Sometimes, the best way to tackle a big task is to change how you think about it. That’s the genius behind the popular decluttering movement from Sweden called “death cleaning.” The idea: Leave your home neat and orderly to make life easier for people who live on after you’re gone.
Thinking about such a thing may not immediately appeal to Americans, who tend to avoid talking about death or contemplating their mortality at any cost. But just like creating a will or an advanced directive, decluttering your home is a gift you can give to the people you love. It’s also a gift to yourself—a way to keep what you really want and give away what others might benefit from now…and rid yourself of everything else.
No matter what your age, death cleaning can help you live a happier life in a clutter-free home. So Bottom Line Personal asked Jennifer L. Fitzpatrick, an expert on gerontology and caregiving, for her advice on how anyone can use this Swedish decluttering solution…and how our readers might inspire their loved ones to consider using it, too.
Challenge: Who will deal with what you leave behind? Think about the people who will have to clean up your home after you are gone. When my grandmother died, she owned some jewelry. She didn’t leave behind instructions for whom she wanted to have what. Fortunately, my aunts graciously decided how to distribute these keepsakes and there was no friction. But that’s rare. Often situations such as this cause major rifts and even estrangements in families.
Swedish solution: Put yourself in your grown child’s shoes—or your grandchild’s, your best friend’s or whoever is likely to be left with the task. Imagine putting this person in the position of having to decide with each of your possessions which to keep, which to sell, which to give away to relatives and friends, and which to donate to charity or throw away. When you are in charge of clearing out your possessions, you make the choices.
Challenge: How do I get started? Most of us want to live in a clutter-free home. It’s so much easier to take care of, and it just feels good. But we generally think about it…think about it some more…and then never actually do it.
Swedish solution: Take advantage of any “life change” by using it as your springboard—a child going off to college…repair or remodeling work being done on your home…a milestone birthday…out-of-town visitors coming to stay with you…or even recovery from an illness that makes you contemplate the future a little more intently. Beware: Don’t use some (real or imagined) life event in the distant future as an excuse to procrastinate. The best time to start is right now!
Challenge: Knowing which belongings to start with. When some people start to declutter, the first thing they do is head straight for the possessions that they haven’t seen or touched for the longest time—but these often turn out to be items with great emotional resonance such as old letters and photos, military badges and decorations, clothing of long-deceased family members and other very personal memorabilia. Result: They get bogged down with too many memories, and the project grinds to a halt.
Swedish solution: Start with the things that have little-to-no personal significance but that clutter many homes—old electronic equipment, lamps with no shades (and shades with no lamps), unneeded office supplies, unneeded tools, etc. Begin with things that are clearly broken or obsolete, and ask yourself, Does this have sentimental value? Could someone else find a good use for it if I took it to a thrift shop? Or does it really belong in the trash? Then work your way up toward the possessions that may mean more to you—things such as books and birthday and anniversary cards, letters and photos and even your kids’ or grandchildren’s school-age artwork. Once you get to the more emotional stuff, you’ll have developed the decluttering skills and momentum to carry you through.
Challenge: Thinking, Someone in the family might want this one day. A big impediment to reducing our possessions is the worry that we are somehow shortchanging family members—we might not even know which family members—who would one day love to have these possessions. This is particularly so for pieces with sentimental value to you—such as the sideboard that your mother got from her mother or a set of china—but the truth is, there probably are no younger members of the family who feel this way. Your emotional attachment makes you think these possessions are important to others.
Swedish solution: Ask among your family if you wish, but if no one steps up to claim a possession, know that selling it or giving it to charity now would bring someone you don’t know joy right away…and you’ll be saving your family the hassle of getting rid of it or trying to sell it later.
Challenge: Too much time on your hands makes you complacent. If you aren’t naturally the “do it now” type, having too much time on your hands can be as bad as having too little. If you’re retired or working part-time, you can easily tell yourself that you’ll clean out that closet (or the whole house) next week or the week after—again and again.
Swedish solution: Give yourself a deadline. One way to do this is to call Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a similar organization and schedule a pickup in two weeks’ time. Then set a goal for how much you’ll have when the truck comes to collect your stuff—five boxes of clothing and shoes, for instance, or all the china, silverware and kitchen gadgets you never use.
Challenge: You make progress but then lose steam. Decluttering can be emotionally and physically challenging, and it’s easy to lose your motivation even if you started with the best intentions.
Swedish solution: Enlist a professional or a hard-nosed pal. Professional organizers can make thinning out your possessions less emotional. They also are helpful if you suffer from anxiety or hoarding tendencies and cannot bring yourself to toss much of anything. And they know of services that can efficiently help you with physical removal of large items. If your budget doesn’t allow for a pro, ask for help from a friend who you know will give you the tough love you need to stay on task and not coddle you. A friend, family member or hired help also can be invaluable if you have any physical limitations that prevent you from lifting boxes, standing on a step stool or navigating an attic stairway.