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.