How to Let Go of Unwanted Things You’ve Inherited


How to Let Go of Unwanted Things You've InheritedPhoto by Sarah Greenman

Whether you’ve inherited a large collection of items or a single bulky piece of furniture, it’s OK to let it go if you don’t need or want it.

A dear friend of mine recently inherited a large collection of books. And by large, I mean over 1,000, many of them the bulky hardcover variety. He was, of course, touched by the gift – from a longtime mentor and fellow avid reader – but feels overwhelmed by the sheer size of the collection because he’s downsizing his own home. When anyone suggests that he perhaps cull the collection a bit, he feels guilty, as if that would dishonor the memory of his friend.

This reminded me of past clients who insisted that we work around a big, bulky piece of furniture they didn’t especially like or use, but felt obligated to keep because it was a gift from a loved one.

My father-in-law is fond of pointing out that when a funeral procession goes by, you never see a moving truck or armored car full of cash as part of the procession. In other words, you can’t take this stuff with you when you go. So I say that instead of putting emotional energy into things, why not redirect it and instead cherish our thoughts and memories of those we’ve lost?

Several years ago, I unexpectedly lost a favorite uncle and, soon after that, my grandmother, followed by my grandfather. I adored these three immensely and felt much grief upon losing them, especially within such a short span of time. What helped me most in dealing with the loss was to sift through old photos and find one that perfectly captured each of them and their fun personalities. I keep those framed photos on display in my home, and whenever I walk by and glimpse their images, I’m reminded of them and, no matter what my current mood, they make me smile.

Personally speaking, after I’m gone, I’d rather that my surviving family and friends keep a photo of me around to occasionally remember our good times together than feel saddled with my stuff.

I should point out that I’d never advocate getting rid of items that have sentimental or historical value to you or your family. By all means, keep the pieces you hold dear. But if you don’t want the items and are looking to lighten your load, you have options for dealing with them.

1. Keep one or two (or a few). If you, like my friend, are gifted a large collection of items, perhaps hang on to a small number and give away the rest. I encouraged my friend to keep the books that are most interesting to him, or that most remind him of his friend, and then donate the remainder. I think this honors the memory of his friend without creating a burden for my friend.

If the inherited item is something like a large dining room set, perhaps keep one chair as a reminder of the person you lost and then find a good home for the other pieces.

2. Keep but modify it. Let’s say you’re given a large dining room set that you could use in your own home, except that some pieces are in rough shape or the style doesn’t quite work with your decor. Instead of tossing or donating the set, you may be able to restore or update it with some elbow grease and a new stain or paint job. Or perhaps all it needs is new upholstery. Don’t be afraid to modify an item to make it work for you.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend doing this if the item is an antique or otherwise has value being kept in its original condition.

3. Donate it. If you simply can’t use or don’t want the item, give it to someone who can use it and will appreciate it. That large and dated dining set may not work in your house, but I guarantee that there’s a family out there who would love, use and cherish such a set. I think that’s a pretty great way to honor the deceased. Rather than the item sitting unused and collecting dust in your storage unit – and you feeling guilt or resentment about it – someone who can’t otherwise afford to purchase such an item gets to have and use it.

4. Sell it. I believe that if someone gives or leaves an item to you, it’s yours to do with as you wish. If it’s something you can’t use or don’t want to keep, and it has monetary value, go ahead and sell it. Before selling it to the highest bidder, though, you may want to see if a friend or family member of the deceased wants to buy or trade for it.

If it doesn’t sit well with you to profit from the transaction, you can always donate the item – or the money you make selling it – to a cause championed by you or your loved one.

Your turn: Do you think it’s OK to get rid of inherited items? How have you handled this sensitive situation?