I’ve worked with many people whose parents or beloved family members have died and left them with inheritance clutter. This can be furniture, books, letters, photographs, papers, clothes, cars, property — anything the relative once owned. I call it clutter because my clients often don’t care about the majority of the stuff, but they can’t let it go because its connection to the deceased makes them feel like they are letting the person go. The situation makes them feel depressed, tired, and overwhelmed.
When a family member or loved one passes away, we inherit things that remind us of them. Most of the time, the items themselves serve no other purpose. By hanging on to these mementos, we attempt to maintain our connection with the person who died. But in most cases this makes for a weak connection. Nothing fully replaces the deceased person’s presence. Our longing remains unmet.
Inherited Items: To Keep or Not To Keep?
When it comes to inherited items, the feelings of loss and longing are often mixed with resentment for having to keep or care for stuff we don’t really want. We may even feel angry that the person who died burdened us with all their crap. This anger hurts because we don’t want to feel this way about someone we loved. The mixture of sorrow, loss, resentment, guilt, and anger creates a very difficult emotional knot that often causes people to shut down. Usually nothing gets done. People hang on to the items, not knowing what to do with them and thus keep alive their sadness about their loved one’s passing.
I was working with a client in her condo. She used to share the space with her mom, who had passed away a few years ago. The place was jam-packed with stuff. Things were piled on top of things, and there was very little floor space. Half the stuff was her mom’s.
I decided to start in the living room. Two bookcases were filled with hundreds of her mom’s paperback murder mysteries. My client said that she wanted to keep them. I asked if she read them. First she was silent. Then she said no. She said that she listened to books on tape while commuting on the train to work. She looked at the books and was frustrated and angry. She didn’t care for murder mysteries at all, but she couldn’t let them go. She said she felt her mom had put her in a very difficult spot.
Letting Go of Inherited Stuff That You Don't Want
It’s natural when a parent dies to want to preserve their things. Their stuff contains their presence, their attention, their personality. It’s as if a person’s scent lives on in their things. Though they are gone, it feels like they are still with us. And if those things remain an active part of our lives, it serves us to keep them. But often they aren’t, and they clog up our living space. My client didn’t read these books, but she missed her mom. Part of her felt that if she let go of the books, she’d be letting go of her mom.
But the reverse is true: when we let go of the things from our parents that don’t matter to us, our memories of them are no longer clogged up in their stuff. Our parents become a living presence in our hearts, where they resonate much more strongly.
My client agreed to go through the books with me. About 98 percent of them went into the donation pile. She kept a few. She said it made her feel good to see them on the shelf; it was as if her mom were winking at her.
Is Your House a Mausoleum for Loved Ones Who Have Passed On?
Our homes are not museums, or mausoleums, for loved ones who have passed. We don’t cherish the people in our lives by hanging on to them through things we don’t care for. We cherish them by living an unencumbered life and being free in our hearts to remember who they were to us.
We can honor our loved ones in ways that don’t interrupt our life. We can keep just enough to remind us of the place where our memories and our loved one’s presence actually reside: in our hearts. In themselves, things remember nothing. But our hearts can conjure the presence of those we love anytime, and in ways that are fresh and alive.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library, Novato, CA. ©2012 by Brooks Palmer.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Clutter Busting Your Life: Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others -- by Brooks Palmer.
Over the course of his career helping people let go of things they no longer need, Brooks Palmer has been struck by the many ways that clutter affects relationships. In these pages, he shows how we use clutter to protect ourselves, control others, and cling to the past, and how it keeps us from experiencing the joy of connection. With insight-prompting questions, exercises, client examples, and even whimsical line drawings, Palmer will take you from overwhelmed to empowered. His gentle guidance will help you to not only clear clutter from your home but also enjoy deeper, more authentic, and clutter-free relationships of all kinds.
About the Author
Brooks Palmer uses compassion, awareness, and humor to help clients get rid of clutter from their homes, garages, offices, and lives. He has been featured in national and local media and offers clutter-busting workshops. He also performs stand-up comedy regularly in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Brooks divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles. Visit his clutter-busting blog at www.ClutterBusting.com and his humor website at www.BetterLateThanDead.com.