Sentimentality & Holding Onto Items

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

This is my doll collection.


For those of you who don’t know me, I am not meant to have a doll collection. I mean, just look at how dusty and slouchy those poor dolls are!  It’s as though they’ve been sitting in a laundry basket in a basement closet wrapped in Wegmans’ shopping bags for the past decade.

Actually, they have been sitting in a laundry basket in a basement closet wrapped in Wegmans’ shopping bags for the past decade. Even if I were a doll collection type of person, I just don’t know where I would put them! We live in a smallish house and there are few around-the-house-type spaces that aren’t occupied by the things we need, or storage-type spaces that aren’t filled with the things I can’t get rid of.

I swear, I am by no means a pack-rat, but I do have a hard time getting rid of anything tied to someone I love (or that has a face).  For example:

Exhibit A: This is piano music I never play.


Some of it belonged to my mother, like 100 Greatest Hits of the 60’s and 70’s and Great Songs of the Sixties; some of it, like Bette Midler’s From a Distance and Whitney Houston’s rendition of I Will Always Love You, was given to me by my mother. I already have a big shelf overflowing with piano music I do play so I really ought to throw away what I don’t, but because of their ties to my mother, these will probably stay with me forever.

Exhibit B: This is an index card that has been sitting on my dresser for years.


An index card, mind you, not a card.  My mother sent it to me when I finished my master’s degree.  She was sick and in the middle of chemo treatments and couldn’t make it to my graduation.  It was such a dismal and depressing time, an index card seemed to make sense, but I’m so glad I held onto it because I find encouragement in her words to this day.

Since we’re talking about holding onto things, can we address this bottle of Gap Dream I just noticed on my dresser?  That dates back to 1999!


I’m fairly sure I bought this in high school, meaning it’s been with me for 16 years. I have no idea when I last wore Gap Dream.

Exhibit C: I guess we should also talk about the dresser which the index card and the Gap Dream are sitting on.  This dresser is 100 sizes too big for my home and has very ornate and scary claw feet.  It originally came from my grandmother’s house where it made far more sense situated adjacent to a large canopy bed.

Even if I could figure out how to get the dresser out of my house, I’m sure I would never get rid of it. I have fond memories of rummaging through its drawers when it belonged to my grandmother, admiring her costume jewelry and imaging a day when I would be elegant and fancy like her (still waiting).


Exhibit D: The outfit pictured above. My mother took me to the mall to buy this outfit for my senior picture in 1999. In my day, senior pictures were taken at the local portrait studio and consisted of a few headshots and a couple pictures of you casually leaning on a giant ’99 (or whatever year it was when you graduated). I’ve posted the outfit to give you an idea of what I might have looked like, hands on hips, standing next to that ’99.

Even if I wanted to wear this outfit from the late 90’s, I doubt very much if I could fit into it. Problem is, I have a complete inability to throw away clothes my mother bought for me. In fact, this is just one example of the many clothing items I’m holding onto in my giant claw foot dresser.

Now, back to that doll collection. Growing up, every Christmas my mother would buy me a new Madame Alexander doll – this is how I became an unlikely doll collector.  I cannot part with the dolls, but I don’t know what to do with them either.  I hadn’t looked at them in years, a fact which filled me with shame as I remembered the sentimentality which led my mother to buy them in the first place

These she bought during my Little Women phase.


These princes she bought after deciding I should start collecting boys. Hmmm.


And she bought this one after my high school graduation.


As I pulled each doll from its plastic bag, my daughters watched in anxious anticipation. They examined their delicate details as I explained how each doll related to my childhood.  Some of the stories they knew and some I will share with them when they’re old enough, just as my mother shared them with me. I’m sure when my mother picked out each of these dolls she was thinking of how pleasing they would be to a little girl, but I doubt she knew how many generations of little girls they would please.

I have to be honest, my idea for this post was to poke fun at the useless and silly things I’ve held onto simply because they’re connected to my loved ones. Now I don’t think I can make such a case.  Items like an index card, tattered piano music, really outdated clothing, or an out-of-place doll collection might cause an outside observer to scratch their head, but as far as I’m concerned each of them tells a story worth remembering (well, except maybe the body spray). Could I remember the stories without the objects?  Maybe, but I don’t want to.  

I’m sure some of you are holding onto things that make little sense without knowing their context. I’m sure some of you have been encouraged to let these items go and I’m sure some of you have questioned holding on them yourselves.  We’ve talked lots and lots about the practicalities of letting things go, but from a sentimental standpoint, all I want to say is that – I get you. You’re not the only one with old shirts tucked in the back of your drawer and a large doll collection stowed away in your closet.  We’re all okay.

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26 Comments on "Sentimentality & Holding Onto Items"

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  1. Denise  June 23, 2020 at 9:40 am Reply

    This was a lovely post and made me giggle a bit—in acknowledgement of the sameness we all share across gender, color, age, etc…the keeping of things that hold meaning and connection.
    I have never been a hoarder and hate to clean, so the less things to clean the better. When my parents died, I had to do the work by myself, of ‘rehoming’ their things. I try to use new, less-sad words bc the process is extremely painful…and judging by what I d read and heard from people, I’m not alone in feeling this way. My brother left it to me to handle everything…I don’t know his reasons, but it has felt like leaving 5 year old in charge in an old scary house. (I’m living there temporarily bc of certain circumstances).
    I related to this story bc my mom always bought me clothes. We’d shop, do lunch, and she’d invariably buy me clothes. She knew I didn’t want them like some vulture taking her money, she did it bc *she* enjoyed it, it brought her pleasure to buy me nice things she couldn’t have at my age. I found it hard to part with a lot of these things bc it reminds me of our days out having fun.
    I’ve rehomed as much as I could. Their personal things I boxed up and donated…I tried not to think or feel…shirt, shirt, jacket…tape the box up and don’t think. I kept just a few things…my mom’s favorite sweater and my dad’s table lamp. There were a few more small things I will put in a shadow box when I move. I’m struggling though with dumb things like crockery. Those white with blue flower casserole sets…ancient and also prized among collectors…but also I know what they hold…I don’t need to figure “will this hold a jello salad?”(yes I make them on occasion as a reminder of the days when mom was queen of the kitchen. They’re just dumb dishes, but somehow there’s security in knowing how much stuff they’ll hold and they can go in the oven, and they’re old Americans made stuff that doesn’t contain lead and are non-toxic. We spent so many years doing holidays with these dishes, I don’t know I’d feel like I could do it without them(mind you my own stuff is sitting in storage from when I left my house to come here).
    I’ve donated most of their stuff, and what’s left are just essentials to keep the place running while I get it ready to sell. But I don’t know how much of what’s left I’ll be able to part with. My head says let it go…but part of me wonders if I have a dish like that in storage already…the same part that wonders if I’m capable of living without them…will I fail? What will happen to me? I always was independent and lived all over the world when they were alive. But now, knowing they’re gone, there’s no safety net just in case. And like the mystery of the casserole dish, I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge…But I’m going to try.

  2. Michelle allen  October 10, 2019 at 4:36 am Reply

    I loved reading every single post. I smiled , I cried I remminiced, I remembered and I wondered. I have SO many things …little knick knacks and a lot of dolls. I have little things everywhere in my home. Boxes of pictures, and cards, and just small things I like for whatever reason…and I often wonder …do I have too many things I’m attached to? Bottles of perfumes and a case w mini perfumes, costume jewelry I never use but it’s pretty, so much make up, clothes I never use…but what if one day I will. I think about what will happen to all these things when I’m gone and wonder who will go thru them and who will get what or will they even want any of it? …will my dolls and lovely pictures be taken care of or sold at a garage sale or thrown into boxes and forgotten about? All the little things I love…what will become of them? After all…my daughter doesn’t like the same things I like and I doubt my son would want any of it…so where will it go? What will they do with it? Should I stop collecting the little things I collect? Should I sell my doll collection before I die? Should I “clean up shop” so to speak so my kids won’t have to? I have so much stuff…and I like it all. But I don’t want to burden my kids with having to collect it all up and figure out what to do w it all. These posts made me feel better about having things while I’m here…but what about when I’m gone? Will all my things be a burden on my children??? I wish these questions and thoughts didn’t exist and that I didn’t think about dying…but unfortunately I do. Maybe I should talk to my kids about it…or write a letter they can read after….and I better hurry up and get life insurance but I can barely afford the bills I have now…I don’t work and I don’t even own a home…I’m about to be 50 yrs old and I have nothing of value. Will I ever get it together? Or am I to die this way? And be someone’s memory like all the above? Or worse…what if I’m not a cherished memory for anyone? Oh how this mind of mine stays busy…and oh how it makes me worry some.

  3. GaryB  July 12, 2019 at 8:09 pm Reply

    I am coming to the one year mark of my wife of 38 years tragic passing from cancer. I wear the wedding ring where its always been and have no intention ever taking it off. My daughter “helped” me a few days after she passed with getting rid of her clothes for charity. But she over-helped and some things I looked for after I realize she took them. I was angry at first but then realized it didnt matter. I will keep all her knick-knacks she accumulated and not go through her stuff like that we have in boxes-that were never opened. So many unopened boxes to remain unopened till I die- You see we had just retired and moved into our new beautiful retirement home when in only 2 months we were shocked with diagnosis of stage 4 terminal cancer, She 62 -me 64-and from that point on it was all about hospitals and care giving-so many unopened boxes-now remain and I cant bring myself to even look. They will be left that way till I die and my kids can look through them. I now even keep empty aspirin and candy jars that she used-she touched them so they mean something to me- yeah empty but she used them. There are many dolls from her childhood and stuffed animals through our years now all in her closet along with her pocketbook and wallet and license etc… Not going anywhere. I need these things to remain with me- To toss any of them would be like tossing a piece of her out. I have already lost it all-my life- my past and mostly my future. I simply await a reunion and each day hope sooner rather than later, Her stuff remains. I wish there was more.

  4. Douglas Horton  February 11, 2019 at 7:53 pm Reply

    I am a widower of 17 months now. After 33 years of marriage my wife had accumulated much as you can imagine. While I have given away most of her clothing to charity, there are some pieces I could not part with. Also atop of her dresser in our bedroom is la small wire shelf that holds little souvenirs that she collected on our many travels together. Untouched. And little love notes she used to give me. a long with this are her pictures around the home. I too have her phone and each day there are shared memories that appear. Even though I am past the immense grief stage, I find these familiar objects and pictures a great comfort to me. and my children.

  5. Sharon Watson  September 28, 2017 at 11:02 am Reply

    I lost my sister 3 years ago and I still can’t bring myself to sort her things out it’s still all as she left it on the morning of the 4th february she was my whole world there is such a big void in my life that will never be filled,

  6. Sharon Watson  September 28, 2017 at 11:02 am Reply

    I lost my sister 3 years ago and I still can’t bring myself to sort her things out it’s still all as she left it on the morning of the 4th february she was my whole world there is such a big void in my life that will never be filled,

  7. Beth  September 27, 2017 at 3:32 pm Reply

    My precious daughter passed away two years ago at the age of 30 from a sudden massive coronary. Completely unexpected as you can imagine. My only daughter. When her husband and I were going through her clothes there were some blouses, sweaters and scarfs that I just couldn’t let go of. I can picture her in them and even have some pictures with her in them. They’re in boxes in the top of my closet. I haven’t looked at them again yet. I also have her wedding gown, but she had already asked me to hold onto it for her, she didn’t have the space to store it. I have a son also. I’m wondering what on earth he’s going to do with these things after I’m gone. A while back when that bridal shop went under and all those poor women didn’t get their wedding dresses, I thought I should donate Lindsey’s dress but I just couldn’t. Every time I’ve given away something of hers, either to a cousin or family member or friend of hers or donated, it feels like I lose another piece of her.

  8. Beth  September 27, 2017 at 3:32 pm Reply

    My precious daughter passed away two years ago at the age of 30 from a sudden massive coronary. Completely unexpected as you can imagine. My only daughter. When her husband and I were going through her clothes there were some blouses, sweaters and scarfs that I just couldn’t let go of. I can picture her in them and even have some pictures with her in them. They’re in boxes in the top of my closet. I haven’t looked at them again yet. I also have her wedding gown, but she had already asked me to hold onto it for her, she didn’t have the space to store it. I have a son also. I’m wondering what on earth he’s going to do with these things after I’m gone. A while back when that bridal shop went under and all those poor women didn’t get their wedding dresses, I thought I should donate Lindsey’s dress but I just couldn’t. Every time I’ve given away something of hers, either to a cousin or family member or friend of hers or donated, it feels like I lose another piece of her.

  9. Jackie  July 27, 2017 at 6:39 am Reply

    My partner died 5 months ago, I’m still wearing her watch which I put on in the hospital, our house is just the same as when she left, her clothes, slippers ,shoes, toothbrush all still in same place. I can’t get rid of anything as I feel I’d be getting rid of her

  10. jeanne  February 10, 2017 at 11:13 pm Reply

    It’s been 15 months….I continue to wear my husbands’ wedding ring on my left hand, along with the 2 bands he gave me when we got married…. i try to take them off… but i can’t…i don’t know when i will get the strength to remove them…i even tried putting them on my right hand…I need to wear them, but i know i also need to eventually take them off…feeling so sad….if i remove them, I will feel that I am forgetting him…denying that we were wed…i am in such a bad way… my heart is broken…i barely can go on…

    • RobinA  July 28, 2017 at 11:46 am Reply

      I’m not married, but I don’t understand why you have to eventually take them off if you don’t want to. Obviously if you decide to remarry it would probably be a good idea, but other than that… Who says? When it’s time you will know, and if it’s never time you leave them. To me it’s a purely personal decision.

  11. beapositive  January 8, 2016 at 7:44 pm Reply

    I saw a post on facebook over the last couple of weeks: “another griever grieves alone because someone told them to move on.” It’s only been 5 months since I lost my precious husband. I have been told “you’re living in the past”, so I’ve distanced myself from those who have said that to me. I’m living in my beautiful memories which are all I have now. I am so glad another griever shared this website with me. Thank you . . .

    • Nina  December 2, 2019 at 11:01 pm Reply

      I understand how frustrated that must make you feel. My mother passed away 4 years ago and I am still grieving. I think when someone tells you that after only 5 months, they probably didn’t lose someone close yet. And, if they had lost someone close and are over it in 5 months, it makes one wonder what kind of relationship they had. Or, the person is in denial with there loses,

  12. Vicki  September 22, 2015 at 3:31 am Reply

    Someone told me we should have been better 2 weeks after our loved one died in the World Trade Center. Two weeks later I was walking through every day feeling as if someone had taken a sledge hammer and whacked it upside my head and that the result was for me to be plodding through every day not even fully understanding where I was, feeling as if I were walking through a dream instead of waking life and sometimes even feeling like I wasn’t inside my own body. I don’t know what that was bc nobody ever explained it but it’s still one of the most awful memories I have; being stuck above myself with the sensation of looking down but not being able to get back inside myself. I was afraid I’d get stuck like that and not be able to return to what I was like before it happened.

  13. Vivienne Thomson  September 13, 2015 at 6:36 pm Reply

    Thank you for posting this. I lost my dad in January this year. I have lots of things of his but I have a necklace he bought for me which has a “secret” message when you scan the QR code on it and his wedding ring. I’ve worn them both round my neck everyday and night since he died, only taking them off for showering or a hair cut. I can’t bear to be parted from them. I was starting to wonder if that was normal, or okay and then someone told me I really shouldn’t be wearing them “this far on”. (I put that in speech marks because it feels like it could be yesterday. I still hear the hospital machines beeping in my sleep). I may come to a time where I want to take them off, but I feel like I need to have them with me all the time. Thank you x

    • Eleanor  September 19, 2015 at 9:32 am Reply

      I can’t believe someone said that to you – mostly because the sentiment is just plain wrong. Argh. I’m glad you have those precious items to keep your loved one’s memory close.

      • Vivienne Thomson  September 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

        Thanks. I’ve learned very quickly, as I’m sure most people have at some point, that people expect me to be fine now, in fact one person said that I should have moved on after 4 weeks. Not taking into account my sister and I spent 3 years fighting day in and out for a diagnosis and appropriate care. Just a lot of emptiness. People didn’t and don’t understand that living so far away didn’t make me any less of a carer. I’m kind of fed up being told how I should feel and how it’s “not normal”. So keeping things that are so important so close seems a natural next step…to me.

  14. Patti Hall  August 7, 2015 at 10:48 pm Reply

    Beautiful post, Eleanor. May I suggest making shadow boxes with uv proof glass? The graduation doll and the note, the other dolls in groups, the sheet music…all of it would work in shadow boxes. The sentimental clothes can be photographed with your memory attached to back. My late sister taught me about taking photos of some things and then you can let go of them easier.
    I’m right in the middle of sorting many years worth of totes, so your post was just what I needed to read.

  15. Bonnie Walker  August 7, 2015 at 6:15 pm Reply

    Dear Eleanor, Thank you for validating my need to keep some things from the past that are now giving me comfort as I face my future as an “adult orphan”. Strange term, isn’t it? In 2000 I lost both my parents, then in 2005 our only child died at the age of 31 and I lost my husband of 46 years in 2014. We had an estate sale last spring before he passed and I let go of a lot of “stuff”. However, there were some things I couldn’t/wouldn’t let go. I am especially fond of the photo, slide, film, & video collections of all the happy times we spent together. There are things I’m sure that someday whoever goes through my “stuff” will wonder why I continued to keep such useless items. These precious items are my connection to those I loved and think of every day. I am so glad you are sharing your memories with your daughters and helping them to make connections to you and their grandmother.

  16. Robin Ann  August 7, 2015 at 11:15 am Reply

    I’m lucky, I have some things I managed to salvage during the hour or so in the unlighted house I had to go through his stuff. I tried to get things that I knew were important to him and I did get what I wanted, although I wish I had had time to think then, because I missed or passed over some things that I wish I had. Right after he died I became obsessed with finding every ticket stub from things we had done. Unfortunately, I had not long before thrown out years of “why am i keeping this stuff” memorabilia. So then I was frantically going through coat pockets looking for what was left. Making it worse is that we weren’t married or living together and he didn’t have any family to speak of, so I was at the mercy of distant relatives during the funeral, etc. There is no inscription in his name where he is buried, which makes me even more crazy about his stuff.

  17. Janna McGregor  August 6, 2015 at 10:29 pm Reply

    I love this post. My Thomas was only here 15 weeks so I don’t have much. In my wallet is the parking ticket that was given to me when i parked in the garage at the hospital that first night. We lived at the hospital for a month with our very sick baby. I cannot let that little ticket go. We gave away most of his newborn/preemie clothes before we knew he was sick. I wish I still had those. I’m a little paranoid about my other kids stuff. Before i throw away or donate something i second guess it “in case they die.” Such morbid thinking but that’s where i am, almost five years after his death.

  18. Linda Rubano  August 6, 2015 at 9:56 pm Reply

    I have saved everything, letters, cards, jewelry, ticket stubs, dried and pressed flowers. We were lovers, he married to another so everything he gave or sent me was a unique and precious gem. I also keep the messages on my phone because I need to hear the sound of his voice. I cry but I could never erase them. I even take a photo of him to bed with me each night. It’s a comfort to know he is close. I realize he is in heaven but to ease the pain of my loss, I need to know he is close. My love for him is strong and eternal. I miss him more than I can put into words.

  19. Vicki  August 6, 2015 at 8:29 pm Reply

    I haven’t let anything go yet, except for the things I was never going to use anyway (like his clothes) when we went to his house in Philadelphia to sell it so we had to clean it out first. The house where I used to live with him, my daughter, one tabby cat and two “war” dogs. Mastiffs that he thought we needed and my kitty certainly disagreed with on the matter. She used to sit on the banister and hiss at them as they walked by, silly animal.
    I have his books about the Civil War, even though I don’t like reading books about combat. My problem is that the stuff he left behind, what Stephen King called “the things they left behind” when he wrote a short story about the people who died on September 11, their relatives and co-workers, is literally the only thing we have of him.
    The wall at the Memorial site that says “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is the only other tangible object that brings me a modicum of comfort. The memorial pools themselves do too but you never get to be somewhat alone when you’re there. You feel like everyone else is doing it with you, even though they didn’t know him the way you did and for whatever reason, I can’t feel as comforted when dozens of strangers are also looking at his memorial with me; it feels like dozens of people following you into the cemetery to stand at his grave (or in his case the headstone that stands above the empty casket we buried.) It’s not like that at the Remains Repository and feels more private bc most of the people who look at it also never received their loved one’s remains, mostly from when the two planes hit and killed the hundreds of people in the initial assault.

  20. Elaine Ferguson  August 6, 2015 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Eleanor, I loved, loved, loved reading this post. I laughed a little, felt sad a little . . . . I have given Madame Alexander dolls to my girls and now some of my granddaughters. I love them, and so did your mother, except they were called Ginny Dolls then and we bought one every time we went to visit a cousin in Kansas City. I wish so much we had both kept them. We didn’t. But that is how your mother learned to love Madame Alexander dolls. And wouldn’t your two little girls love to put some of them on a shelf in their bedrooms? Just asking. And I certainly recognize some of that music you’ve displayed. I don’t know how the music Evelyn and I had growing up ever got divided up between the two of us. She got some and I got some, but she of course had the greater amount because she was the major piano player, so to speak. I have some music that my grandfather on my mother’s side had, plus some of Aunt Marilyn’s I remember from the 50’s. I raided my Dad’s piano bench before he sold his last house in Wayland and his piano. I read once that people should just take a picture of their sentimental things and then let them go. I totally, totally, totally disagree. The things you have saved are certainly not silly or useless. If they evoke a precious memory they definitely have a use, especially if you share that memory with your girls. Just an aside. Do you remember my telling you that a few toys that I remember from your mom’s and my childhood were Betsey Wetsey Dolls and two large walking dolls. I went to someones house for lunch recently, a women exactly my age, and in her room on a chest were two dolls she had saved which were precious to her – one Betsey Wetsey and one large walking doll. I was so thrilled and tickled to see them. So in this case her precious memories even gave me joy.

    • Eleanor  August 7, 2015 at 12:04 pm Reply

      Hey Elaine,

      I know mom loved those dolls so much and they really are precious, especially when you look at them through a child’s eyes. I think the girls would like to display them, they probably are getting to be about the right age now. I have been very grateful that the other reoccurring present from mom at Christmas, when I was the right age, were American Girl Dolls which I have already given to the girls and which have gotten even more use than when I originally owned them. I love that they love them. I wish Mom were around to see that many generations were enjoying them. Mom seemed to have a knack for good toys and kids books – I try to buy all the same books we had too.

      That is so funny you recognize some of the music. I have flipped through her books but I’m not that good so a lot of it is too hard for me or unfamiliar to me now. Mom loved playing through books of music. I remember trying to play duets with her one day and wishing I were better and could keep up. I’m in your camp about letting things go – if you can hold onto them, what’s the harm?


  21. Beth Grognet  August 6, 2015 at 6:32 pm Reply

    Oh, this post is so me. I can not bear to give up things that belonged to my mom and daughter. Although I know no one will be interested in them when I am gone. The daughter who would have is the one who would have cherished these things. Makes me more sad that she is gone too soon. Tears come to my eyes as I type these words.

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