It’s a challenging name for a wonderful idea: Swedish Death Cleaning. According to Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant, “reorganizing and downsizing our possessions as we approach old age is an important task. It doesn’t only benefit us by making life less crowded with ‘stuff.’ It also relieves our children and grandchildren of the task of sorting through our belongings after we die.” Researchers have affirmed that the Swedes have it right.
Benefits for You:
Redefining yourself: I can speak to this personality. When I closed my professional office, I sold, gave away, and discarded almost 1500 professional books. It was an exercise in defining myself as retired from active practice. Once done, I felt surprisingly lighter and more able to focus on long neglected interests.
Not everyone will experience it the same way, of course. But letting go of items that define a part of our identity can make room for paying attention to another part.
Facing mortality: We know we won’t live forever but sometimes it feels easier to live in denial than to face the inevitability of death. Taking charge of our material things pushes us to think about how we want to spend the time we have left. The result can be a turning away from cleaning, organizing, and managing stuff to instead getting busy on the bucket list.
Taking control: By cleaning up and cleaning out, we have control over what happens to our things. We can decide what things go to a favorite charity, what goes to each grandchild, and what should be left to the kids to figure out.
After his heart attack, my friend Robert’s adult children wanted to make his home office more manageable for him. Their impulse was to throw out much of what he had accumulated. After several days of arguing about their decisions, he found he had to ask them to leave. “I’m not dead yet,” he told me. “They mean well but they have no idea what has value to my field. As soon as I can, I’m going to sort it out myself.”
Unburdening our home and our mind: When we look around our home, we see friendly “ghosts” of people we loved. That china that was always on a grandmother’s table or the old tools once used by a favorite uncle are a connection with the past and with much loved people who have gone before. But holding on to everything may crowd our home to the point that keeping order is unmanageable. In fact, when we have too much of everything, we don’t really see anything. Do we really need grandmother’s service for 12 of china or all of uncle’s tools to remember? Maybe saving a teacup or a favorite hammer would do to evoke those fond memories.
Reduce your stress: Studies have shown that less stuff to manage equals less stress. Think about it: If your closet is full of clothing that you don’t wear, you need to burrow through it to find that skirt you know is in there somewhere. By donating and tossing the things that are the wrong size, unflattering, or something you never wore, you eliminate the stress. Ditto for the number of toys you keep for the grandkids’ visits or the number of duplicates of pans taking up space in your cupboard.
Help with finances: There may be money in your attic.
Carolyn and I have been friends for almost 50 years. She’s often told stories about antique furniture that belonged to her mother that is stored in her attic. She hasn’t been able to part with it but she hasn’t been up there to even look at it for years. Her husband hates it. None of her kids want it. Recently, she had an appraiser take a look. Turns out the stuff is worth thousands.
She is now thinking that she can let most of it go, if she brings a small table and chair into her living space. “Why didn’t I do that years ago?” she asked me. “I could have enjoyed a couple of pieces instead of feeling guilty about all that furniture stored in the attic. The money I get for it now will be more helpful to my life than knowing it’s gathering dust.”
Benefits for Your Children:
Many of us older folks have thought that we are stewards of family heirlooms that we will pass on to our children. But many grown children don’t have the associations we have with those things. Millennials as a group are Marie Kondo-ing their possessions and moving toward tiny houses. They don’t want the burden or the stress that comes with inheriting possessions they don’t really want — or the guilt that may come with disposing of them.
Dealing with our possessions while we are able to do so is a final gift to them. By involving them in the process, we absolve them of difficult decisions when we die. We also spare siblings of arguments about who gets what.
Death Cleaning involves more than material items. If you were to pass tomorrow, would your kids know which of your papers to keep, which to give to a lawyer, and which can be recycled? Do they know where you store your passwords? Do they have access to your bank accounts, insurance policies, etc. By putting such things in a central place (or with your lawyer), their memory of you will not be tarnished by the anger and frustration that adult children experience when left with legal chaos.
Death Cleaning Is a Gift
Mindfully and thoughtfully cleaning out our possessions is a gift to ourselves and to the people we leave behind. By taking charge of sorting through our possessions, papers, and even our digital files, we free ourselves — and our children — of stress and anxiety. Perhaps best of all, Swedish Death Cleaning provides a process for appreciating what we have as we decide what to do with the accumulation of a lifetime.
Magnusson, M. (2018). The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter Hardcover. New York, NY: Scribner.