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Can You Free Yourself from a Lifetime of Clutter?

In this blog, I review a book. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.

I’ve been curious about this book for some time. In my ongoing quest for new ideas and techniques to clear clutter, I ordered it. I’m not planning on dying any time soon. Then again, you never know when you might part ways with the planet. So clearing clutter and getting organized at any time in life is always a good thing.

The idea is to clear out your home and divest yourself of your possessions before you die so that your family members aren’t left with this burden. It also prevents the problem of kids fighting about who gets what since everything has already been gifted. Any remaining items should be listed in a written will. (When a cousin died, my aunt said that she was meant to have a particular piece of furniture. But there was nothing written in the will. So the bank handling the estate had no option but to put it in the estate sale. My aunt had to buy it). 

A colleague of mine had to devote three months to clearing out his parent’s home. He spent even more time to sort out the jumbled state of their finances. Since then, he has updated his will, tidied up his own paperwork and files, and put his house in order so that his kids won’t have such a difficult time. He is healthy and in his mid 50’s.

Magnusson says that she is between the ages of 80 and 100. She recommends starting with your death cleaning when you are 65. This way you can take your time about it, enjoy the process and find the best home for your things. I like this idea. She suggests practical ideas such as giving a gift selected from your own home instead of bringing a candle or flowers bought new when you are invited to dinner at a friend’s place. If you are culling your cookbooks, you might bring them one from your own collection. You can give a platter of cookies on a pretty plate from your collection or flowers arranged beautifully in one of your own vases. Make sure they know they don’t need to return the plate or vase.

Every time family comes to visit, send them home with something they want – a tablecloth, a painting, some books. This way you get the joy of giving and can watch their faces light up with delight! The added bonus is you reduce the clutter in your home. 

I’ve read quite a few clutter clearing books. I am a big fan of Marie Kondo’s method of using joy to determine what to keep and what to discard. However, I needed the limits that I found in Dana White’s books on the topic. She believes your home is a container with containers for your stuff. So there are real physical space limitations on what you can comfortably keep. Yes, even if it gives you joy.

Magnusson’s book is different from so many others in that the author is older and cherishes her things in a way that is lovely. She isn’t in a big hurry to clear clutter in a month, or even six months, because she wants to relish the process of reviewing her life while also giving her beloved things away. I got the sense that she bought carefully and bought quality items that would last. And last they did. 

This stands in stark contrast to the quick consumer of today buying cheaply made things that will soon need to be discarded and end up in landfills. Magnusson advocates taking your time and thinking about what to do with your things. When you are younger, you may not have much time to contemplate your belongings as you are so busy. But as you age, you may have time once the kids have grown and left home. I’ve continually cleared out toys and clothes as the kids have outgrown them. In a few years they will leave home. Then we’ll very likely downsize into a smaller, easier to maintain home. So I’m going to start with my own gentle cleansing now so that it will be easier when we move. 

After reading this book, I felt better about my own attachment to things. Perhaps I’ve been reading too many blogs by minimalists where “stuff” is the enemy!  You can get great joy from possessions. Also, it can be joyful to give things to people who are delighted to receive them and may cherish the memories that object inspires. Of course, not all things that you love and cherish will delight your family members. So it’s better to ask and find out, rather than keep the stuff thinking that someone will want them in the future. 

I have a book called The History of the World in 1000 Objects and it reminds me of this book. It shares a personal history–a memoir–revealing a life well lived. If only we all brought things into our lives with greater care and attention and that we took equal care in parting with them before we, too, depart.

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