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The Burden of Gifts

Gifts from maternal grandmother and best friend during youth exchange year in Germany. ("Keeper gifts.")

Recently I was working with a client whom I will call Joan. She is downsizing a beautiful Arcata home and moving to a smaller home in Los Angeles to be near her family. Joan’s home is tastefully decorated with things she and her husband collected along with family heirlooms and gifts from family and friends.

She has moved many times over the years, but always with her husband by her side. Now a widow, she isscaling down dramatically. I knew she would sell her home quickly once it was listed and I was to help declutter before the house went on the market.

I helped with the heavy lifting, reaching things on top shelves or in tight spaces, and removing items she decided to donate or discard. I kept an eye on her energy level and watched for decision overload. I’d encourage her to take a break or move to something that didn’t require high level, emotional decisions. She easily let go of many things, but had trouble making decisions about items that were gifts from people she loved.

We’d talk about the item. Whether she used it and how often, how it made her feel, etc. The gifted treasures hidden in cupboards and not used much brought the most ambivalent emotions. I asked questions. When did you get it? Who gave it to you? How do you feel when you look at it? If it reminds you of the person who gave it to you, is it a good or bad memory? Do you have other items you love or use more that remind you of the person or memory? She usually did, making it much easier to let go of the less cherished items.

If she couldn’t make an immediate decision, it was okay. We set items aside and either later that session or my next visit she would have decided what to do. She began to give herself permission to let go.

Joan and I also talked about using the items she loved, even if she thought they might be fancy for day to day use. After all, what does “too fancy” earn us when we leave beautiful things trapped in dark closets, cupboards and boxes?

We all struggle with what to do with the gifts from people we care about. We keep things we bought ourselves even when we no longer use or want them. It’s as if we think we are being disrespectful if we let something go.

I have worked closely with people facing Alzheimer’s or related dementias. Their families feel powerless as they watch the person they love lose memories and abilities. While a person with memory loss might need to see an object to trigger a memory, most of us don’t. The item is never the event it represents nor the person who gifted it. If we still want to trigger our memories with physical reminders its best to use the most useful and beautiful items possible.

We all have expensive items once loved and used, but unwanted or unneeded now. Rather than seeing it as a loss to let go, re- framing these goodbyes as the opportunity to help a new family along their journey, while supporting a nonprofit’s mission in the process, seems a better way to go.

What feeling do you want someone to experience from your gift and can this feeling be created without the “baggage?” When looking for gifts this holiday season, or anytime,

consider a gift of an experience or consumable item to create less of an unintentional burden on the recipient.

Maggie Kraft is the owner of Kraft Transitions, the only senior move management service in Humboldt County.

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