by Susan McCarthy
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Everyday practice: After you tell yourself that you will save something because someone else may want it, ask them - and believe them - if they say they aren't.
My mother died in June of 2009 after a two-and-a-half-year downward spiral. I remember once asking her if she’d like me to help her clean out some of the stuff that was literally stacked up around her.
She started complaining 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 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.
This memory was just one that came back to me in full force when I started reading Margareta Magnusson’s new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. One line that sums up this art, “A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”
Death Cleaning for a Loved One
My father and brother went out to deal with other errands related to the funeral 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 laden hangers.
Many hangers had more than one garment draped over them. To latch the door shut, she had to lean her full body against the door to cram everything into place.
This was the closet I turned to in order to find something to bring 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 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 and I know she’d lost weight, 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. Into the bags. Structured, button down shirts I also 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).
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 and convince myself that I can hide the stains under a sweater or realize that those jeans are two sizes too small. Why would I keep this stuff in my closet?
Questions to Ask When (Death) Cleaning Your Own Closet
After you read this, go to your own closet and randomly pull something from the rod or shelf. Could you wear this item, today? Don’t say, oh, well, it’s not seasonal or it’s too dressy or too casual. Could you put on this item today?
Clearing through your own stuff is difficult, but do you really want to leave this task to family? Is decluttering your belongings the memory you want to leave others with?
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Other helpful articles:
The Organized Squirrel, Susan, shows you how acorns (small habits) can grow into oak trees (a better life).