My mom was a hoarder. Not in the same league as the people featured on Buried Alive (thankfully), but certainly enough for it to be noticeable. She had clothes dating back the mid-seventies that no longer fit her, kitchen appliances she hadn’t used in decades, piles of unopened tea towels, the list goes on.
Even before I adopted a minimalist lifestyle, a visit to my parents would invariably leave me feeling overwhelmed. There was just so much stuff. Every once in awhile I’d try to convince mom to declutter a little, but she always had a reason not to.
As the years went by and my parents got progressively older and more infirm, I tried to persuade them to sell their large family home and move into something more suitable for just the two of them. They weren’t interested. Like a lot of elderly folks, change of any kind was just too daunting to consider.
When they finally did move into an old age home, I was left to clean out their house on my own. The task was physically taxing and time-consuming, but it was the emotional aspect that hit hardest. Being responsible for someone else’s memories is a tough ask.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Cleaning
In her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Cleaning, author and artist Margareta Magnusson encourages us to clean like there’s no tomorrow. Because, well, there might not be. Nobody likes to think about dying, but perhaps it’s time we did.
In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning —dö meaning ‘death’ and städning meaning ‘cleaning.’ This process of getting rid of unnecessary belongings can be done at any age, you don’t have to wait until you’re old. However, the sooner you do it, the better.
The idea is to avoid having others do the job for you after you’ve gone. It may sound like a heavy topic, but Magnusson uses humor and wisdom to get her ideas across. Equal parts radical and joyous in her approach, she introduces an element of fun to a potentially daunting task.
She suggests which possessions you can easily get rid of (unworn clothes, unwanted presents, more plates than you’d ever use) and which you might want to keep (photographs, love letters, a few of your children’s art projects).
Margareta’s method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming and helps one become more comfortable with the idea of letting go.
The Benefits of Decluttering Sooner Rather Than Later
Magnusson —who is somewhere between 80 and 100-years-old— is no stranger to döstädning in her own life. Along with cleaning out the homes of various family members and friends after they died, she’s also had to declutter her own house following the death of her husband.
The benefits of Swedish death cleaning far outweigh the hardship of knuckling down and doing it. It could make you happier, you’ll probably feel less stressed and overwhelmed, you’ll be more productive and it may even help you better cope with the reality of your own mortality.
But while decluttering now means good stuff for you, there’s also the not insignificant fact that your family won’t be left with the job after you’ve shuffled off. As Margareta says, “It’s about doing a favor for those who survive you, too.”
In the end, cleaning out my parents house didn’t take that long, but I didn’t do a great job. First there was the pressure of time constraints —I needed to get back to work. And second, I was feeling annoyed and resentful, which meant I wasn’t quite as discerning as I could have been.
I’m not proud of my efforts, but I did the best I could at the time. Given a do-over, things would probably turn out a lot better. But then, hindsight is always going to be twenty-twenty, right? Maybe you can learn from my experience and declutter now, so your family isn’t left with the job after you’re gone.
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