A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 3)


bowlIn A Legacy of “Stuff” (part 1) and A Legacy of “Stuff” (part 2), we discussed what to do with the “stuff” left behind by someone who passed away. It was hard to write and hard for you to read. Now let’s move into an even MORE difficult area — the stuff that WE will leave behind. (By the way, I can’t find any material already written on this subject. Apparently, everyone else also thinks it’s hard to write about.)If you plan to leave something to the next generation or to your friends, do some very good communicating with them now to see if they would want it. If not, realize that your cherished items might be more burden than bounty to people you love. Most of all, let them know what is important or valuable, so they don’t decide everything you own is clutter, and toss it out.

Here is a true story that will get you on board more than anything I could write. George, a fire fighter, told of being at a holiday gathering shortly after his beloved Aunt Nora had been moved in to a nursing home. Her idea of living a frugal life was to never throw away anything. She had no children of her own, so everyone in the family pitched in to clear out her house. It was exhausting work; emptying the basement alone filled two huge dumpsters.

These workers were mostly adult nieces and nephews who adored their Aunt Nora, but they had families of their own, jobs to go to, lawns to mow, and they were running out of steam. By the time they started on the first floor, they didn’t have the energy to make great decisions, so they gave away and tossed out most of Aunt Nora’s stuff.

At the gathering of the clan, George heard a lively discussion going on in the living room with several of Aunt Mary’s sisters who were visiting from California. Then his cousin walked into the kitchen looking ghostly pale. She turned to her husband and said, “You know how we all thought Aunt Nora was poor as a church mouse? Well, all those boxes of glass contained extremely expensive Waterford crystal that was almost one hundred years old that she inherited from her mother.”

George said, “I don’t remember who we gave all those boxes to. Do you?” She replied, “We tossed every one of them in the dumpster.”

Isn’t that heart breaking? But that happens in many families. Sometimes items tossed out weren’t of financial value, but the family didn’t realize that the lovely candlesticks they gave to Goodwill were brought over from the old country by their grandmother.

We had something like that in our family. I was out of the country when my cousin started emptying his mom’s house after she moved to Assisted Living. By the time I joined him in the work, he had tossed out every box that was in the basement and crawl space. Then we discovered that he had thrown out the only photos of his little brother who had passed away. He, his mom and the rest of us all felt terrible about it, but he just didn’t know. The box wasn’t labeled.

Difficult as it might be, it is crucial to tell people what is important.

Yes, I do know that nobody wants to talk about what will happen with their stuff when then die, but you need to tell someone the stories that go with family treasures. Tell them what items are an important part of their heritage. Tell them what is valuable. Tell them who should get certain items. Ask them if they want that item.

Maybe you are the one who cherishes the family history and you have ALL the family photos. But if you tell your kids about it and nobody wants it, wouldn’t it be better to pass that on to a relative would love to keep those pictures for future generations instead of having your kids toss them out?

Danielle, my wonderful literary agent, tells of how her grandmother taped cards on back of things — letting the family know who gets what, and any stories. For example, she wrote: “I received this lace in 1947, it came from my aunt.” Once you know something like that about an item, suddenly it becomes precious, doesn’t it?

You might think this sounds creepy or scary or morbid. But it simply is facing reality. Do you believe that if you don’t think about dying or speak about it, then you won’t die???

When we are gone, family might sell some things, keep others, but who do you think should get your cherished items? Your books? Your music? Your collections? Your creations? The special things you cook with or work with or play with? Now is the time to figure that out.

Rita Emmett
Author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook,
The Clutter-Busting Handbook and
Manage Your Time to Reduce Your Stress: A Handbook for the Overworked, Overscheduled, and Overwhelmed


2 thoughts on “A Legacy of “Stuff” (Part 3)

  • January 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    I witnessed my mother’s struggl after my father died in ’84. In 2004, I faced her ‘legacy’ followed shortly by the passing of both in-laws within 3 years. I learned a few tactics.
    1. Speed is the key – don’t think too much!!! Prepare to handle anything of value at least twice, maybe more.
    2. Cull out what is clearly junk, and sort the rest into 4 groups: Valued, Maybe Worth Something, Donate and “Later.”
    3. Process “Later” the next day, before tackling any new boxes or closets or shelves. Remove at least 75% to Valued, Maybe or Donate. Add this day’s “Later” to the existing collection and sort the next day.
    4. Keep up this process for as long as it takes, AND remember it took decades to assemble, so you’re not going to get through it all in a couple of days. When possible, take a break every 4-5 days.
    5. Final sort on “Later” is the moment of truth about keeping or passing it on. Be clear, be strong and be wise.

    Those things that I dearly wanted to keep but could find no use for (decorative or practical), I put into a Memory Box. I chose the box first by size and then for how it looks. If I could not use an item and it did not fit into that box, I did not keep it. I put each box on a shelf in my closet where I can see it and reach it. I take them out from time to time and go through the items, enjoying the memories and removing anything that no longer brings a rush of joy.

    I just found this blog and this 3-part series holds areso good. I’m reading months of postings and feeling right at home. Thanks!

  • January 27, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for your insightful comment, Judy, and I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so glad you found us!

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