One of the things we consistently run into with our downsizing clients is appropriately managing the concept of “sentimental value.” I do fully understand that it’s challenging to let go of anything strongly associated with our loved ones and memories. However, for some families, this “catch phrase” becomes a “catch all” mindset that causes people to hold on to everything that’s been stored in the basement or attic for decades. Let’s take a moment and revisit the true definition of the term, and then try to understand the power of an alternative concept that I coined: “SELECTIVE sentimental value.”
“Sentimental value” is defined as “the value of something to someone because of personal or emotional associations rather than material worth.” Let’s add to this the definition of “selective": “relating to or involving the selection of the most suitable or best qualified.” So, essentially, the combined definition of Selective Sentimental Value is: keeping objects that are the MOST suitable or BEST qualified things to someone because of personal or emotional associations rather than its material worth that represent important memories.
Why is this important? Well, when you’re facing a downsizing transition, you’re almost certainly moving somewhere with less square footage and ultimately less room for the sentimental things. This is one of the big reasons that downsizing transitions can be so challenging. I want to explain how I think about this and describe an exercise that I have used and share with clients to help them gain clarity about what’s really best to keep. As I go into this, I want to stress that I fully recognize that being “selective” with objects that hold sentimental value isn’t always easy. I have experienced this firsthand, especially with objects that remind me of beloved family members like my grandparents.
My grandfather was one of my all-time favorite humans. When we were together, we would banter back and forth non-stop. We’d constantly give each other grief (read: shit 😄) in a fun-loving way, and I knew what we shared was uniquely ours in our giant extended family.
When I was in elementary school, I would ask my parents to send me to grandma and grandpa’s house on Brookview Dr. for Spring Break because I absolutely loved being around them. Later, in my twenties, I lived in Tempe, Arizona during graduate school. Tempe was a convenient 30 minutes away from my grandparents’ retirement home, and I would visit weekly for “Sunday dinner.” We loved watching “all the sports” together. Although we could never watch the Ohio State vs. Xichigan game (Go Bucks!) since both my grandparents were from Detroit, we would watch any Detroit-affiliated game and cheer/yell loudly at the TV (especially when the Detroit Tigers made it to the World Series in 2006 and the AL series prior to that).
Later, when my grandpa passed away, I spent the week after the funeral at my grandmother’s side. We didn’t talk much that week, compared to our Arizona sunbathing days, so I vividly remember reflecting on the memories and “things” that reminded me most of who my grandfather was to me so that I could choose which sentimental things I would ask to keep.
Through this process, I was able to select the two “most suitable and best qualified" things that served as symbols for my memories of my grandfather. The first was a wood carving. After his golfing game slowed down in retirement, my grandpa spent his free time carving wooden figurines. He made many wood carvings, but this one – my favorite – was a Santa holding a small evergreen tree. The other item that reminded me of his sweet soul was his wedding ring. He really loved my grandma. He also loved how much she spoiled him. She would fulfill his every request: “Can you get me a blanket?” “Can you grab my book?” “Can you help me up? “What’s for lunch?” “Can you get my medicines?” “Where did my toothpick run off to?” “Ahhh, c’mon,” he would say! He loved my grandmother so much for all of it, and so my second favorite thing was this symbol of their love. I had always told him how much I loved his wedding ring, and he once said to me in Arizona, “Sami, when I pass – I want you to have this ring to remember me.” After his death, my grandmother wore the ring but promised it to me, making it even more special. I chose these two things because I knew they would be what helped me remember him most.
My grandmother passed away in April 2020. Want to know what I miss most about my grandma? Her distinct laughter and voice. Long before she was in a nursing home we used to talk weekly, sometimes daily. Want to know what I started saving immediately after grandpa passed away? My grandmother’s VOICEMAILS! After actively practicing “Selective Sentimental Value” the week after my grandpa passed away, I had the forethought to consider: “What will I miss most about my grandma when she’s gone?” Listening to her voicemails brings immediate joy to my day whenever I’m feeling down or full of self-doubt – I just have a quick listen to the sweetest voice in the world.
Selective Sentimental Value enabled me to determine what was best to keep to remember both my grandparents, whom I adored. If I listened to the urge to keep everything that reminded me of them, my house would have ALL the games we played (Uno, Aggravation, Dominos), and ALL of the wood carvings and Christmas crafts they made together by hand, or anything that had the Detroit Tigers logo on it. I miss both my grandpa and grandma immensely, but I get his Santa carving out every Christmas season and regularly listen to those saved voicemails. These "things” make me smile and recall the incredible memories.
I think this exercise is good practice no matter who you’re trying to honor. To try this for yourself, first set aside a little time to make yourself comfortable – you don’t want to feel rushed. Close your eyes and consider the person. Recall the memories. Ask yourself which two things are most prominent in your memory when you think of that person. Those two things are what I recommend you “KEEP” during a downsize.
Now, I’m not saying that you can only keep 2 things - I’m just saying that it’s a good place to start. So, go ahead, close your eyes and give the “selective sentimental value” exercise a shot. There are at least two benefits to this practice: 1. You get to take some time to reflect on some of your favorite moments with some of your favorite human beings, and 2. You’ll be better able to prioritize what to put in the “keep” pile. This approach can help everything else start falling into place.
My hope is that your reflections will be full of joy.