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Letting Go of Sentimental Items


Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Joshua Millburn of The Minimalists. He also writes fiction and his first novel, AS A DECADE FADES, will be published soon. Follow him on Twitter.


My mother died in 2009. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life, it goes without saying.

She lived a thousand miles away and after she passed it was my responsibility to vacate her apartment in Florida. It was a small, one-bedroom place, but it was packed wall-to-wall with her belongings. My mother had great taste—she could have been an interior designer—and none of her stuff was junk. Nevertheless, there was a lot of stuff in her home.

Mom was always shopping, always accumulating more stuff. She had antique furniture throughout her apartment, a stunning oak canopy-bed that consumed almost her entire bedroom, two closets jam packed with clothes, picture frames standing on every flat surface, original artwork hanging on the walls, and tasteful creative decorations in every nook and cranny and crevasse. There was 64 years of accumulation in that apartment.

So I did what any son would do: I rented a large truck from U-Haul. Then I called a storage place back in Ohio to make sure they had big enough storage unit. The cost of the truck was $1600. The storage facility was $120 per month for the size I needed. Financially, I could afford this, but I quickly found out that the emotional cost was much higher.


At first I didn’t want to let go of anything. If you’ve ever lost a parent or a loved one or been through a similarly emotional time, then you understand exactly how hard it was for me to let go of any of those possessions. So instead of letting go, I was going to cram every trinket and figurine and piece of oversized furniture into that Lilliputian storage locker in Ohio. Floor to ceiling. That way I knew that Mom’s stuff was there if I ever wanted it, if I ever needed access to it for some incomprehensible reason. I even planned to put a few pieces of Mom’s furniture in my home as subtle reminders of her.

I started boxing up her belongings. Every picture frame and every little porcelain doll and every white doily on every shelf. I packed every bit of her that remained.

Or so I thought.

And then I looked under her bed…

Among the organized chaos that comprised the crawlspace beneath her bed, there were five boxes, each labeled with a number. Each numbered box was sealed with packing tape. I cut through the tape and found old papers from my elementary school days from nearly a quarter of a century ago. Spelling tests, cursive writing lessons, artwork, it was all there, every shred of paper from my first five years of school. It was evident that she hadn’t accessed the sealed boxes in years. And yet Mom had held on to these things because she was trying to hold on to pieces of me, to pieces of the past, much like I was attempting to hold on to pieces of her and her past.

That’s when I realized that my retention efforts were futile. I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all of our memories without ever accesses those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.

I called U-Haul and canceled the truck. And then, over the next week, I started donating all of her stuff to places and people who could actually use it.

Lessons Learned

Yes, it was difficult to let go, but I realized quite a few things about our relationship between memories and possessions during the entire experience:

  1. I am not my stuff. We are more than our possessions.
  2. Our memories are not under our beds. Memories are within us, not within our things.
  3. An item that is sentimental for us can be an item that is useful for someone else.
  4. Holding on to stuff weighs on us mentally and emotionally. Letting go is freeing.
  5. You can take pictures of items you want to remember.
  6. Old photographs can be scanned (more on this below).

It is important to note that I don’t think that sentimental items are bad or evil or that holding on to them is wrong. I don’t. Rather, I think the perniciousness of sentimental items—and sentimentality in general—is far more subtle. If you want to get rid of an item but the only reason you are holding on to it is for sentimental reasons—if it is weighing on you—then perhaps it’s time to get rid of it, perhaps it is time to free yourself of the weight. That doesn’t mean that you need to get rid of everything though.

Giant Leap or Baby Steps

When I returned to Ohio, I had four boxes of Mom’s photographs in my trunk, which I would later scan and backup online. I found a scanner that made scanning the photos easy. Those photos are digital now; they can be used in digital picture frames instead of collecting dust in a basement somewhere. I no longer have the clutter of their boxes laying around and weighing me down, and they can never be destroyed in a fire.

I donated everything else. All of it. Literally. I donated every piece of furniture and all of her clothes and every decorative item she had strewn throughout her home.

That was a giant leap for me, but I felt as if it needed to be done to remove the weight—the emotional gravitas—of the situation from my shoulders.

You see, I don’t need Mom’s stuff to remind me of her. There are traces of her everywhere. In the way I act, in the way I treat others, even in my smile. She’s still there, and she was never part of her stuff.

Whenever I give advice, I tend to give two options. The first option is usually the giant leap option, the dive-in-head-first option (e.g., get rid of everything, smash your TV, throw out all your stuff, quickly rip off the band-aid, etc.). This option isn’t for everyone, and it’s often not for me, but in this case, that’s what I did. I donated everything.

The second option is to take baby steps, and it works because it helps you build momentum by taking action. Look at it this way: what sentimental item can you get rid of today that you’ve wanted to get rid of for a while? Start there. Then pick one or two things per week and gradually increase your efforts as you feel more comfortable.

Whichever option you choose, the important part is that you take action. That is to say, never leave the scene of a good idea without taking action. What will you do today to part ways with sentimental items that are weighing you down?


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Joshua | The Minimalists March 23, 2011, 7:09 am

    Thanks for the opportunity, Tammy. I appreciate it.

    • Tammy March 23, 2011, 7:28 am

      @Josh – For sure! Thanks for putting so much effort into the essay. 🙂 It rocks!

  • Jami March 23, 2011, 7:26 am

    This was a very timely moment for me to read this. I have a blog post in my draft folder as I’ve been thinking about the exact same subject. I’m preparing to start a kind of nomadic life on my bicycle and am purging most everything. I’m counting on doing the second option of baby steps as I’m on keeping a few small sentimental things. Right now I’m still on the first run through of going through my collection of stuff and know that I will be continuing to edit that first run though.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:27 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed this essay. I found that constant paring down of my things (especially my clothes) was a good way to go. I’m always asking myself “why do I need this?” and “what would happen if I didn’t have this?” Good luck.


  • Paul Strobl March 23, 2011, 7:40 am

    This article turned out to be very timely for me. I lost a lot of weight getting in shape over the past few years and my brother’s old shirts (he passed away 6 years ago) are pretty big on me now. I had been recently debating whether to donate them, as the mostly just sit in my closet taking up space.

    Thanks for this.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:29 pm

      I know exactly what you mean. About seven years ago I lost 70 pounds. And yet for years I held on to a bunch of clothes (in a basement) that I never wore. Finally, I got rid of all of them when I embarked on my minimalist journey in 2009. I took several car loads to Goodwill and it felt great. Good luck.

  • Brody March 23, 2011, 8:01 am

    Thanks, Josh. I’ve been feeling weighed down for a while — and my mother is 90, so this has been on my mind.
    Your words are really solid advice.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:30 pm

      Brody, I’m glad you found value in the essay. Perhaps some of the essays on our site can add value too. I’m on Twitter if you ever need anything. Thanks.

  • Naomi March 23, 2011, 8:23 am

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Josh. Dealing with someone’s stuff and the shock of losing them at the same time can be overwhelming, especially when you live far away. I wasn’t into minimalism when my stepfather died, then my father, so it took me more time to let go of things. I also inherited things I could (and still) use, like furniture. My stepbrother and I both lived back East when my stepdad died, and we drove a U-Haul from Colorado to New York in three days. But I also remember going to the grocery store in Fort Collins to buy trash bags, then bagging up most of his clothing and taking it to Goodwill. It sucked at the time, but his clothing was one of those things none of his kids could use.

    Baby steps worked for me. I still have the things I care the most about, but I’ve donated and recycled boxes of stuff I didn’t think I could get rid of five years ago. Letting go was part of the grieving process for me.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:32 pm

      Good for you for donating most of the stuff. This experience was really the impetus of my journey into minimalism in 2009. It made me question the other possessions in my life as well. A silver lining I suppose. I’m glad you enjoyed this essay.

  • Charlie Thomason March 23, 2011, 8:40 am

    Very beautiful and inspiring article. I recently went through and scanned in all my old negatives from my college photography courses. I realized that the only reason I was holding on to them was because I missed the simplicity and creative freedom I had back in those days.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:33 pm

      It’s not too late the reclaim that creative freedom today. But I’m not telling you anything new; you already know this. Good luck and thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it.

  • Juhli March 23, 2011, 10:43 am

    Thanks for sharing this especially as losing a parent makes handling the necessary next steps so difficult. When a lovely neighbor of mine passed away her son took much the same approach. After family and friends had taken items they wanted the son posted on Craigslist that there was a houseful of free furniture available to anyone who needed it and would take it away. I think he got a lot of joy out of helping out others in this way.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:35 pm

      Contribution is important and gratifying. After all, living is giving. And while that sounds like a platitude, it’s the honest truth. I’m glad you found value in this essay. Take care.

  • Tabita March 23, 2011, 11:35 am

    Timely reminder! I just moved into what is (hopefully) our final home (please, please, please) and have boxes of “sentimental” items that have been in equally expensive storage for 2 1/2 years. It makes me tired just looking at those boxes. I think I’m going to go the photography route and just get rid of it all. My goal is to have only seasonal items + one small memory box for each family member in our basement storage area. It will be awesome!

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:37 pm

      Good for you. That’s outstanding! And you’re right, it will be awesome. Just have to take action, which I’m certain you will do. Good luck.

  • Darby March 23, 2011, 12:34 pm

    While you’ve had a very hard loss, you’ve also gained much growth. My father passed away 7 years ago and I still have most of his stuff and not ready to let it go. This article helps in letting go.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:39 pm

      Darby, sorry to hear about your father. I lost mine when I was nine. Losing my mother at 28 (I’ll be 30 this year) was a much different experience, but you’re right: I grew immensely from the experience. In fact, this event was pretty much the impetus of my journey into minimalism; it made me question all of my possessions when I got back to Ohio.

  • Timaree March 23, 2011, 12:42 pm

    Sorry you lost your mom so soon. It’s hard. Both of my parents have been gone a long time and I still think of them daily.

    There is one more thing you can do if you find it hard to part with stuff. Draw it. Or paint it. Or play with a digital copy in PhotoShop. Why? Because it gives you time to renew the memories and time to let that dear object go especially knowing you have a picture of it now in a journal or on a canvas or in storage on your computer. That antique bed that you could let go of Josh, someone else may find hard to part with but if it’s forever in your journal done as a piece of remembrance art, you’ll have it still and can let go of the bulky version. Just like your photographs but this is for the other, more tangible stuff.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:40 pm

      Amen, great suggestion. And I know what you mean about still thinking of them. I have many dreams about my mother still.

  • tammy March 23, 2011, 1:43 pm

    Thanks so much for this Timely Post. You really took your time to share your Heart and Soul in this. It looks like I am not the only one who It HITS Home with right now. I spent the whole Weekend taking photos of Items from Grade School to College, to Present. I had a Huge Trash bag and every one of those things HAD a SPECIAL feeling for me AT THE TIME. I am learning to LET GO OF MY PAST IN EVERY AREA. Becoming a NEW CREATION. That means in every way. I held those items Until Monday Until I knew the Trash Man would arrive. I took a DEEP BREATH and GONE. It is Wednesday and I dont feel a LOSS. I am wanting to let go of many more items. Realized that The THINGS you think are Treasures ARE TRULY NOT WORTH MUCH. I have had my eyes opened on E-bay-I even have a Professional doing this for me, Consignments, GOODWILL and CHARITY has been the BEST FREEDOM. Some little girl would be more than HAPPY to have a new baby doll. Instead of sitting in a Trunk for WHOM and WHAT?? Josh, what you endured with your Mother. I am very sorry to hear this, and you helped many of us as you shared. Best of luck and I love your posts..

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:44 pm

      As always, thanks, Tammy. And good job on the progress you’re making. I’m proud of what you’re accomplishing.

  • Sandra Pawula March 23, 2011, 2:58 pm

    This is such a poignant post! So kindhearted yet imbued with clarity. Truer words could not be spoken, “I am not my stuff. We are more than our possessions.” Thank for this wisdom and advice on letting go when it seems the toughest to do so.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:44 pm

      Sandra, I’m glad you found value in this essay. And thanks for the compliments. I really appreciate it.

  • susanna eve March 24, 2011, 3:20 am

    My elderly parents live nearby and their house is crammed full of stuff. When we thought that they might have to move a few years ago due to health issues I was suddenly faced with the task of packing up their house full of stuff. The result has been that I am currently gradually getting rid of a lot of stuff in my own house so that my kids will never be stuck with the task that you faced. It’s harder when a lot of the stuff in the house in one’s house don’t belong to you. For me a lot of the stuff here belongs to one of my kids, 3 of whom are grown up and no longer live here even though a lot of their belongings still do.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:47 pm

      That’s an interesting perspective. Making sure you don’t burden others after you’re gone is very honorable.

      On the other note: I know it’s hard to part with others stuff when it’s not yours, but a) they either don’t remember it being there and thus it is not important to them, or b) you could always give them the opportunity to remove anything they want to keep.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Jack Bennett March 24, 2011, 6:08 am

    Great description of the process of decluttering of sentimental items.

    Sometimes the choice is in your hands – as when my grandfather died and my dad and my aunt / his sister went through his items and did something similar to what you describe in this article.

    Other times the choice is not your own, as when I went on a silent meditation course for a week and a half and returned to find that heavy rains in my area had filled up my basement to a level of five or six feet. The building management company was clearing out “everything” and so I kept none of my treasures but a painting. So it goes.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:49 pm

      Exactly! So it goes, and life goes on. That’s unfortunate, but I’m certain it was a period of growth and acceptance for you. If nothing else, congrats for that. Thanks for reading the essay; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Alexandra March 24, 2011, 8:52 am

    A wonderful post. We are all able to relate: éither having already gone through the loss of a loved one and dealing with his/her belongings – or we will find ourselves in the situation at some point in the future.

    I lost my mother in 2005, and found myself with her houseful of things (in Germany, that is). Sadly my brother (25 y/o at the time) could not deal and just split. So I was alone – stuck in a nightmare of sorting, packing, organizing for a few weeks. I gave most of it away, but still the “sentimental” things filled a storage unit of about 110 sq ft… stacked about 7 ft high, solid.

    I moved to California a year later, with only ONE suitcase and my cat, and I haven’t missed anything. Ever. And I cannot imagine I ever will.

    I’ve been paying about $85/month for five years now for storage – over 5k! I wish I had kept just a few boxes of items that are dear to me, given the rest to charity, and put the money into a savings account.
    I cannot wait to clean out that storage unit and give most of the things away. They are, to me, now heavy with the memory of the “aftermath” of my mom’s passing (feeling “stuck” and left alone) and, and have nothing to do any more with HER. Getting rid of that will be such a liberation!

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:51 pm

      Good for you. That’s a freeing realization. Good luck with the removal. It will bring back a flood of memories (which might be very hard to handle) but you’ll feel great afterwards. I’m certain of that.

  • Layla March 24, 2011, 9:32 am

    “In the way I act, in the way I treat others, even in my smile” – poignant. almost made me tear up (that is saying something)

    I hope when I die I’ll be able to hand my loved ones a few small things I know they would like, instead of an overwhelming amount of things.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:53 pm

      Thanks for the compliment. I’m pleased that my writing is able to elicit such an emotion. Your point is a profound one (viz. not wanting to burden your loved ones from the afterlife is rather benevolent). I’m glad you enjoyed the essay. Thanks for commenting.

  • Cloud March 24, 2011, 10:04 am

    My father just died…and this is a helpful summary of what grief and loss is all about….

    “Grief is; the impotent rage of being born into a Universe of change.”
    — Charles Garfield


    Oh, and my mum reacted just the other way…..she wanted to get rid of everything in the house including what didnt belong to my father immediately. I held to hold her back and advice her to take baby steps to allow the grieving in order to come to an acceptance and therefore inner peace.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:55 pm

      That’s an interesting quote. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you and your mother had a lot to deal with as you were grieving. I hope you reached that inner peace.

  • Jessica Kohler March 24, 2011, 12:01 pm

    “An item that is sentimental for us can be an item that is useful for someone else.” This sounds like my own mantra. I use it while helping people face challenges like yours in 2009, but even I find it difficult to follow at times. Especially when it comes to art. It seems easy, logical, & necessary to offer the functional stuff to someone who has a use for it. For reasons I haven’t been able to work out yet, I don’t want to let go of the stuff that is strictly pretty.

    If you worry about finding yourself in Joshua’s shoes check out http://NASMM.org to find assistance in your area.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:57 pm

      Wow! I hadn’t heard of NASMM before. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like minimalism for seniors, which, in my book, is pretty darn cool.

      • Jessica Kohler March 26, 2011, 6:27 am

        It is pretty darn cool! I actually use Rowdy Kittens as a resource when I’m working with clients. Of course, most of them think of minimalism as bizarre new-age concept. In the industry we usually call it downsizing or rightsizing, which is somehow less scary for them.


  • Nicole March 24, 2011, 1:51 pm

    This is beautifully written…and good advice. I hope that I do not have to deal with that experience for a long time, and I’m sorry that you have.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 24, 2011, 5:58 pm

      Thanks for the compliment and for commenting. I appreciate it. I too hope that you don’t have to deal with it for a long, long time.

  • Holli March 24, 2011, 8:52 pm

    January 2009 incidentally brought my Grandmother’s death. It was hard to watch as her five kids sorted out her things over a weekend together. One daughter took everything left over, not wanting anything to be “lost” to others who didn’t know the memories.
    That experience ushered in my chapter of discovering minimalism. I realized that if I didn’t start sorting and living with less stuff some day I’d leave my kids in the same situation many years from now.
    Thank you, Josh, for sharing your experience and advice.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 25, 2011, 4:01 pm

      Your experience and mine are similar, since they both were difficult situations that led us to minimalism. Thanks for sharing.

  • Gil March 25, 2011, 8:33 am

    Wow..What a beautiful article, Joshua.

    As an only child, I wrestle each day with the inevitability of my own elderly mother passing away one day and the dillema of how to sell and hand out her possessions. At this point, she is alive and well, but has indeed acknowledged the vast amount of furniture, books, artwork and other possessions she and my father accumulated.

    She is taking steps to sort through and sell some things to help relieve the burden on me. Granted, there are a few things I would like to keep, and I told her no more than 5. She tends to make me feel guilty for not wanting certain things, but I have gotten over that. Plus, my wife and I simply don’t want to have a house full of items . At the same time, we also want to create our own memories.

    As far as I’m concerned, the best treasures are the memories with my mother, and not items.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 25, 2011, 4:02 pm

      That sounds like a good number: 5. And you’re spot on: the best treasures are the memories with your mother, not the stuff. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay; thanks for the compliments.

  • Kathleen Harris March 25, 2011, 11:21 am

    I agree with those who are thinking of the future. When my Dad died, his small apartment was still full of “stuff” even though we’d emptied out Mom and Dad’s house a few years prior. (Mom is still alive, in a nursing home–but there’s a few knick-knacks on her walls.) I hope to spare my children the experience!

    Josh, my condolences to you on your loss. Peace.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 25, 2011, 4:03 pm

      Good for you (re: sparing your children the experience). Thanks for commenting.

      • Kathleen Harris March 26, 2011, 6:01 pm

        You’re welcome! 🙂

  • naomi March 26, 2011, 11:07 am

    Many great points made, and thanks for the essay. It is the Final Frontier of stuff, the emotionally-attached items, that are the hardest for me. I am not sure that anyone else has pointed this out, but the Goodwill greatly benefits from the bags of donations and the people who actually need the stuff do as well; perhaps think of it as sharing in a way that the previous owner would have liked to do, most likely. It really is a win win.

  • Joshua | The Minimalists March 26, 2011, 1:13 pm

    Yes, it is a win win. Good point. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay.

  • Combsy March 26, 2011, 1:40 pm

    Great essay Josh,

    I bought the home I grew up in from my parents a few years back…I am still bring boxes of their stuff from my attic and garage over to their house. I used to do this once a week…but it all just become too much. There are still about 20 boxes in the attic…not of my school stuff but my moms. Part of me is tempted to just throw it out and see if she ever asks, but I know that while they are alive it needs to be their process. They need to get rid of it, not me…I can help, but that healing process needs to be started by them.

    After reading your essay though I realized how big of a job getting rid of my parents stuff is going to be. They own 4 rental homes that all have storage with their stuff in it. Not to mention a full garage and shop. They are still in their early 50’s, God willing, I can get them to start pairing down their stuff asap.

    Thanks for your time and thought that you put into this essay, was well worth reading.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 26, 2011, 3:19 pm

      It is certainly a process. It’s good that you’re think about it now and not waiting. And, yes, this comment was spot on: I know that while they are alive it needs to be their process. They need to get rid of it, not me…I can help, but that healing process needs to be started by them.

  • Cheryl March 26, 2011, 2:08 pm

    Am going through a similar experience, and appreciate your take. I am always fighting my own tendencies to hold on to the wrong things for the “right” reasons…

    There is one little obstinate part of me tho that cries out that all is not junk. — wasn’t it an interesting experience to come across those old papers? Didn’t it trigger some memories? A friend cleaned out her husband/s aunt’s home in Maine, and showed me some of the treasures — including journals which mostly noted the weather and prices of everyday purchases — every day for 50 or 60 years. Probably this is why I have a problem — but I was abolutely fascinated by the personal trivia. Not by furniture or tchotchkes, but by these notes, letters, old photos and the like. The trivia that constitutes much of our lives… Like pieces of a collage … Of course, it wasn’t mine and I had no problem at all walking away…. i had a similar experience going through some grandparent records withmy mom, some papers were of historical interest, and were sent off to a county historical society where they might be of use – and absolved the relatives of all obligation or guilt.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 26, 2011, 3:22 pm

      You bring up some very good points. The memories are within me though, cached and nothing can change that. Yes, the things can trigger the memories, but so can I if I really want too. Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

  • Aqua March 30, 2011, 5:11 am

    I even saved your article , lol
    I am trying hard to get rid of a garage full plus, of things collected from life businesses and others.
    Sometimes I want to just donate it other times I feel I need the money I have to sell it.
    Its easier to give it away and be done but …. I am scheduel to have a yard sale in two weeks.
    What doesnt sell I need, hope, I give it away that day.
    I inheritied beautiful china dishes, been trying to sell them, not working, i dont have the room for them. what to do?
    Your article was supportive and I’m sorry for your loss. I lost my mother that year too and still have to go thru her things.
    Family members want me to repaint her furniture and use it. Sometimes its ok idea , other times I dont want it , and I’ll never get around to do it.
    Things do way me down, I so want to simplfy.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists March 30, 2011, 7:36 am

      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the essay (you don’t need to save it though, it will be here…or in your memory).

      Yard sell then donate is your best option. I usually recommend that exact process. Sounds like you are on the write track, just need to take action.

      Maybe read this too: http://theminimalists.com/everything

      Take care,


  • UnNavigated Life March 31, 2011, 5:05 am

    Thank you for your article. The timing is perfect. Once again my husband, four kids and I are packing up and moving across country. We move every 2-4 years and with each child it has become more difficult, time consuming and expensive. I find myself purging every move and still we have too much. Most of what we have hung onto are sentimental items. I’ve been trying to decide how to part with many of these items for quite some time and when you mentioned the “traces of her everywhere” it finally sunk in that we don’t need to keep every drawing our children have made or every knicknack that was given to us because of the memory attached.

    I have begun my purge with a new mind set. I will not lie and say that it has been easy, I still find myself holding the item and saying “maybe I should keep this…” or “what if so&so would like this one day…”. I have started taking pictures of my items, as suggested, to include in my scrapbook.

    Again, thank you for sharing a painful time in your life so that others, like me, may know how to handle their own attachment to sentimental items and the emotional toll it puts on all of us.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists April 15, 2011, 10:08 am

      Yes, that “maybe I should keep this” always pops its ugly little head in, doesn’t it? It sounds like you are making progress though. Keep taking steps in the right direction. I wish you the best.


  • Me April 14, 2011, 3:14 pm

    I have been clearing out a lot of my life the last few years, i guess its the baby steps approach, although the occasional burst of leaping. I have been obsessing the last few days over a bear that used to be my mom’s. She commit suicide about 12 years ago. It was a stuffed bear that me & my girlfriend (now ex and part of the clearing out, not her physically, lol, but the things that belonged to that part of my life). I could put it in a bag, take it with some other stuff that’s going to charity, and probably feel no worse for it. Somehow, I feel like im abandoning it. Guilt maybe, like I am abandoning her memory. I know its only a toy, and that her memory exists without it. It’s not even a symbol of her life, more of her death, because it was sat on her bedside table when we cleared her home, it’s not something that I saw between giving it to her and her being dead.

    I have had some issues of my own, other things not really related, for many years. Again, this is why i started de-cluttering my things, and my mind, of its baggage. I don’t really feel like I am connected with anything, or anyone, in the world, so it feels like some items are tethering me to a world in which i feel no part of, keeping me from floating off altogether, yet paradoxically may be anchoring me down. The people are no longer there, and maybe them leaving without me having any control is what i apply to items, such as the bear. Subconsciously, every time I see it, maybe i am back in that bedroom, and i feel pity for it. For her i guess. I guess if I feel that way, the best thing for me personally, is to let that go too.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing, and all the best.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists April 15, 2011, 10:11 am

      Thanks for sharing. Congrats on making baby steps (and don’t those occasional leaps feel great too). You’ve got the right idea, and you’re last line summed it up well: the best thing is to let that go. I wish you the best.

    • Denise May 16, 2011, 9:01 am

      to ME: I know exactly how you feel when you feel you are “abandoning” the people or items. I attach things to people, as if the item was one of their arms or something! It is truly deep agony to part with an item. Even taking photographs becomes too laborious. And then other people have no problem whatsoever to toss something that had been in the family for 100 years! We are all so different; it is a beautiful thing. Know that you are definitely not alone. And if and when we do give away those items which are weighing us down, we will survive!!! And be the better for it. God Bless You…..Denise

  • Greg Allan May 5, 2011, 4:13 pm

    Do you worry at all that there were things that your mother wanted you to keep? That’s the fear that prevents me from getting rid of most of my grandfather’s things. It’s not that they’re especially sentimental to me. A lot of it looks like junk. But it was sentimental to him, and if he didn’t want it thrown away, who am I to get rid of it? Any time I’m moved to purge those items I hear a voice that says, “If it was important enough for him to keep, shouldn’t it be important to me as well?” Wouldn’t he have thrown it away if it wasn’t meaningful to him? And by extension, shouldn’t I keep it because he kept it? The same is true for any of the thousands of little things that I haven’t been able to bring myself to throw away because they obviously must have been important to him.

    As you can see, I really struggle with this. Once a month I go into my storage room and look through the boxes for anything I might be able to get rid of and I never come up with more than maybe one or two things. It breaks my heart to think that I might get rid of something that was precious to him.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists May 7, 2011, 4:06 pm

      I look at it this way. Would my mother want me to hold on to her stuff and feel all of the anxiety and stress of holding on to it, or would she want me to be stress free W/R/T to her things? I think she would have wanted the latter for me. Don’t you agree?


  • Heather May 9, 2011, 9:19 am

    Lovely. I was tasked with cleaning out 65 years of accumaltion too. Except it was my grandparents home. They did not rid themselves of a shred of paper, clothing, packaging, etc…it went on and on. 95% of it had to be trashed because they were living in a nursing home for 2 years, their house sat unused. My father refused to touch a thing, it was a shrine. I understand the emotional part but the house was literally rotting. Mold was taking over. Everything was musty or was starting to disintergrate in it’s spot. It took 3 huge dumpsters (at $500 a pop) to clean it all out. It was painful as relatives wanted to sift through each thing that was brought out, arguing over tea pots, half broken statues and lamp shades. The only thing I promised to salvage were any pics I found, which resulted in one small shoebox. I had to lay my hands on everything in that house…every last bit. It was exhausting and yet reminded me that I only need the memories, not the things.

    • Joshua | The Minimalists May 9, 2011, 12:09 pm

      Aww, thanks Heather. I appreciate it. Our situation sounds very similar. A very brave thing for you to do with the relatives wanting to sift through everything. Good for you though.

      Take care,


  • Susanna June 18, 2011, 9:01 pm

    This article has inspired me, it is beautifully written, i lost my mom who was the best mom in the world to me. She was japanese and adopted me as a baby. My father had passed away before her. I was 28. Even though i have a wonderful guy in my life for many years, the sadness is overwhelming. I still hold on to her posessions as many are japanese and antique. She was also a talented artist specializing in japanese embroidery. I cannot let go of her things and yet it breaks my heart when i uncover them and look at them. I recently started babyvsteps and gave away a few japanese things to my younger sister in law who met her and liked her. I felt better in releasing these things. Thank you so much for writing your article, i understand now why i felt what i felt. Best wishes, this was one of the most honest, beautiful articles i have ever read.

    • Joshua Millburn July 11, 2011, 1:31 pm


      Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate it.

      Good luck on your journey. I wish you well. Let me know if you need any help.


  • Carolyn Moor July 6, 2011, 10:41 am

    I will be sharing your blog with some of my clients in FL. I actually assist my interior design clients with this exact issue. From my own experience of becoming a young widowed mom and an interior designer, I found the ‘loss’ experience has given my philosophy on designing spaces the ‘silver lining’ you speak of here.

    The relief and compassion my clients feel is palpable during the whole process, a huge cross road in life for them. I believe I may be the only designer in the profession willing to approach this emotional task one on one, but I’m only doing what I’ve already created in my own life and know can bring peace or ‘shalom’ in a home environment where ‘letting go’ is painfully necessary.

    Bringing more life after death, finding meaning in it all and learning to thrive beyond the grief is my purpose. Thank you for these beautiful and fortifying words so lovingly shared.
    Carolyn Moor

    • Joshua Millburn July 11, 2011, 1:32 pm


      Thanks for sharing with others. I appreciate it. And thanks for your kind words; I appreciate those as well.


  • Dee July 27, 2011, 6:59 am

    I am reading this post a few months late, but I know exactly what you are talking about, and felt the need to reply!

    My grandmother passed away three years ago, and she had a condo full of STUFF that took us several weekends to go through. Some of it was so junky that the local charity shop stopped responding to our requests for a pickup! It baffled me to see decades and decades of stuff that had probably lost its meaning by that time, collecting dust.

    My father passed away last year, and that was a totally different story. Losing my father was devastating. I had the task of cleaning out his home. He was in the hospital for nearly a month, and his condition worsened as the time went on. It was a situation where even if he had survived, he would not have been able to live alone in his own place anymore. Therefore, while I took care of him in the hospital, I started getting rid of his things in stages (“Well, if he lives, he won’t need this…he won’t need roller blades…he won’t need “The Perfect Pushup” machine, etc.) As his condition declined, it was now a matter of if he survived, he would be in a nursing home, so I did another round of purging (“He won’t need this in a nursing home, etc…it kept me busy when I couldn’t sleep, which was most of the time), and when he went into hospice, I cleaned out his stuff entirely. Ironically, I finished cleaning out his home on the day he finally died. The last round of stuff was sitting in the trunk of my car as I sat with him for the last time.

    While I felt kind of strange doing it the way I did (after all, he was still alive while his stuff was being purged), I look back now and realize it was a smart thing to do.

    I don’t think he was a conscious minimalist, but I was surprised at how FEW sentimental items he had. However, like you said, I took two trunks of stuff to my own home (most of it was donated, however – and that was in stages too). I kept a lot of his things because it made me feel close to him – even if I didn’t use the item. As I worked through my grief, I was able to let go of more things that either were not useful or I no longer “needed.”

    This summer – over a year later – has been one of personal growth. I am a minimalist myself, but sentimental items can be a biggy. However, I was actually able to realize and accept what you said – that memories are not stuff, and stuff is not a memory – and the only thing of my father’s I have now is his ashes, his wallet, a watch of his that I wear (so it is useful to me), and a half used bottle of cologne (unisex fragrance, so I can wear it on special occasions). That’s it. And the items are more meaningful because they were selected.

    I have pared down my possessions to the essentials that keep me safe and comfortable, and I’m working on my own sentimental items that I no longer have use for. I don’t have too many, but there are still some that have lost their meaning for me and can be enjoyed by someone else now. That’s my current project. It’s so freeing to be free from stuff.

    Definitely a great post!

  • Joshua Millburn July 29, 2011, 2:31 pm


    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.


  • Lisa Everett July 30, 2011, 1:14 pm

    Thanks for your story. I keep hoarding everything because I am afraid to let go. I want to be free.

    • Dee July 31, 2011, 5:55 am

      One of my favorite quotes is from the song that Janis Joplin did called “Me and Bobby McGee” — “…freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Another favorite quote is from a David Bowie song: “…hold on to nothing, and it won’t get you down.” While that may not be too helpful right now, it is true. True freedom comes from not having to be tied down to anything – including stuff. Stuff is valuable because we (humans) place value on it. Otherwise, an item is just something that has mass and takes up space (matter). Stuff can be stolen, lost, destroyed, etc. What really matters, which is our life experiences, relationships, etc. – can never be taken away from us.

      Think about this: you go into a thrift store, and you see this junk and ask, “I can’t believe someone donated this. I can’t believe that someone actually wanted this at one time. Who would want it now?” And then you go back to the store the next week, and it’s gone because someone bought it. The item doesn’t change; it is the value we place on it. It is uncanny how something that was once treasured becomes so easy to get rid of once the attachment is gone!

      • Joshua Millburn July 31, 2011, 3:31 pm

        Some good quotes there. I would also add that “Awareness is the most precious kind of freedom.”

  • Ann August 11, 2011, 5:04 am

    Thank you for writing this. I am one who is consumed by saving “stuff” – I am similar to your mother, in the fact that I have saved every single piece of paper from my son’s daycare through 1st grade. Why? Because I want to “remember” all those things. I want to “remember” how he grew and how his writing improved.

    My mother passed in 1992 and I STILL have furniture and items from her because I feel like I’m keeping her around. But this post has made me rethink all of that and starting this weekend, I’m going to purge purge purge.

    I loved when you said that your mom is everywhere “in the way you act, in the way you treat people.” That is the greatest treasure of all…..

    Thank you!

    • Joshua Millburn August 11, 2011, 8:31 am


      Thanks for the comment (and the great compliment).

      I appreciate it.


  • Sirkku August 11, 2011, 8:30 am

    Thank you for this, it made me feel nostalgic in a good way. I am fortunate not to have lost any of my dearest people – not yet. Still I could somehow relate to your experiences. It is sad that you have lost your mother; there may be many dear friends but only one mother. I feel for you.

    I have read some of your posts today at the Minimalists -blog and will continue to do so.

    Your mother would be proud of you! 🙂

    Ps. I especially like your sentence “We”re in this journey together”. You have a heart of gold.