Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Declutter Your Home Before You Die

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As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the process of organizing someone’s belongings after they die is an emotional chore. You must sort through all possessions; decide what is meaningful; toss the garbage; file important papers and photos; the checklist goes on. That’s why a new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson, endorses freeing yourself and your family of the mess and disorder long before you go.

As Swedish author and artist Magnusson explains in her book, the concept is all about clearing out unnecessary belongings so that the people in your life don’t have to do it for you after you die. The phenomenon is popular among Scandinavians. They even have a word for it: döstädning, dö meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning.”

The method is fairly straightforward: Go through your belongings and think about which items brought you joy, elicit special memories, or just feel significant. Decide what to do with those items. (Do you want a grandchild to own it? Do you want to donate it?) Throw away the items that are excess and not important to you. And while Magnusson acknowledges that someone in her 30s doesn’t necessarily need to be thinking about death, the earlier you start, the better; death cleaning can take years, even decades to complete.

How do I do Swedish death cleaning?

Magnusson proposes beginning with a place in the house where you’ve likely already been using as dump for unnecessary items, like the attic, basement, or garage. “Visit these storage areas and start pulling out what’s hidden there. It may be a dollhouse or ice-hockey equipment, mostly things that you yourself did not want around anymore,” she writes.

Also, tell your loved ones and friends what you’re doing. “They might want to help you and even take things you don’t need and also help you move things that you cannot move alone,” she explains in the book. “You will see a steady stream of people you like (or even dislike) will come to take things.”

Just don’t start with sentimental items, like photographs and letters, Magnusson cautions. “It can be both a lot of fun and a bit sad to go through photographs and letters, but one thing is certain: if you start with them, you will definitely get stuck down memory lane and may never get around to cleaning anything else.”

What do I get out of Swedish death cleaning?

It adds a sense of control

It may sound grim, but the process can actually be quite therapeutic. Paring down belongings, particularly if you’re in your retirement years, can bring a sense of control during a period of life when you gradually begin to lose some independence, says Juhee Jhalani, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in New York City who specializes in palliative care. You may feel lighter when you’re not weighed down with decades worth of possessions. “Having control over your environment and clean space may lead to mental peace and order too,” she says.

It lets you tell your own story

Going through your belongings also gives you time to reflect on your achievements and memories and helps you get more comfortable with the idea of one day letting go. “It allows you to create a ‘life narrative,’” Jhalani explains. “As you go through your possessions, you acknowledge your being, your relationships, and the life lessons that you may have learned. It may bring closure to some relationships and unaddressed feelings.”

It helps you shape your legacy

Death cleaning also allows you to be in charge of what your loved ones learn about you after you die, points out licensed clinical social worker Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress Of Caring For Your Loved One. “For example, maybe you want your privacy protected so you discard old journals,” says FitzPatrick, who has personal experience with death cleaning: Her father, who died suddenly about seven months ago, practiced it.

It lets you lighten your relatives’ load

“My dad had downsized several years ago, so cleaning out his apartment was very simple. He had two categories of items: practical and sentimental,” FitzPatrick shares. “It was such a sad and shocking time, but he gave us such a gift by having pared down his belongings.  There was no issue of going through boxes and debating what was important.”

Now, FitzPatrick and her husband purge their belongings at least a couple times a year by bringing things to consignment shops and even the town dump. The couple does not have kids. “Most likely it will be our much younger cousins and nieces and nephews who will be in the position of cleaning out our home when we die,” she explains. “I want to make it as easy as possible for them, as my dad did for us.”

How do I bring up Swedish death cleaning to relatives?

For families who want to encourage older relatives to get in on this decluttering movement, Jhalani recommends opening the dialogue in a way that “proposes rather than imposes” the activity to them.

“Instead of using words like ‘death cleaning’ or ‘end-of-life decluttering,’ it may be helpful to associate the activity with a pleasurable event in the future,” she explains. For example, you can propose something along the lines of, “let’s reorganize your space before everyone comes to see you for your birthday.”

Death cleaning might make you feel a little bit sad or stressed at times—and that’s totally normal. Interacting with your belongings as you clean house can make you feel nostalgic, or you might even feel guilty at points for deciding to throw things away, Jhalani explains. And if you declutter as a family, it can spur disagreements between members about who is the rightful owner of certain possessions or family heirlooms. “It requires communication and cooperative work,” Jhalani says.

One way to cope with difficult feelings is to be grateful for the opportunity it gives you to share belongings you treasure. “If you decide to give away objects, give them gradually to people who will truly value them,” Jhalani says. “Overall, declutter when you are ready, practice self-compassion, and go at your own pace.”

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