organize it…to store it. Take inventory of the things you have in your space. It’s ok to give yourself some breathing room. If there are things that you are holding on to out of guilt or obligation, take some time to truly think about your “why” behind holding on to that thing. It is ok to move forward, to declutter, to downsize, and still honor the legacy of your loved ones.
One of the best ways to keep the memory alive of those we love is to remember traits and characteristics of them that were meaningful to us, and then live out those qualities each and every day among the people with whom we interact.
This perpetuates their legacy in a far-reaching and worthwhile manner - and in a much more powerful way than any object stored away in a box in the attic. Did your grandma make you feel loved unconditionally? Was her home always warm and welcoming? Strive to develop those same qualities in your own life, in your home, and among your family and friends. Did your mother listen patiently to you or lovingly tuck you in bed each night after a story? Did your father pray with you each morning before he went to work and you went to school? Do those same things with your own children and grandchildren! This is the way we can perpetuate the memory, the precious heritage of those we love. Pass along the kindness they bestowed on you…listen patiently and be thoughtful of others…send a card on a birthday or mail a note to a friend or relative, and share a story or sweet memory that you have of your mutual loved one. It is these meaningful gestures that stay with people, and lodge in their heart, and let them know that they are valuable and loved. In what ways did your loved one make you feel loved? Take those same mannerisms and extend them to others.
We honor those we love and cherish by emulating the qualities we most appreciate in them. It’s not the “things” that matter the most. “Things” can be lost, broken, or forgotten…but the simple and lovely things like care, love, and time are the "things" that are best remembered forever. Things like love, patience, hope, and kindness - those are the things that last and that make for a cherished legacy.