After my parents died, I felt a responsibility to hang on to nearly all their belongings – my father’s neckties, my mother’s scarves, their mortgage records, car titles, passports, books, home videos, photographs, and more. For a while, keeping these possessions made me feel closer to my mom and dad. But years later, doing so became a burden and certainly didn’t bring me pleasure. Over time, I figured out that repurposing objects, or simply parting with them, made me feel happier and more connected.
Purging objects (and upcyling others) enhances our connection to loved ones and drives our sense of resilience. We feel stronger when we take control. By being proactive about our loved one’s belongings, we increase the likelihood the remaining possessions are truly meaningful to us, don’t weigh us down, and spark the kind of memories that have the capacity to make us more cheerful than sad.
Below are my top 5 tips for using spring cleaning to build resilience after loss, many of them explored at greater length in my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.
1.) Donate Objects
Trinkets of every stripe might be of interest to museums and historical societies. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum still receives donations of shoes, clothing, ID cards, even telephone messages. Such objects, now in the care of professional preservationists and curators, ensure the men and women who once owned them will never be forgotten. Consider what types of objects you have. Object-centric organizations maintain vast collections of items, be they ceramics or costumes, sports memorabilia or stamps, textiles, or typewriters. By donating objects to reputable institutions, you may also alleviate any guilt that bubbles up from parting with your loved one’s possessions.
2.) Curate a Gallery
Take your loved one’s official documents (college ID, driver license, military papers, business cards) and turn them into stately decorations around your home. To create a cohesive look, frame these objects in like-colored mattes and frames. A collection that spans multiple generations often works best —no need to arrange documents in chronological order.
3.) Assemble a Touchable Magic Box
If you have children, place a dozen or so objects in a small box: eyeglasses, gloves, lockets, money clips, and bookmarks. Encourage kids to rummage through it all, making sure to mention where the items came from or whom they once belonged to. The incredible upside of this project is that it gives you somewhere to place all those little items you can’t bring yourself to give away or donate.
4.) Approach Textiles Creatively
Show off and enjoy meaningful fabrics – table linens, towels, jeans, shirts, and sweaters. A company like Totes with Tales is great to work with. (I hired The Gazebo to turn my father’s neckties into a quilt, while a close relative used several of my mother’s scarves to make the wedding canopy under which I got married.) For other items, one might: frame a portion of a wedding dress or uniform, honor a religious garment within a display case, or wrap a portion of a love-worn tablecloth around a large canvas and mount it on a wall.
5.) Repurpose Books
Hardcovers can be given new life well beyond the bookshelf: A sharp utility knife can turn book covers into mattes for mounting photographs, and the cavity of a hollowed-out book can become a hidden safe or an unexpected gift box. (BeeZ by Scranton and Chick-Lit Designs offer great ideas and craftsmanship.)
Giving yourself permission this spring to toss or transform your loved one’s possessions accomplishes two distinct and complementary goals. One, it decreases the likelihood the items will become oppressive; and two, it increases the chance what’s left will actually make you smile. These next few weeks always seem to open new windows of opportunity and healing for me.