Heirloom Guilt

Heirloom Guilt

Hi, my name is Sara and I have heirloom guilt. What is heirloom guilt? It’s a mental health issue, kind of. A psychological block that brings about feelings of guilt at having to get rid of family “heirlooms”. And I use heirloom loosely. It sounds fancier than “getting rid of the “crap my family couldn’t” guilt”.

I openly admit to still, after nearly 18 months, having most of my grandmother’s belongings in storage. Some of it has been in storage for almost 4 years since we put some things in storage when she moved to Phoenix. But, at that time, it was her stuff. It wasn’t for me to discard. She and I would discuss going to the storage until “when it was cooler”, “when I feel better”, “when I’m not so tired”, “after the holidays”. You know, later. Another time. A time when the memories won’t flood and make her sad. Sad to be without both of her children and husband. Sad to think that soon she would leave me alone.

Those days going to the storage unit never came. After she passed away I only had a short time to clear out her apartment. So nearly all of it went into storage. And now, nearly two years later it’s still there. Untouched. In the same boxes I packed long ago believing I would go through it “when it was warmer”, “when I had an unscheduled weekend”, “later”.

The reality is that I don’t need any of the things in storage. I’ve done fine without them this long. Organization experts say that if you haven’t used something in 12 months it’s time to get rid of it. But this is my family’s history. Memories. Connection. Our past. How do you get rid of someone’s past?

All rhetorical questions, I know. It happens every day. People purge stuff all the time. We move. We downsize. We get tired of dust collectors. The bags and boxes fill up, we pile them in the car, and drop them at the donation center without making much eye contact lest they see we aren’t sure we should be doing this.

I know I can’t keep everything that’s packed into two storage units. Actually, I can’t keep most of it. I also can’t keep paying the monthly storage fee. That’s idiotic. I’ve already paid several thousand dollars. If I hold on to it for a few more years I could have bought a really nice car with the money paid to store all this stuff. That’s kind of stupid. My grandparents taught me better about using my money wisely. Ugh, more guilt!

Heirloom guilt is very real. Sometimes it’s debilitating. I drive to the storage unit but can’t even go in to the locker. It’s overwhelming to think about getting rid of my past. My memories. My history. At the same time, though, it will all just end up a pike of garbage if I do nothing.

I think of selling or giving it away and my heart gets heavy, my chest becomes tight, the adrenaline starts to rush, and the thoughts of not having a past swirl. I think of those who lose everything to fire, flood, war. I think of them and try to understand that the stuff isn’t what hold my memories. I hold the memories. I am responsible for sharing those memories. For sharing the past. That this stuff can’t speak and tell the story. If I don’t tell their story they’re worthless.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about the stuff or the memories. It’s about my own realization that I’m the last one. That I’m alone, in some sense of the word. That my family is gone and all I have are these trinkets. And either I let go of the guilt or I’ll be controlled by it.

So, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. And believe that it’s OK for me to let go of the stuff. And the guilt.


Author: Sara

Sara is a life-long dreamer, creating a list of things she wants to do "someday". Realizing there is no "someday" on the calendar she's taking the steps to make her somedays a reality. Between saving for retirement and college and paying for all the usual things, many women find that they're often putting their hopes and dreams on hold. Saving For Someday is Sara's way of encouraging women everywhere to find ways to save on the ordinary so they can do the extraordinary. Sara is also a licensed attorney and writes about legal issues affecting bloggers, content creators and online professionals. This blog is for informational purposes only. You can also find me on Google+

9 thoughts on “Heirloom Guilt”

  1. Oh, Sara, I totally get it. I think a lot of us get it on some level and understand just how debilitating it can truly be. But you’re right, the things themselves don’t hold the memories . We are the living breathing vessels that hold those memories, and we can share them whenever and however we like. Sending you love and the strength to do what you need to do, when the time feels right for you.

  2. I read some advice Ram Dass had, which was: hold or touch the item, have the memory, bless the memory and discard the item. Or take a photo of it & keep that.

  3. Ah, “heirloom guilt” is a very clever and powerful naming of a big problem. Thanks for putting this into focus. If I can name it, I have more hope of managing it — or even eliminating it. Wow. Great post.

  4. Hi Sara! I’m sorry to learn about your affliction! I’d never heard of it before but I have definitely witnessed people who have struggled with it too. Letting go of our past, especially when it seems that it is our tie to those we’ve loved and lost is difficult for any of us, but some have a harder time than others. I hope you find the peace you seek. And when the time is right, it will happen. ~Kathy

  5. Oh Sara, I started reading this and couldn’t help but cry. I feel the same way about things. My mom is still alive and she lives with my husband and I. We moved to a bigger (much more expensive house) so we could keep her stuff and our stuff. There is so much STUFF you know how it is, they’ve gone through the depression era and don’t throw anything away, but it’s the past, our family history. It will be hard for me to do it too, but it’s crazy to pay all of those storage unit fees, that may hurt you in the long run.

  6. You’ve written my story! I’m the only one left in my family. My mother has dementia. Her things have been in storage for five years. I keep putting if off, disposing of her things. Mainly because it’s going to be a lot of trouble to open boxes to see what’s of value and what I want to keep. I refuse to be tethered by heirloom guilt. Those were her memories, not mine, and not my memories of her. Brenda

  7. When we finally convinced my elderly parents to move to an apartment from their 3 story, 5 bedroom house with no first floor bathroom and the laundry facilities in the basement, I had a house with a basement and an attic. In order not to agitate them further, whenever they said they couldn’t part with something, I said I would keep it. Fast forward a few years and we were the ones downsizing from our house in the suburbs to a city apartment. So, we not only had to make decisions about our stuff, my parents were still alive, so we still had to deal with their stuff we had stored for them. I made some executive decisions. My mother did not have to know I was having their tax returns from the 50’s through the 90’s shredded. Other decisions were much more difficult. My father was a potter and I had a room full of his unfinished pots. Much to my brother-in-law’s annoyance, my sister insisted on taking them. After we moved, my parents moved to a smaller apartment in a retirement community. My sisters would not let me dispose of anything, so it ended up stored in a friend’s basement. By the time my mother was moving to a smaller apartment after my father died, I was feeling pretty ruthless about disposing of “stuff”. Ultimately, it was left to my brother-in-law and I to get Mom’s stuff packed up. We donated some of it to the thrift store where she lived. Unfortunately, that was across the hall from her new apartment and she liked to wander in when it was open, whereupon she found her stuff there. She was not a happy camper. The thrift store people let her take some of it back. Sigh.

  8. I went through this with my Mother’s belongings after she passed. I ended up giving much to friends and charities. I realized that others could find joy in using these things it was so much better than keeping them boxed up. Let go of the guilt … turn those feelings towards the satisfaction you are helping others less fortunate. Save a memento or two, as a way to honor your grandmother’s memory, and let the rest go!

    1. Pat,

      I’m so glad you shared your experience. I is helpful to me (and others, I’m sure) to know that we can let go of “the stuff” and still hold on to the memories and honor our family member.

      Thank you so much!

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