Laura Gilbert

It’s OK to Say Goodbye

By Laura H. Gilbert, author of The Stories We Leave Behind: A Legacy-Based Approach to Dealing with Stuff

Funny, the things one notices when stuck at home for weeks on end. Dust in a corner, crooked pictures, chipped paint on the ceiling – and how precious our space is.  As I searched for more breathing room I came upon several long-forgotten (or intentionally ignored) items.

In spite of my minimalist leanings, these items defied release. Some were repeatedly removed from give-away piles. Others were stuffed in a “deal with it later” closet. To be clear, none of these items saw use for years (or generations), nor did they match my lifestyle or interests. I didn’t even like some of them. But for various reasons they stuck like plastic wrap to my soul, relegated to live a sad and lonely life on a back shelf or squirreled away in a cold, dark corner of my closet.

Maybe Someday…

Once loved (by me or a relative), their only purpose for some time has been to be “on hold” in case the love, or a need, returned. Maybe someday my 4-year-old granddaughter will have a daughter someday who could use Grandma’s baby dress. Maybe someday my toddler grandson’s fictional spouse will be thrilled to have Great Grandma’s crystal. Maybe someday a relative will be born someday, become a cartoonist and lovingly display this 1950’s animation toy on his or her desk. Maybe someday.

The fantasies are absurd, built on a plethora of assumptions ironically reminiscent of the time period of each item. Who knows if today’s 4-year-old will have a child decades from now and want to dress the child in an absurdly short, frail frock; or if my toddler grandson will marry – and marry someone who wants old crystal; or if an unborn relative will materialize, become a cartoonist and want desk art (or even use a desk)? [add more glaring assumptions here…]

Duty, Guilt and Grief

Yet imagining a future for these once-cherished items feels like I’m somehow fulfilling a duty to respect family history or at least family things. To fail implies a lifetime of looming guilt. “I wanted to wear your wedding dress, Great-Grandma, but alas, you ditched it. What will I wear now!?!?!.” Yeah…that kid has bigger issues than finding a dress but these bizarre thoughts persist.

So I continue to hold on to certain items I don’t use or really want. Why? I’m a rational, logical person. I’m also a great downsizer. Perhaps they seem historically or psychologically more worthy than other things I’ve moved along. Or perhaps I’m simply caught in a circular version of the grief cycle:

  • This doesn’t take up much room! (Denial; it actually does, emotionally if not physically.)
  • I hate having all this mess! (Anger)
  • I’ll let go when I find a deserving home for it. (Bargaining)
  • Doesn’t anyone want this wonderful item? (Depression)
  • I’ll just keep it for awhile longer. It doesn’t take up much room. (Skipping Acceptance in favor of a return to Denial and the cycle continues) 

Moving On

I don’t know why certain items are so hard to release. But I do know that time quickly slips away. And, as I age I have less physical ability to dig through boxes and more emotional interest in doing things that bring me joy and calm. Over the years I’ve learned it is ok (and healthy) to say goodbye to people and experiences I have loved as well as those that weigh me down. Certainly, it is equally ok – and healthy – to say goodbye to physical things whose time has come.

So, yesterday I tackled my “maybe someday” closet where 90% of my “on hold” items lived. One by one I relinquished items to the next phase of their journey – one bag for a grade school, one for charity, one for the local VFW, and one for trash. There was no guilt, no remorse. But there is a sense that I’ve given these items their freedom – and also a little to me.