A Word on Heirloom Guilt

by Katy on October 26, 2011 · 19 comments


My grandmother's pot inspired my home's orange touches

The following is a reprint of an article by Béa Johnson from The Zero Waste Home. Thank you very much for sharing!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”



“For you, [Bea] you are on a different level, ‘Zero waste’ means you have to eliminate even mementos and pictures. To each their own, but it’s not a road I am willing to go down.” – Sam.


Come on now, let’s not exaggerate, I have reduced mementos, but have not eliminated them, and especially not pictures! I cherish them so much that I have even scanned most of them to keep them safe from deterioration and loss.
What I did eliminate from my life though, is heirloom guilt, that is the guilt associated with letting go of heirlooms by fear of:
  • Forgetting our ancestors,
  • Disappointing our ancestors,
  • Not conforming to the tradition of passing down,
  • Erasing a family story,
  • Lowering one’s financial worth (“I can’t sell it for what it is worth”).
I believe that we do not need things to remember our lost ones. But everyone is free to do what feels right. I feel right having chosen not to hold onto anything that belonged to my grandpa, even though I loved him dearly. I get reminded of him everyday when I get lost into the blue of Max’s eyes, when I see Leo’s “derriere” that sticks out (a family trait), and when I wear my boots with metal heel plates (he wore them too and I can hear my grandpa walking in my shoes).
As with everything else, I applied the 5R’s to guide the way I deal with heirlooms:


Refuse: Say no while you can. Being proactive is a big part of our lifestyle. Thinking of outcomes and addressing them before the time comes (in this case a family death) is key: My living parents already know that I am not interested in inheriting their stuff. I have just what I need and I like what I have. End of story. A hundred years ago, it might have made sense to pass down a good set of china to support a struggling young couple. But with today’s consumerism, that same set of China no longer supports, it clutters.

Reduce: Stick to one box per family member. Letting go of the pieces you can part with, helps keep the amount under manageable control. Sell the coin collection and take a trip with the proceeds. Wouldn’t your mother agree? In the hospice, dying people do not mention regretting leaving their coin collection behind, they regret not going after their dreams (Bonnie Ware, who worked for years nursing the dying, wrote about a great article on “5 Regrets of the Dying“). Maybe their unfulfilled dream can fund or kick start yours!

Reuse: Use Your Heirlooms. I do not need to store my grandmother’s pot, I can actually use it (it even inspired my home’s orange touches!). I think my grandmother would be happy to know that I have not let the pot clutter my life (stored for safekeeping somewhere, using up expensive real estate), she would be thrilled to know that I am actually using it. After-all, it is not the stuff that she left behind, but the memories and the stories that we share, that matter.


“The last thing I want is for someone else to have to throw away my junk! I’d rather leave only memories and skills behind” – Anonymous.
Recycle: Turn worn-out items into something else; make bulk bags out of an old sheet for example or plant flowers in your grandfather’s boots. All my kitchen towels are made from an old linen sheet from my grandmother. I am using her thrifty ways (a skill that I did happily inherit from her) to use every inch of it.


Rot: If I run into another lock of hair, it’s definitely going into the compost!
I can affirm that for me, the biggest advantage of living a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity has been a great improvement in quality of life, but also freeing myself from heirloom guilt. I believe that when parents pass something down, they do not mean to burden us or instill guilt, they just want to make a gesture that they think is mandatory. But once it’s yours, it’s your choice to do whatever you want with it. It’s a free country, right?!


Do you feel burdened by heirloom guilt? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Jones October 26, 2011 at 5:59 am

I’m not very sentimental when it comes to physical objects, so I don’t really suffer from heirloom guilt. When my mom died earlier this year, my dad asked if there was anything of hers that I wanted. I picked just a few things from her kitchen…things I can actually use.

My husband is more likely to hang on to things, whether from guilt feelings or genuine sentimentality. His mom is horrible about foisting “valuable heirlooms” on us, either because SHE has a sentimental attachment to them or she wrongly believes they have monetary value (a poorly handmade Lucite clock, for example, or a chess set made from little terra cotta pots). She thinks everyone automatically feels the same way about things as she does. So, those items come into our house, go straight to the basement, sit around for a while, then I get rid of them somehow…usually as thrift donations.


Diane October 26, 2011 at 7:39 am

My recently acquired SIL feels she has to save EVERYTHING that ANYONE has ever given her. As a result, their new house is filling up rapidly and looks like she’s headed into “Hoarders” territory. My bro’s extremely uncomfortable with the situation. She refuses to get help, because she doesn’t feel she has a problem. She’s thrifty and a good saver, but there’s a serious disconnect somewhere. Sad, very sad.


fiwa October 26, 2011 at 8:11 am

Omg, YES. I could write a BOOK about heirloom guilt – all on my husband’s side of the family. They cannot throw anything away, no matter how broken down or commonplace an item is. My MIL routinely drives cross country pulling a trailer full of chairs with wood rot and broken rungs, chipped china, do-dads picked up in Chinatown in San Francisco in the 60’s that she can’t bear to throw away. And that’s not to mention the stacks and stacks of magazines and newspaper articles that she thought someone might want to wade through because she thought they were interesting 10 years ago. A lot of it is frankly so bad that we don’t even donate it – as soon as they leave it goes to the dump. The rest goes to Goodwill, but I will admit that an alarming amount of it ends up in my attic or crawl space.


Katy October 26, 2011 at 8:30 am

The way I’ve always seen it — Your grandmother did not that that whoosey-whatsit thinking it would live on for generations. She bought it because she needed it at the time.

Your grandmother does not want you to be a hoarder.



Samantha October 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

I heard a quote once, I think it was Peter Walsh, that said, “It’s not an heirloom if nobody wants it.” I am an unapologetic purger. I save photos and that’s just about it. If it’s not useful to me it doesn’t belong in my house. I have no interest in owning things that sit in boxes and aren’t useful and enjoyed.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land October 26, 2011 at 9:12 am

I tell hubby when he goes to Romania to visit family not to take anything home that we have to keep forever. I, too, don’t want impractical things around. Glad to know I’m not the only “heartless” one.


Molly (Mike and Molly's House) October 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

I find Bea very inspirational and have followed her blog for the last year.
My mom keeps passing me childhood mementos that I thought were long gone. I’ve been working really hard on this ‘guilt’. I let them go when I was a kid, it was my mom’s decision to hold onto them. She never asked me if she should, she just did. Part of working through this guilt was to recently talk to her about why she held on to these things and the effect it had on me. Her intention was to bring back childhood memories not stuff my tiny home with ‘stuff’ that I didn’t want or need.


Becky October 26, 2011 at 9:56 am

I am not sure how I feel about this. When we give up or refuse heirlooms, we are losing a part of our history. In this throwaway society I think it is important to treasure and learn from the old, especially those things that are handmade (and they are often of better durability and quality than what you buy at Wal-mart). I embrace it, replacing things that I have purchased with heirlooms and gifts. So I am gradually swapping out my meaningless, factory-farmed pottery barn crap with items of emotional and historical value. I never met my fabulously creative great-aunt, but I use her embroidered pillowcases every night and am inspired to learn embroidery on my own. So my house isn’t catalog perfect, at least my stuff has a story; and all for free!


Rebecca B. A. R. October 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm

You are actually using your heirlooms, though, and you aren’t keeping things just b/c they were handed down. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially, like you said, when things are actually better made than store bought items. That is completely different than keeping an item that you don’t use and/ or don’t like, just b/c it was given to you by a relative.


Ellie October 26, 2011 at 9:25 pm

You beat me to it!

I have the exact same strategy as you – when I inherit something with sentimental value, I almost always swap it out for something meaningless/”factory farmed”. For example, I just re-potted all of my house plants into vintage flower pots that had belonged to my grandma, and the generic garage sale/garden center pots are slated for the spring garage sale (I mean, why keep using the latter when you could use the former?).

I’m also big on the re-purposing thing, so that old items can continue to be useful, and replace less-meaningful items. There’s no law that says I can’t used great-grandma’s china cabinet for the extra dry-good foods storage I actually need, instead of for china. Sure, cereal and tea boxes in a glass-front china cabinet look a little “non-traditional” – but who cares?

Obviously, you can reach a point where everything in your home is attractive, well made, and sentimental – but I think I’ll run out of hand-me-downs to re-purpose before I run out of so-so replaceable items to swap out!

For the record, I will get rid of hand-me-downs if they are truly useless and unattractive – but really, not that much stuff I’ve gotten is. The not-so-good stuff doesn’t seem to make it to the hand-me-down stage in the first place.


Megan October 26, 2011 at 10:23 am

I do like heirloom items- prefer them to new most of the time. I try to use them whenever possible. I love to use my great grandma’s pie tins, bread pans, salt and pepper shakers, baskets, etc. A pillowcase that belonged to my grandma is now a Halloween Ghost. We sleep and cuddle with blankets made by grandmas. I am sentimental, so this serves me well. It isn’t adding clutter, because most of that I would have anyway. Anything that I can use isn’t a problem. If I like it and am attached to it- I will probably find a use for it.

Most of my problems come from well meaning “gifts”.

I feel so guilty when I give away/throw away a “gift” from someone that I care about. Ugly sweatshirts, knick knacks, toys, items that sit in closets or boxes taking up MY space. I feel wasteful and ungrateful. It’s frustrating when I don’t have a use for the objects.

How does one get past the guilt of
– someone spent their hard earned money on this to make me happy (and alas- no receipt to return)
-someone took a lot of time to create this for me.


Elaine October 26, 2011 at 10:31 am

I am sentimental, but find that’s going by the wayside as I get older. I want to move into a much smaller home (after my big doggies are gone), and I don’t want to have more stuff than I need and/or REALLY love.

My sister & I have our parents’ china and silverware. I want to offer them to our nieces and nephews, and she wants to keep them. It means a lot to her, and I have the room, so they stay (for now).

I do have a couple of ugly gifts that I’m not ready to donate yet. The day is coming, though.


reese October 26, 2011 at 11:26 am

I’ve become a sentimental hoarder because of my mom. Everytime I’d get rid of something growing up, she’d go, “Awww you’re getting rid of that?! But you loved it so….” or “But it’s still in great shape and it looked so great…” blah blah blah. So every time I get rid of something I think of her saying these things. Usually the hubs can help me by just saying, “It needs to go.”

I’ve got a very few select pieces that I must keep. And fewer that aren’t extremely useful (a broken musical snowglobe I will forever have. The music part isn’t broken, just doesn’t have a globe anymore. If anyone takes this thing I will rip a limb off 🙂 Please and thank you).

Otherwise it’s pots and pans used by grandpa for making puerto rican beef stew, or a piece of silver used for cookies that was my mom’s. Not much else is stickin’ around….


Jessica October 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I’m with you, I like my stuff, don’t feel bad about enjoying it and don’t mind having it take up space in my house.


b October 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I read an article on Apartment Therapy about taking photos of collections instead of keeping things that just get dusty or stored. They suggested that you make a small photo album of your “stuff”. I thought it was a wonderful idea.



Indigo October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm

It depends. Objects can bring back memories. I have a small keepsake box with odds and ends that are not of any real “use” but I treasure. I wouldn’t pass them onto someone else though. They are things like a letter form a favorite teacher, a geode I found at Lake Superior, tiny treasures that bring back entire years gone by. They all fit neatly in a single old shoe box and some things get throw out. The letters from old flames for instance, to make room for new memories.

As for heirlooms again it depends. If it is beautiful and useful by all means, but I do recommend asking before the time comes who wants what. My grandfather asked all of his kids and grand kids if they could have one item of his what they would want so that when the time comes they have that item to remember him by and are not saddled with “stuff”.


monique damus October 27, 2011 at 4:26 am

Before my mother died, she and my father down-sized and got rid of 80% of their possessions. It was a tough job, but coincided with us meeting two newly immigrant families who were in desperate need of single beds, computer desks, etc. It felt good to see our things (as I did consider them mine, even though they belonged to my parents), to people who had very little of their own,. My mother passed away 3 short years after moving. We realised what a gift she had given us! She got rid of all that stuff while it was still just that “stuff”. We would have had such a huge task in dismantling that house had everything become “mementoes”. Instead of months of work and worry, my sister and I spent one lovely day going through my mother’s personal effects and doling them out to loved ones. My father still lives in the apartment, but the objects in it are only what he needs, and cherishes and won’t ever be a burden to us when he passes on. I plan on doing the same for my kids some day. Don’t leave them with all of your collections and knick knacks. Keep a few cherished jewels and let all the rest go, before it is too late!!


Aleta October 27, 2011 at 11:06 am

This is EXACTLY the inspiration I needed to clean out our walk-in (toss-in, just put it in there, maybe we’ll use it later) attic. Storage units are a complete financial leech and I’ve never met any one who can tell me what’s really IN their storage unit. Thank you!!!


Dianna October 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Oh my … that’s me! My grandmother used to say it’s all just junk. Not until recently did I realize what she really meant. She meant that it is all just stuff. You make your own memories. So recently when my heirloom carnival glass bowl got broken into millions of slices of glass, I didn’t even get upset ….. not about the bowl anyways! The starbursts that got slivers of glass in them and had to be tossed, well that was just plain sad!


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