by Susan McCarthy
Clothing can be such a personal connection to an individual's identity, that for a lot of people, these items can take months (or years) to sort through. But when you come at your decision making from the angle of fewer items can best highlight what is special, you may be able to look at your parent's clothing with a discerning eye and a full heart.
My mother died in June of 2009 after a two-and-a-half-year downward spiral. In her 40s, she was diagnosed with diabetes; in her fifties, she had a series of strokes. This didn’t make it easy for her to keep the house clean or organized.
I remember once asking her if she’d like me to help her clean out some of the bins of stuff that were literally stacked up around where she sat. She started yelling at me that my father kept telling her to get rid of her stuff, but she wouldn’t until he got rid of his stuff. Stand down, staring match between my parents, both hoarders. Nothing was touched.
When my father, brother and I met with the funeral director, he told us to come back with clothing for her. I asked about a shroud because that’s what my mother had once mentioned. However, we weren’t particularly religious, and the funeral director suggested clothing.
Of course, my mother didn’t have an outfit set aside for her eternal wear. Choosing an outfit would be stressful. Not just because she’d just died but because she’d kept everything, not matter its condition or whether it fit (or even if it was still in style for the current decade).
What Is Swedish Death Cleaning?
Back in 2018, eighty(ish)-year-old Margareta Magnusson came out with a thin volume called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. By that time, my father had also died and I’d cleaning out the family home.
Reading a book by a woman whose premise was, don’t leave a lot of crap for your family to deal with, had me wishing that my parents had read such a book. (They wouldn’t have.)
The idea of Swedish Death Cleaning is that as you age, you intentionally find a new home for things that are no longer a part of your life. While this may seem like a stressful acknowledgment of the passage of time and the inevitability of death, it’s also an opportunity to reconnect to things from your past and to see how you’ve changed over the years.
Death Cleaning for a Loved One
So, My father and brother went out to deal with other errands related to the funeral and so, I went home and opened my mother’s closet.
The 1950s ranch was not big on closets. She used what was probably supposed to be the broom closet, which also had the chimney running through it. This closet was small.
It was also very, very, very, (very) crowded. So much clothing hung from the bar that you couldn’t shift a hanger to the side so much as wriggle it the way a kid would wriggle a tooth that wasn’t quite loose – nothing was going to come out. She also had an over-the-door fold-down hook that held numerous clothes-laden hangers.
Many hangers had more than one garment draped over them. To latch the door shut, you had to lean your full body against the door to cram everything into place.
This was the closet I turned to find something to bring to the funeral director.
I knew there was a lot of stuff in the closet, although mom had always complained that the real problem was the small size. Yeeeeessss, but….
In the closet there seemed to be every garment she’d owned from the time we moved into the house in 1974 until 2009. This spanned probably six or eight different sizes. There was clothing I couldn’t remember her ever wearing. Perhaps she didn’t.
Because she’d been bedridden the last year of her life, I know she’d lost weight, but I really had no clue what size she was. I figured the funeral director could clip or cut the back of her clothing, but I didn’t want to make that necessary.
I pulled down an armload of clothing from the closet and carried it into the living room. Although decluttering my mother’s clothing the day after she died seemed inappropriate, I couldn’t put things back in the closet.
Out came the trash bags.
Clothing at the farthest ranges in size, I deemed likely too small or too large. It went into the bags. Structured, button down shirts I thought would be an iffy fit and I decided to look for more forgiving knits. Clothing in the distinctive colors from the 70s and 80s I also bagged. If she’d died in the 1970s, wearing harvest gold for eternity would have been understandable; but, it wasn’t the 70s.
A rather small pile of possibilities got draped on my father’s recliner. I ended up with six or so rather overfull bags of clothing that would eventually go to the thrift store.
I think I selected a navy cardigan and split skirt with a flowered top. I could be wrong … I’d gone through 40 years of clothing, and I had the unsettled thought that there was probably more up in the attic (there was, going back to the late 1950s).
Had I chosen well? I don’t know. Because she’d kept everything, I wasn’t certain she even like these items.
I think of this any time I go into my own closet and look at a stained shirt that I’ve convince myself I can still wear under a sweater or realize that those jeans are two sizes too small. Why would I keep this stuff in my closet?
Cleaning Out a Parent’s Closet
Unlike my experience, you may give yourself weeks or months before sorting through some of your parent’s most personal items.
For some individuals, a parent’s clothing is a very sentimental collection of items. However, chances are that your parent wore twenty percent of their wardrobe eighty percent of the time (what studies have shown the average person wears). This means that if they had a hundred items in their closet, they likely wore twenty pieces most of the time.
When sorting through a parent’s clothes, consider if there is an item or color that stands out most in your memory.
Choosing clothing as a keepsake is a highly individualized decision. However, if you find yourself keeping a great number of items, make a point to view the items every six months or so to decide if each piece is still important to you.
While the idea of getting rid of a parent’s clothing may cause anxiety, consider if it is stressful to keep these items. What is the fine line between keeping what is special and releasing what isn’t?
Clearing Out a Deceased Loved One’s Closet
If you decide to keep clothing that belonged to your parent, consider what you will do with it so to honor the memory of your parent. Is it truly special to you if you can put the items in a box that gets tossed in the attic, never to be looked at again?
Is there a single item that could go into a keepsake box that you pull out once a year, perhaps on or near your parent’s birthday?
Should the fabric be deteriorating, would a picture of the item or a sample of the fabric (preserved in a small, archival box) be a sufficient keepsake?
Is there an item that you would wear? Would wearing it once, and having your picture taken wearing it, create a meaningful memory that would allow you to pass along the item.
Are there items that could be donated and worn, honoring the memory of your parent in a practical way while helping those in need?
Consider donating vintage clothing to the drama department of your local high school or the community theater group. Take pictures of the items and send an email asking if there is interest before dropping off boxes of items that may be unwelcome.
If clearing out a decease parent’s closet is stressful, have a sibling or friend join you in the process. Some people find it fun to try on vintage items, so enjoy the experience of connecting with your parent in this way if it works for you. Match up clothing items and accessories to what your parent was wearing in photos (if they held onto things for years).
Have you ever had the overwhelming experience of decluttering someone else’s closet? Did it change your attitude toward the clothing you held onto? Please leave a comment below.
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.