For the last month or so, my husband Will and I have spent some time doing what everyone who has lost a close loved one can relate to—cleaning out my Father-in-Law Norm’s house.
Norm was a relatively modest man; except for his collection of illustrator artwork and specimens/lab equipment on loan from the museum, by American standards, he didn’t own much.
Yet, it has still taken us days to go through files of paperwork, donate kitchen things and clothes, and sort through his things. A good chunk of this was relatively self-explanatory, but then there were those things that we struggled with.
The tough part, of course, is the sentimental items. Things that Norm kept because his late wife Nancy, Will’s Mom, loved them. Things that were around during Will’s childhood. Things that meant a lot to Norm. What to keep? What to donate? What to throw out?
We found ourselves stuck between wanting to keep Norm’s memory alive, but wanting to stay true to our Christian minimalist lifestyle by not bringing much home.
Sentimental items are a struggle for anyone who wants to live more minimally. There’s a spectrum of emotional attachment to our stuff—and for those things that remind us of loved ones or past eras in our lives, it can be especially hard to figure out what to keep and what to let go. We can be scared of letting things go, or even feel guilty.
But as we are reminded in 1 Timothy 1:7,
God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
God calls us to let go of things as we are able, and exercise our power and love and self-discipline—and not hold on to these things because of fear.
Here are three major learnings Will and I have had as we deal with sentimental items (that will hopefully help you, too!):
Our things are not our memories.
This should be obvious for all of us, but often it’s not. Because a sentimental item can bring up strong emotions, it’s easy to forget that the object is not actually the memory. The memory is inside of us. We do not have to keep everything that reminds us of a person or a certain time in our life in order to have access to those memories.
As we went through Norm’s things, Will and I kept constantly reminding ourselves that our memories of Norm were not held in his things. We can bring to mind those memories whenever we want to—we didn’t need to keep all the things to remember him.
Find a different way to “keep” things
Although our things are not our memories, we often like keeping the things around because they trigger those memories for us. If you’re worried about not having the thing to remind you of those memories, find a way to “keep” it without actually keeping it.
My favorite way to do this is to take a photo of the object and then keep the photo digitally accessible. That way, I can always look through my photos of the things and have the same reminder of the memories—without the added clutter of keeping a bunch of sentimental objects around.
If the thing is a document, on paper, or a photograph, I scan it. That way, I can organize them in digital files to look at later rather than keeping piles of papers and photos. (You can also take pictures of these things as well if you don’t have access to a scanner. And here’s another option—you can scan things using a smartphone app!)
Keep only the most important objects.
When the situation is emotionally charged and you’re going through sentimental items, it’s easy to want to keep everything. But this will only add to the stress and clutter later, and often when there’s a lot of items, they end up in storage or tucked away somewhere—where you won’t see them anyway.
But if you narrow it down to the few most important sentimental items, you will have the space to display them and enjoy them. It sure beats having multiple boxes of sentimental items that no one will ever see. By choosing the most important objects, you and your loved ones can actually appreciate them and see them regularly.
When I was speaking at a congregation about Christian minimalism, a parent admitted that they had boxes and boxes in their basement of every single piece of artwork their children had ever drawn. I asked them if they had ever opened those boxes to look at the artwork since putting them in the boxes, and they said no.
Their children were grown and out of the house—but they still held on to all these boxes of drawings. They were so afraid to part with anything their kids had created, that they didn’t even get to look at the kids’ artistic creations!
Now, imagine if that parent had gone through and picked their favorite 2-3 pieces of artwork for each child, and had them framed and put on the wall (and had let go of the rest of the drawings). Imagine how powerful that would be for the parent and their children—to see their best childhood artwork on display for all to see and enjoy!
Pick the most important things, and you will enjoy them so much more.
A quick note: If you have a few sentimental items that you are unsure of (if they fall into the “most important category” or not) you can have a small box or bin that you keep them in for a few months, and then you can revisit them later. Many times, when we revisit sentimental objects at a later date, we realize that they don’t hold the emotional power over us that they did previously.
Letting Go of the Past
We often have a hard time letting go of sentimental items because we are hesitant to let go of the past. Reminiscing can be enjoyable at times, but if we hold on to the past too tightly, it can hold us back from the life God is calling us to live in the here and now.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.Isaiah 43:18-19
If we hold on to a ton of things from our past, they will hold us back from the new things God is doing. Let us honor the past with a few sentimental items, but (with God’s help) let us let go and step into the future God wants for us, unencumbered.