When Helen died a centenarian, she was a pre-eminent scholar in a small but significant field in the sciences. Her work had been groundbreaking, and well after her formal career ended, Helen had been active as a thinker, writer, and activist to near the end of her long life. She died without children, but she left behind a legacy of original works and original copies of rare, published works. Her dearest friend, Terry, was left with the responsibility for Helen’s works. She cherished them, read them often, and used them for inspiration and interest.
Then, one day, Terry realized she had to let Helen’s works go. She had no room in her small Manhattan apartment, she was now alone as well, and she had little income or energy for storage of her own things, let alone Helen’s.
Terry came to POBA, a nonprofit organization that helps to preserve and organize legacies and collections, with a troubling question and a heavy heart: Terry knew that getting rid of Helen’s writings meant saying goodbye to Helen all over again. So Terry asked POBA, "How do I do this?"
Many of us have a “Helen” in our lives, a loved one whose life and person were very dear, and who left behind “things” – papers, pictures, letters, objects, artworks, memorabilia, and more. We can grow attached to these things for their own sake because they are beautiful, unique, or valuable. Sometimes we can grow attached because they become a substitute for the person we lost. And sometimes we become attached and don’t know why. So, with “Helen” as an example, our response was this:
Say hello again, not goodbye.
Every day, our relationships with people in our hearts, both living and dead, change because we change. Recognizing that your needs, abilities, and interests have changed means your relationship to Helen and her life is also changing. See Helen from these new, loving eyes. Helen would understand. After all – she left this to you!
What matters to you? How much of what Helen left behind matters to you personally and deeply, and how much “matters” because you are a responsible person? Which of these materials carries the strongest emotional tie to Helen, and where do you see it in what she left behind? In other words, is there one book that matters to you, or a note, or a picture? Keep those, at least for a while longer. Set them aside.
Now, let’s look at the rest. Take it a step at a time, but look at all the things Helen left. Is there a way to group them or organize them in a meaningful way, so you can sort these out? In Helen’s case, she had works written in English and other languages – Group 1; she had original research and raw data – Group 2; she had scholarly and popular writings – Groups 3 and 4; she had notes, cards, and pictures of historical importance spanning the 20th and 21st centuries – Group 5; and she had junk. (Don’t we all?) – Group 6.
Get ready for a little chaos in your space while you physically (re-)group these materials, preferably out of the way. It will take just a little time, but this creative chaos will soon be over!
Is there anything of value – financially, historically, or in Helen’s case, scientifically? Value is not always financial, but value always implies that value is shared – someone else would agree it has value or importance. If the answer is yes, set them aside, as these may require some expert help first. When in doubt, especially about financial value, give yourself some time to learn about it, but also avoid convincing yourself something may have value as just another way to hold on. Remember, we all overvalue what we feel strongly about.
Who could benefit from getting any of these materials? The project can be quite fun – or quite stressful, so let’s try to make it more of the former and less of the latter. After going through the groups, we always ask, “Who can make good use of this?” – a library, school, museum, nonprofit organization? Friends, family, clubs? Recycling, environmental, or other sustainable programs? Are the folks who could benefit easy to find and contact, or will it take time and/or money to identify them? Are they willing and able?
Do you know now where the materials will go? If the answer is yes to all of it or some of the collection, then begin to distribute it. If the answer to some of the above is that no one wants these things, then so be it. Let them go in a conscientious and responsible manner, but let them go fast and efficiently.
Figure out if you can do this yourself or need the help of friends, family, or experts. Then do yourself a favor and accept the help.
Finally, “pick, pack, and ship” – that is, send the materials you are giving away on their way. We hope you will do this with humor, affection, and a sense of peace that you have done well by your loved one and yourself.
POBA / Where The Arts Live is an online arts hub and resource center that displays, promotes, and preserves creative legacies; helps folks that own or manage a creative, arts, or historical legacy or collection to ensure these collections live on; and helps working artists to manage their own works for future preservation, viewing, and value. Learn more.