Swedish Death Cleaning

*** Time for this post?  Reading…7 minutes. Viewing…10 minutes. Thinking about letting go…who knows?

Living as we do in a culture of excess, the concept of clutter clearing is familiar to most North Americans. The first time I really thought about it was when I read Karen Kingston‘s little book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui in 1999. Feng Shui, a traditional Chinese concept, deals with energy. According to the description on amazon, 

 Kingston reminds us that clutter is stuck energy that keeps you stuck in undesirable life patterns. Therefore, you can “sort out your life by sorting out your junk.” Kingston covers the reasons we keep things as well as the amazing stories of people who have cleared their clutter away.

In the years since it was published, there have been many more books about clutter clearing.

But…death cleaning?

Yes, death cleaning. Swedes have done it for years, and now the rest of us are learning about it from The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.

The cover states it’s an international bestseller, and that’s not surprising. Aging adults are contemplating how to leave this planet gracefully. And their adult children are wondering how to tactfully encourage their parents to clean up their mess before they depart.

[tweetshare tweet=”Don’t collect things you don’t want. Someone will have to take care of it some day. ~ Margareta Magnusson” username=”LauranaRayne”]

The book is peppered with Margareta’s charmingly sensible Swedish philosophy and family stories. These combine to make interesting and motivating reading as we take on the age-old problem of cleaning up after ourselves. As you would expect, she shares advice about how to get started, some of the systems that can help you get things out of the house, and ways to better organize what you’re keeping.

“Death cleaning is not a sad thing,” says Magnusson. “I want it to be joyful and interesting. It can be that. And people should start early. If your things are in order, then you don’t have to waste time looking for them.”

Who is Margareta Magnusson?

She’s an accomplished artist, mother of five and grandmother of eight, who gained much life experience through seventeen moves within Sweden and abroad. I find her realistic, thoughtful, and down-to-earth. See for yourself in her short video about döstädning (death cleaning).

Margareta Magnusson is “between 80 and 100,” and the value I found in her book is that she talks about issues unique to being in the late stage of life.

If you don’t read anything else, look at the section called “How to discuss the topic of death cleaning.” This is equally valuable for aging adults and adult children. As she points out, children are in a tough spot because they see the amount their parents have accumulated and know that dealing with it is going to fall to them if their parents don’t look after it while they can.

Suggestions for adult children…

She offers sensible advice to adult children, including sample questions to get the conversation going in a gentle way.

  • You have so many nice things, have you thought about what you want to do with it all later on?
  • Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of the stuff that you have collected over the years?
  • Is there anything we can do together in a slow way so that there won’t be too many things to handle later?

My only quibble is her choice of words. “Stuff” and “get rid of” carry a judgmental tone and could be off-putting to the owner of those things. It may be a cultural thing. It may just be a translation choice if the book was written in Swedish. But I think the questions are sound, and the language can easily be adjusted.

She goes on to say…

Old people often have a problem with their balance. Rugs, stacks of books on the floor, and all items lying about the house can be safety hazards. Perhaps this can be a way to start your discussion: Ask about the rugs. Are they really safe?

Perhaps this is where tact is still important, to ask these questions in as gentle and caring a way as you can.

It is possible that the first few times you ask, your parents may want to avoid the topic, Or change the subject. But it is important to open the discussion. If you were unable to get them to talk with you, then leave them to think and return a few weeks or a few months later and ask again, perhaps in a slightly different way.

Letting go…

There are many aspects to taking responsibility for our possessions and cleaning up our space. Marie Kondo (see last week’s post) teaches us how to decide what to keep by testing each item to see if it sparks joy in us. For items that don’t, we are advised to thank them and let them go.

What she doesn’t address is the difficulty of letting go. Some objects have emotional hooks in them, and these prevent us from letting them go even when we know there’s no joy in having them. Who doesn’t have at least a few things we don’t want to use but can’t get them out of the house?

The experience of Swedish death cleaning…

The main question to help you let go of things…

  • Will anyone be happier if I save it?

Emotional hooks keep us from dealing with some objects, so they get tucked out of sight and ignored.

  1. Find those out-of-sight items.
  2. Identify what’s holding you back from letting them go.
  3. Take appropriate action.

I think Margareta Magnusson would say, “Do something!” I agree.

But hers is not the only approach that’s helpful to elders cleaning up after themselves. Next week: Laura Moore on what NOT to do when decluttering or downsizing.

Keep what you love.

***Time for this post?  Reading…8 minutes. Viewing…2 minutes. Sifting and sorting…as much as you want to.

Last week I wrote about knowing when enough is enough. That post was about medical treatments at the end of life. However, the concept of “enough” also applies to our possessions, and that’s what I’m addressing today.

In either case, determining what is enough—and what is excess—challenges us to think about our values, what’s important to us, what we cherish.

What to keep?

In an earlier post about what to do with your things, I suggested a mind shift…

What if, instead of focusing on what we will get rid of, we look for the treasures in what we have. The point is to keep the treasures and move the rest along in appropriate ways. …Another time we’ll talk about approaches and logistics for lightening your load of excess things.

Well…now is that time!

Curating my surroundings has been high on my mind recently. It started when I had to clear everything except six large pieces of furniture out of my living room and dining room so the ceiling and two walls could be repainted. Because the picture hooks were removed and filled in, I started thinking about how to arrange art and accessories in different ways. That gave me ideas for tweaking the furniture arrangement. Before I put anything back, I assessed what would stay in the space. My criterion was “Does this say something about me?” And the result is perfect for me!

Sifting and sorting…

I have a long-standing interest in the idea of knowing ourselves to shape our environment. My first aha moment came more than twenty years ago, before clutter clearing and downsizing were in our vocabulary. I was living for a few months at Schumacher College, a centre of transformative learning for ecological and social change in the south of England.

I know! I’ll keep only what I can care for exquisitely.

So said Jeanne, who had spent a week grappling with what was, for her, a very big problem. Too much stuff, accumulated in the six years she had spent in the same flat. A gypsy at heart, she’d lived most of her adult life in a caravan (travel trailer). She felt weighed down and didn’t know how to sift and sort her things. When the solution hit her, it was clear—keep only what she could care for exquisitely.

The current version of the same principle is expressed beautifully in Marie Kondo’s books, in which she talks about keeping what sparks joy and thanking our things as we let them go.

Marie Kondo is Japanese, and these attitudes are embedded in her culture. Not so for Westerners, who are generally less tuned in to invisible energy. The following video gives a flavour of Marie Kondo and her approach, starting with a demonstration of what it feels like in your body when something “sparks joy.”  You also get to see her signature method for folding clothes, which includes an energy compnent.

Despite finding it odd when she talks about showing respect for your space, feeling how your belongings affect your energy, and putting love into your clothes as you fold them, North Americans embraced Marie Kondo’s Netflix series (January 2019).

In Spark Joy, her most recent book, she offers a lot of practical tips in addition to explaining the rationale behind her approach. Below are a few key ideas, but I recommend reading her book to get the whole picture. It’s a quick read and available in most libraries.

A few Marie Kondo principles and tips…

Having spent most of my life looking at things of every description, including those in my clients’ homes, I have discovered three common elements involved in attraction: the actual beauty of the object itself (innate attraction), the amount of love that has been poured into it (acquired attraction), and the amount of history or significance it has accrued (experiential value).

  • Tidy by category, not by room. Categories are clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, sentimental items (includes photos). Bring all items from a category into one room and sort them all at once.
  • Tidy in the order listed in the previous point. Clothes are the easiest and you can gain experience by starting with them. Sentimental items have the most attachments so it works best if you tackle them at the end.
  • Finish discarding first, before you organize what remains.
  • When tidying papers, a “pending box” is essential for all papers requiring action (bills, letters, etc). Put them in it as you find them and forge ahead with the main job of tidying. Your papers will be safe there until you can get to them.
  • “As with clothing, you must begin by taking every single book off the shelves and piling them on the floor. Then take them in your hands and keep only those that spark joy. Whatever you do, don’t start reading them.”
  • “If you have too many books to choose all at once, sort them by categories, such as general (for reading), practical (references, cookbooks), visual (coffee-table books) and magazines, and do the joy check for each category.”
  • Tidy before moving. Note for elders who may be anticipating moving to smaller quarters: This is very good advice.
  • Do not keep something because “it might come in handy.” It never will. (I plead guilty, and she is mostly right. But I’ve been vindicated once or twice!)
  • If you have trouble telling if something sparks joy for you, compare it to other items in the same category. Find your top 3 in the pile in 3 minutes. This will help you hone in on what it feels like when something sparks joy in you.
  • “I’m convinced that things that have been loved and cherished acquire elegance and character. When we surround ourselves only with things that spark joy and shower them with love, we can transform our home into a space filled with precious artifacts, our very own art museum.”

For more of Marie Kondo, I suggest this delightful interview for further insights into her approach. Of course, she isn’t the only person with advice about dealing with your belongings.

Next week: Swedish death cleaning. See you then!

Getting rid of inner clutter to deal with outer chaos

Paper chaps

True confession—this is what my outer chaos looks like most days.

Ever since I started this blog a year ago, I’ve been drowning in books, papers, and sticky notes. I find myself researching a wide array of sources and don’t want to lose track of  important thoughts. My aim is to pull ideas together in new ways. That seems to mean I have to amass a of ideas before I can recombine and distill them. It’s a messy process, but that’s how I work.

Recently I became aware that the volume of idea clutter had become overwhelming. It was no longer helpful. It was causing me stress.

Relieving the stress of overwhelm

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