A Lesson in Letting Go

We have a lot of stuff.

When I say “we” I’m talking about two groups: the collective “we” and my family “we.”

As a society, we’ve evolved into this culture that hoards stuff for many, many reasons, like “its sentimental,” “I might need it someday,” “I bought this so I need my money’s worth,” “this was a gift, I must keep it forever,” and the list goes on. Society has also used stuff as a measure for how well you’re doing in life or how successful you are. Meaning, the more stuff you have, the more people will think you got everything together. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Jones’s” thing.

Growing up, I never thought there was any issue with having stuff. I mean, why would I? But a majority of my childhood memories are sprinkled with comments by my parents asking me to clean my room because they couldn’t see the floor. And that was the case with both my siblings too. Not only this, but it was just common to see random piles of stuff everywhere in the house. I remember my Dad had a bunch of piles of stuff next to his side of the bed, and I don’t think I ever saw him touch any of those piles. I thought this was normal, mainly because I would go to my friends house and see similar situations.

It wasn’t until I started dating my husband that I realized that some people really only have the necessities. Bret had clothes and shoes, a TV, and some other random items, and that’s it. He really lived on the basics because that’s how he was raised. When he would move, he could fit everything in one car load. More on this later.

Over the last year, I’ve really taken a deep dive into learning more about simplifying our home and Minimalism. I would say the catalyst for this was seeing how much stuff my Dad had when he died and the trouble my family went through to clean it all up, take what we wanted, and get rid of the rest.

When my dad died, he had three houses and a storage unit. Two of the houses were rental properties but the house he had just moved into, his storage unit, and one of the rentals had all of his stuff. We spent two years going through my Dads stuff. While going through his stuff, I kept thinking, “Dad, you have a ton of stuff. What the heck?!” And I just kept thinking about all those times he’d tell me or my siblings to get rid of something and I’m over here thinking, “shame shame, you hypocrite!” My Dad was trying to tell us to downsize when he had boxes full of papers from college, old bills and tax filings (kept way past when you need to), and just, well, a lot of paper and stuff.

Before I keep going, don’t think I’m hating on my Dad. There is no one on this Earth I was closer to than my Dad (besides my Mom. Hi Mom!) Anyways, my thought process started to shift while going through his stuff from “Dad, what the heck” to “Mary, what the heck.” As I mentioned, I knew I had a lot stuff, but this period in my life was the first time I truly realized I had a lot of stuff.

Throughout that process I kept thinking “I don’t want to leave my kids a mess to clean up like I have to clean up.” I remember feeling so stressed when we cleaned out his house, and then went to his storage unit and saw everything, and felt like “well, great, what do we do now.” Luckily, my Mom was gracious enough to store everything in her garage, but it took up half her garage! While going through my Dad’s stuff, I kept every little thing that had even a tiny little speck of sentiment. Every card I wrote him, movies we watched together, books he read, clothes, his Bible, all the sermon notes from church services, etc. I kept anything and everything I could possibly ever want or need that was related to my Dad.

There was a turning point about a year or a year and a half after my Dads death that shifted my mindset about my Dads stuff. I had started feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff I kept but couldn’t quite figure out why or what to do with it all. I thought having my Dad’s stuff would help me through the grieving process and make it easier because having his stuff was like having him around….not so much.

I stumbled upon the duo called The Minimalists. One of the guys stories struck a cord with me. His journey with Minimalism started when his mom died and left him an apartment and storage unit full of stuff. Sound familiar? Little by little he got rid of it all but along the way he hit several emotional roadblocks about whether he should get rid of certain things or keep them because they were sentimental to her.

His story resonated with me in so many different ways.

One of his main themes was that this was her stuff and it was important to her, but not him. At first, he felt that because it was important to her, he should keep it. But he learned along the way that keeping her stuff that had no meaning to him just made him feel worse.

I finally realized that I kept unnecessary things, and I notice that a lot of the people in my life do too.

You know what I’m talking about because, chances are, you keep them too. The piles of receipts, clothes that don’t fit, scraps from art projects, fabric scraps, extra buttons that come with new clothes, posters that were on your wall in the 90s, gifts from people that you’ve never used, kitchen gadgets you rarely use, the list goes on and on…

This is what I realized when Bret and I started dating and it’s when I realized that clutter and my emphasis on keeping things is primarily an emotional habit.

Bret grew up with barely any “things,” only the essentials. So when we moved in together, it took one small carload for us to move him and his belongings. He had clothes, a TV, a couple pairs of shoes, and tools. That’s it.

He would walk around our apartment and comment on how much stuff I had and I would make excuses as to why I hadn’t cleaned or organized yet. But part of me knew, that even if I did clean and organize, I wouldn’t actually be getting rid of that much stuff. A big part of that is because we, as society, place so much emotional attachment on items we buy or receive to try to justify why we can’t get rid of it.

Sentimental attachment is a thing, or at least, we think it’s a thing. We struggle with getting rid of gifts people gave us, just in case they come over and ask about it. Tell me, when was the last time someone asked you about a gift? For me, I’m pretty sure my mom and siblings are the only ones who ask.

The main thought that goes through any persons head is: what if I might need this in the future? So what? If you need it in the future, chances are you could probably buy it again unless it’s something rare. What about clothes and thinking maybe one day you’ll lose weight to fit it again? Well, I know that if/when I lose weight, I’m not going to want to wear old clothes. I want a shopping spree to get a wardrobe that fits my new look.

The main one that gets me is having an item that represents a certain event or time period in my life. I have placed emotional attachment to that item thinking I can never get rid of it because if I did, I would forget the memories I’ve associated with that thing. Not true. While things can help bring out certain memories, our memories don’t live inside things, they live inside us. Let me tell you, my Dad was that guy that had a story for everything. They lived inside him, he didn’t need a thing to bring out that memory.

After taking a deep dive on YouTube, Pinterest, and blogs about Minimalism, I realized how letting go of my Dad’s things would actually bring me through my grief. For a long time after his death, I would still have dreams (they felt more like nightmares) about him being alive or him faking his own death. As I slowly began to get rid of the stuff I kept, I realized those dreams were also slowly going away. To me, it’s a coincidence, but it also makes sense. I held onto him and his memory so tightly that every day I would wake up and wish he was still alive. Letting go of his things helped me cope with the fact that he is dead, he is where he wants to be (in Heaven with Jesus and his family), and it’s okay to let go of his things because he is always with me.

After purging a lot of what I kept of my Dad’s, I paired it down to just a couple things for very specific reasons. I didn’t want to keep things just to keep things. I wanted those things to have a purpose. My journey with simplifying our home and Minimalism is all about the purpose of the item I’m keeping.

My Dad’s Bible & Sermon Notes: From high school until he died, my Dad and I went to church together every Sunday. We went to the same service and sat in the same seats. At our church, we treat our Bibles like a textbook, meaning we write notes in the margins, ” circle, highlight, underline” key passages, pour into our Bibles like they are a living text and guide for our lives. My Dad’s Bible was destroyed, it’s literally in pieces being held together by a Bible carrying case. There are hundreds of notes in the margins, underlined passages, and sermon notes stuck between the pages. His Bible was a part of him and that one item means more to me than anything I own. It provides me with my Dad’s thoughts, hopes, and dreams. When I want to feel connected to my Dad and the person he was, I go to his Bible.

His Ashes: I’m not exactly sure how, but I ended up with my Dad’s ashes. He was cremated (he always said he did not want to be buried because he was claustrophobic) and put into a nice cedar box. After his service, my siblings and I decided that I would be the one to keep his ashes. Now, even if I wanted to get rid of his ashes, I’m not exactly sure how I would go about that. Regardless, I kept them and I actually enjoy having them. He sits on our fireplace and we refer to him often. When we moved up to Fresno, he sat shotgun (with a seatbelt, of course, safety first) in my VW Bug and I sent a picture to my Mom and siblings asking if that meant I qualified for the carpool lane. Recently, we moved again, and my Dad’s ashes were one of the first things moved. While we we’re still living at our old place, I made the comment that Dad was holding down the fort at the new place. My favorite thing though is Amelia likes to play with him. She uses his cedar box as a table for tea, a seat for her dolls, and any other way she sees fit. We call it her playtime with Grandpa. So in all, it’s like he’s still here.

Three Jackets: My Dad exclusively wore two jackets and one sweatshirt. The sweatshirt was from the University of Dayton (where I went to college) and was a gift from me. One of his jackets is from the little league he started in my hometown, and the other is from his work. I actually wear the sweatshirt quite often because it’s my alma mater and it’s cozy (even though it’s 2 sizes too big so I look kinda weird in it). I never wear his little league jacket because it’s maroon and goes with nothing that I have, but I do wear his work jacket because it’s surprisingly warm. I’m sure, eventually, I will get rid of the two jackets and just keep the UD sweatshirt, but right now I’m keeping all three.

This process of letting go of my Dad’s stuff served as a catalyst for simplifying the rest of my home. I have paired down nearly every area of our apartment. We still have a little bit more than the necessities, but the goal is eventually to get it down to just the things we use or have some purpose.

1965 VW Bug: My Dad is the sixth out of seven kids. His second oldest sibling, Phil, was a car collector. So when my Uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he gave my Dad his 1965 VW Bug. My Dad already had a 1969 VW Bug that he drove often so I’m assuming my Uncle gave the ’65 to my Dad because he knew my Dad would take care of it. My Dad fixed up the ’65 from top to bottom. This was while I was in middle school and by the time I got to high school and got my license, the ’65 became my first car. Throughout high school, college, and law school (even while pregnant) I drove the ’65. So when my Dad passed away, naturally everyone assumed I’d want my Bug (they assumed correctly). However, now that Bret and I each have “family-friendly” cars that Amelia can ride in, I have toyed with the idea of selling the Bug because we don’t drive it as often. But every time I walk into our garage and see Blue (that’s his name), my heart melts and I remember all the good times I had with my Dad in that Bug driving around San Diego County, eating donuts, and looking at houses. I think this is the one “item” that has extreme sentimental value that will be difficult to get rid of, if I ever decide to do so.

Something I did declutter and donate that held a lot of sentimental value was my Grandpa’s chair. My Papa Bill was my Dad’s stepdad and I was very close to him. He was sitting in that chair the first time a grandchild (aka me) crawled into his lap, fell asleep, and he didn’t immediately ask the parent to come get the kid. When he passed away, my Grandma gave the chair to my Dad, knowing how much my Dad and I treasured that chair. My Dad kept the chair and moved it with him to every house or apartment he lived in (from San Diego all the way to Bakersfield and back). So naturally, when my Dad died, I called dibs on the chair…I didn’t really need to call dibs because my siblings already knew I’d take it.

Bret and I moved that chair from San Diego to Orange County to Fresno. Bret would make comments about getting rid of it but I was always quick to say no. When we moved into the apartment we’re in now, I was already in a deep dive into simplifying our home. One day shortly after we moved in, I remember looking at the chair in our living room and thinking, “this doesn’t have a purpose anymore.” I also remember thinking it didn’t hold as much sentimental value as I thought it once did. The magic had worn off. So I looked at Bret and said, “I think I’m finally ready to get rid of the chair.” He was shocked, honestly, and thought I would regret it. But once we moved the chair into the garage, awaiting our next donation run, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The living room seemed larger and I found that I didn’t miss the chair. I will never forget my Grandpa or my Dad because I got rid of that chair, and yet we’re told and we believe we will forget if we ever do get rid of something with sentimental value.

Now I know there are a few more things I’ve kept of my Dad’s that are not listed here, but I can’t remember them. That also tells me it’s probably time to go through my house again and get of more stuff.

The purpose of this post is to explore this new journey we’ve been on. Since starting this journey, I have downsized our kitchen, Amelia’s toys, my clothes, etc. significantly. Simplifying has also changed other aspects of our lives that we didn’t necessarily think effected. I’m excited to write more posts about this topic because decluttering and organizing has become a little bit of a passion project for me.

As we go, I encourage you to take a look around your room or house, find an item, and ask yourself, “when was the last time I used this?” and “why am I keeping it?”

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