To Have or to Hold—Letting Go of Rummage and Grief

| Grief Author and Educator

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To Have or to Hold—Letting Go of Rummage and GriefIt’s rummage sale time of the year again in our township.  This is more than just a weekend de-cluttering project…it’s an EVENT!  Big time!  Our entire township hosts the event every year at the same time and it’s become notorious for bargains, socializing, and clutter control. Hundreds and hundreds of people swarm the streets for 2-3 days and bargain for every imaginable item. It’s about repurposing someone’s obsolete items into something perfectly useful for another period of time in someone else’s home.

Little did I realize before we moved to this part of our city how important this ritual is in consolidating baggage and neutralizing regrets. And especially, how it parallels to another important “event” in my life….healing my grief.  For years, I’ve stored items with once-important memories and hung on to the things I bought in a weak moment and later regretted buying. Keeping them was my way of not facing the loss. Now focusing on putting these things in a rummage sale has been a primary lesson in “letting go.” I didn’t understand this important ritual at first, but when I got caught up in its redeeming factors, I wrote an article confessing my lessons learned (FOR SALE: Madness, Memories, and Maybes.)

We are a culture who prizes our possessions. Some gather toys—both big and small. Some hoard favorite collectibles for value, whimsy, prestige, or estimated resale.  And some possess…just because they can. After the death of a loved one, family members are often charged with distribution of these prized possessions and may be seriously challenged by making appropriate decisions that would satisfy the deceased, if he or she had a say.

We are often asked in our grief groups, “What do we do about the stuff—the personal belongings of our loved one who died?” That’s where the pain comes in…that’s when the grief bursts hit home. It can be a daunting task of realizing you have to deal with your loved one’s personal items. The first thing I tell everyone is “You have to be ready to let go of each item. If you aren’t, DON’T!  There will be a time later when it won’t be so painful.” I remember a few years after Chad’s death, I was going to go through a trunk of many baby clothes that belonged to Chad. I was ready to pass them on until I opened a very small shoe box and inside were a pair of baby booties that reduced me to sobbing beyond control. Of all the things in the trunk, I’m not sure why this item made an intimidating connection. I closed the trunk and instinctively knew, I wasn’t ready yet. Years later, I resolved to open it again…knowing the booties where still in there, but prepared to make my decisions about distribution at that time. This time I was ready with my emotions and my resolve. It was okay.

Other items of Chad received random distribution over the years, mostly to friends who would appreciate specific items like his patriotic quilt, some military Tshirts, fishing gear, and sporting goods. His precious Army boots I wrote about were the latest items of significance I parted with. But I still have 2 tubs of Chad’s simply identified as  “can’t get rid of these things yet”. Such items in the tubs include his leather baseball glove, military insignia, school diploma, pictures, Rubik’s cube that he mastered, and small toys.     It’s okay to keep items which are “linking objects” that relate to significant memories. They feed my need for feel, touch and warmth—relating to the good times. I may never choose to part with them for as long as I live.

“What about all those things I “saved” for my loved one…and now I have no one to give them to?” This question is a valid follow-up to the first one from bereaved people in our groups.  This one was for me my emotional meltdown. For years, I “saved” special items (keepsakes) I wanted to give to Chad. Things like furniture, paper documents, jewelry that had a “legacy” story to go with them and belonged to deceased parents and grandparents. My husband, Gary, always reminded me—“Don’t save things for the wrong reasons. Maybe he (Chad) won’t have any desire to have the items when he is an adult and settles down.” But for me, it seemed like a logical thing to do.

Who wouldn’t want those keepsakes? Perhaps I was raised in a family where such items had more meaning. Many of today’s youth aren’t quite as attached to the significant heirloom items. But to me they were treasures meant to be “passed on.”

When Chad died, and the other relatives seemed uninterested in these prized possessions, I realize Gary was probably right. So each year, I slowly reassess the value of such treasures and either pass one or two on or sell them at my rummage sale to someone else who would appreciate them. Additionally, some family heirlooms have gone to the historical society; some to persons unknown; and some to caring family/friends who expressed interest. I realize the legacy I value most is not the item but rather the richness of the story that surrounds the item. Letting go of the item does not negate the memories and having the physical item isn’t that important any more.

Most things in my rummage sale, (especially since it has been a few years and I’ve removed excess baggage), are items that deserve to be there. They’ve out served their purpose; have been replaced with more up-to-date counterparts; are duplicates and not needed; or simply, haven’t been used or looked at in the past year or two. Just taking them off the shelves creates a euphoria within. It’s all about making that decision to “let go.”

I remember relevant stages in my grief that related to “letting go.”  After I made the choice, I felt “free” and less distracted by something that had a strange hold over me. For example:

When I let go of my anger…I accepted that I could not control all things in life.

When I let go of my pride…I accepted that suicide is not a taboo; it’s just “death” by another name.

When I let go of my shudda, wudda, cuddas, I accepted that I probably couldn’t have changed the outcome of this event anyhow.

When I let go of my regrets…I accepted that I really had nothing to regret. We loved each other unconditionally.

Yes, after all the work, all the decisions, and all the preparation, rummage sales are purposeful. I’ll do one this year, and probably next…just because. I ended my one article with this observation:

Rummage sales don’t just weed out the unwanted. They open the closet door to the forgotten and the discarded. They persuade us to unclutter our lives, live more simply, and be grateful for the treasures of the past. They allow us to grieve what we have lost, choose to remember what was important and commit to valuing what we have left.

Don’t grief and rummage sale then have similar intrinsic values?

  • To discard your regrets
  • To confirm that you have lived.
  • To savor what you have loved.
  • To have enjoyed and to have shared.
  • To have brightened lives with cherished memories.
  • To ultimately give meaning and purpose to someone else because of your experience.


Copyright Nan Zastrow


| Grief Author and Educator

“Honoring the past and rebuilding the future.” This statement defines Nan’s philosophy for healing grief. She explores her deepest thoughts and feelings about life and death in published articles and books. Many of her chronicles of grief draw on her own life touched by personal grief or the grief of others sh...