87 What Do You Save When A Loved One Passes?

Organize 365 Podcast
87 What Do You Save When A Loved One Passes?

When I was in the eighth grade, I had three grandparents die in one month. I guess one of the downsides to being from a very large family is that more people will eventually pass away in your life.

My father’s father was one of the grandparents that I lost during that month. The other two were great-grandfathers.

My father is the oldest of six children. So when his father passed away, all the children convened in the family house and divided the estate. I was only 13 at the time, but I was the oldest of all of the grandchildren and it was my job during that week to take care of the children, entertain them, and, above all, keep them away from the adults.

I remember watching how the possessions in the house were divided. I later learned that the siblings went in order of age and each was able to pick an item, and then they would round-robin again. Of course, there were a few items that everyone wanted. Their parents’ wedding photo, the original 72-year-old letter from my great-grandfather to my grandfather, a violin, and my grandfather’s purple hearts… all were treasured items to each family member.

So, it was decided that all of these special items would be framed, and then each Christmas the siblings would hand their item down to the next sibling in order and the youngest would pass his up to my father. Not only would this allow all of the siblings to share these memory items, but it would also give them an additional reason to get together and see each other at Christmas time.

How do you decide what to save?

Now as an adult, I have settled my father’s estate and helped many clients as they do the same. It is never easy.

This week on the podcast, I delve deep into the thoughts you may have, questions to ask yourself, and tips for how and when, and what to take as you say goodbye to your loved one.

An Heirloom Memory

my grandpas manger
Grandpa at 100 with Grandma, the grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.

In January 2015, my grandfather passed away. He was 102. He lived a very full, very productive life. And I got to thinking about the items I have chosen to keep whe my grandpas manger

When my grandfather was in his late 80s, I asked him to make this manger for me. My grandfather was an engineer, and his gift to the world was being able to make beautiful things out of ordinary materials. When I asked for this manger to be made, I knew that someday it would be the item I would have left when he passed.

And now that he has passed, I am so grateful that I purposely asked for this treasured heirloom to be created.


When I was in college, my great-grandmother passed away. I have many fond memories of time spent with her in her retirement apartment. She was a very eclectic grandma who collected businesses as well as items. She was a teacher, floral store owner, and businesswoman. She was always doing something.

My time spent with her was usually me coercing her into getting “organized.” And boy was that a challenge! Every drawer was a junk drawer and my grandma didn’t meet anything that she couldn’t reuse or recycle. One of the things I used to love to do at her house was play with her buttons.

My mother told me the story of when I was a child, she would take a small button box with her wherever she wanted to go shopping. She would set me on the floor with my button box and I would play for an hour sorting buttons.

So, when great-grandma passed away, I was allowed to have anything I wanted in her apartment. And I chose her buttons. The buttons remind me of my childhood when I would sort the buttons and of the days I would spend with my grandma sorting out her junk drawers.

It was a small memory that I could see every time I looked at my bookshelf, and it has very special meaning to me.Grandmothers Hutch

My sister chose her desk. I, too, loved our grandma’s hutch desk which was usually stuffed with papers overflowing from every place. About a decade after great-grandma had passed away, my sister let me have the desk.

I love the old-fashioned bubbled glass and am so grateful to have a family heirloom to store my Waterford crystal. My mother, grandmother, and all of my aunts have Waterford crystal and it’s something that I wanted to collect as an adult as well.

How do you decide what to keep from your parents?

It has been five years since my father passed away, and eventually, I do plan on blogging about being an executor and how to organize an estate. It’s a weighty topic, one I will tackle eventually.

Losing a parent is never easy. Any items that are left in your parents’ house not only have meaning because your parents used them, but they are from your childhood as well. So I’m not going to lie, I filled a 27-foot U-Haul full of stuff and brought it back to my house after my father passed away.

And when you look at my basement, 90% of what you see came straight from my childhood home.Basement

When my father passed away, I took part of my inheritance to remodel our kitchen and had these built-in bookshelves installed in our family room. It was more than just upgrading our family home. My father had redesigned many of our family’s kitchens and other buildings in the places where he had lived.

He loved designing and drawing and making spaces beautiful and functional.family room built ins

I love my kitchen! And not a week goes by that I don’t look in this gorgeous kitchen and thank my dad for it. Even though my father never saw this kitchen, to me it is the thing in my house that is most like him because it embodies his visionary skills and expertise.View of Kitchen from Dining Room

My Grandma’s Treasures

organizing jewelry
My grandmother will be 90 this March. I talk to her on the phone often, and I’m always trying to glean more information from her brilliant mind. She is analytical, hard-working, resourceful, and predictable. I love to talk to her about politics and finances because she has a perspective of longevity that I cannot find in my peers.

She is able to temper my unbridled excitement about whatever is going on in the media by relating it to something that has happened in the past, or caution me about what she does see that is going on that is not being seen by the naked eye. The thing I love most about my grandmother is her mind.

As she has aged, she has started giving me heirlooms to keep. She has an amazing jewelry collection. My grandfather loved to work on antique cars. And every time he would go buy something for one of his cars, she would take an equal amount of money and buy a piece of jewelry. 🙂

This aquamarine ring was given to me by my grandmother when I turned 21. Both of our birthdays are in March, and we share the birthstone aquamarine. This ring was given to her by her father, and then she gave it to me.organizing jewelry

A few years ago, I was admiring this opal ring at Grandma’s house. I love to hear the stories behind the jewelry purchases that she has made. This ring was bought when she and Grandfather were on the way back from their honeymoon in California. She never wore the ring.

And she asked me if I’d like to have it. Of course, I said yes! But I asked her if I could turn it into a necklace slide so that I would wear it more often. And I do.november

More recently, Grandma gave me this little desk that I remember seeing at the end of her couches and all the different homes that she has lived in. The little desktop door was often down and there were little metal painted boxes and unique marbles displayed in glass bowls.

I have always treasured this little desk. I love how miniature it is and yet functional, and it just reminds me of my grandma. Last year, she gave it to me. And now it sits in my bedroom and I look at it every day and think of her and our special relationship.

What about you?

You have a different relationship with everyone you know. The passing of a family member or friend is very difficult. Often, I see people fall into one of two camps. Either they want to keep every single possession that their loved one ever touched, or they default to saying, “No, that’s okay, I don’t need anything.” And often the true answer is somewhere in the middle.

If you tend to say, “No, that’s okay, I don’t need anything,” I encourage you to think of one thing that you would like from someone who has passed away. It can be as simple as a button box. Or as complicated as a handmade manger. And, likely, what you choose will not make sense to those around you… and that’s okay. It’s all about you.

If you tend to want to keep everything, go ahead. 50% of the people I go in and professionally organize have lost a loved one in the last five years. The grieving process is long and individualized. The last thing you want to do is give up something you’re not ready to give up yet.

Five years seems to be the magic amount of time that needs to pass before full closure seems to settle in. Having a professional organizer helps you process why you saved what you saved, and how you could still remember your loved one without that physical possession, is an invaluable gift you can give yourself.

I encourage you to interview organizers before you hire them, to make sure that they are willing to spend the time to process your emotions and not just help you declutter your house. And I encourage you to realize that the pace may be slower and cost more if you go this route, but in the end, you will feel satisfied and have more closure.

Not many people make it to 102 years old. I am so glad my grandfather did. And I’m also so glad that he is now in his eternal rest probably milking cows somewhere. 🙂

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