Heirlooms or clutter?


By Joanne MacInnis RN CDP, President,

Aberdeen Home Care, Inc.

Mom’s house is packed…Where will it all go?

For those of us who have been through it, we attest that this is a far cry from just “cleaning out a house.”  In truth, it’s a life review.  Everything we touch inside our loved ones’ homes has a story, a memory, and a feeling attached to it.

This emotional journey can be draining, so it’s important to prioritize self-care.  Take breaks when you need to, seek support from friends or professionals, and allow yourself to grieve. It’s not just about the physical objects but the emotional weight they carry.

These items might be from their wedding 60 years ago, Mom’s vast book collection that never stopped growing, or various family pieces passed down through the generations.  From fragile china to everyday dishes, wedding gowns to a housecoat, and favorite holiday costume jewelry to wedding rings…each item evokes a unique memory and has a symbolic attachment.

So often, after the loss of a loved one, our deep attachment to them has no home and lands on tangible property.  Take their eyeglasses, wristwatch, and wallet, for example. These otherwise ordinary items were a part of their daily lives.  How do we even begin to let them go?

I’m no expert, that’s for sure.  My Mother’s Driver’s License, wallet, and keychain have been in my office desk drawer for years.  Why?  Because I can’t part with them.  I’m holding on…to her and these “things.”  It might not make sense to you (or even to me), but there they are.  I share this not to offer a solution but to let you know you’re not alone in this struggle.  I’ve been there, and I understand.

Have the conversation.

Mom might have been extremely open, proactive, pragmatic, and organized.  She might have labeled many objects to identify to whom they would go.  She may have discussed her ideas with the family and taken requests about “what means what… to whom.”  Perhaps she gave away some precious objects well before she died.

Each family dynamic is unique, and what works for one may not work for another.  Some are “proactive,” and others are “reactive.”  Some wouldn’t think of having these discussions while their older loved ones were alive and would consider such discussions disrespectful.  Some families agree on how this process should happen, and others are deeply divided.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

What matters most is that these conversations happen in a way that respects everyone involved and ensures that each person’s wishes are understood and honored.  Knowing what Mom wants rather than guessing or assuming reduces the “Mom told me...” problem. It’s okay if these conversations feel awkward or uncomfortable; what’s important is that they take place, allowing for important decisions to be made with clarity and mutual understanding.

Start with questions.  “Mom, have you ever thought about some of the old family pieces in the house?  The piano, your grandmother’s rocking chair, and the grandfather clock that Dad got when he retired?” She may well have thought about it.  You won’t know until you ask.  If she says no, you can ask if she has ideas where these items might go and to whom when she is not using them anymore.

We accumulate a great deal in a lifetime.

Many members of “the greatest” generation grew up with little and, hence, never threw anything away.  Old items, in working order or not, were “saved for a rainy day.”  Naturally born out of necessity, this frugality and resourcefulness often shaped their attitudes toward possessions.

At some point, lots will be repurposed, discarded, and distributed.  What can be decided upon beforehand makes the process ever so much easier when it happens, for whatever reason. Mom or Dad may have ideas; after all, they have been in this position in their own lives, with their parents and other family members.  It would be great to get their input, and they may well give the items that you may be inheriting even more meaning if they get to tell you face to face, “I always wanted you to have that.”

Joanne MacInnis, RN, is the founder and president of Aberdeen Home Care, Inc., of Danvers, a concierge private duty home care agency in business since 2001. With 35 years of nursing practice, management and administration experience focused on home care and hospice, Joanne and her team specialize in advising and supporting families addressing the elders in their lives retain dignity and quality of life.