Collection of small antique items

Heirlooms or clutter? 

For those of us who have been through it, we attest that this is FAR from just a task of "cleaning out a house." In truth, it's a life review. Everything we touch inside our parents or other loved one's home, has a story, a memory, and a feeling attached to it. 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. Fragile china to everyday dishes, wedding gown to a housecoat, favorite holiday costume jewelry to wedding rings… each item evokes a unique memory and carries a symbolic attachment with it.

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. These are otherwise ordinary items that our loved one used every single day, that were part of the daily fabric of their lives. How do we even begin to let them go? Well… I'm no expert, that's for sure. My mother's driver's license, wallet, and keychain have been in my office desk drawer going on four years. Why? Because I can't part with them. I'm holding on… to her and to these "things." It might not make sense to you, and might not even make sense to me, but there they are.

Have the conversation. 

Mom might have been extremely open, proactive, pragmatic, organized, and put labels on many objects identifying to whom they would go. She may have discussed her ideas with the family and taken requests about "what means what… to whom." Maybe she gave away some precious objects well before she died. 

When it comes to each family's approach, there are those who are "proactive" and those who are "reactive." Other families wouldn't think of having these discussions while their elder loved ones were alive and would consider such discussion disrespectful. Some families agree as to how this process should happen, and others are deeply divided. 

 It's not unlike having those hard discussions about emergency or end of life medical care. These are awkward, uncomfortable, and painful topics that are incredibly personal for any family. Yet, getting it out in the open is invaluable. 

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, then you can ask if she has ideas where these items might go, and to whom, when she is not using them anymore. 

Maybe it's not a matter of end of life. Is she relocating to assisted living, or moving in with a child and needs to downsize? Just like the conversations around Health Care Proxy and Estate Planning documents, Mom may want the option of making these decisions herself. It is usually so much easier to "know" what Mom wants, rather than guess or assume. If she participates, it reduces the "Mom told me..." conundrum.

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. At a point in time, lots will be repurposed, lots will be discarded, and lots will be distributed. Deciding to whom and maybe even why could be the point of contention, especially when families are grieving and emotions are raw.

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 as well, with their parents and other family members. It would be great to get their input and 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.