The basic idea behind the term ‘döstädning’ is simple: when we get older, we get to a point where the stuff from the past becomes gradually more difficult to keep – practically and emotionally. On a practical level, we might want to downsize and stuff gets in the way of that. On an emotional level, though, not just the items themselves, but the memories, joy and grief attached to these items become difficult to bear.
The ‘Death Cleaning’ medal has two sides to it: on the one hand it is perceived to be about preparing for one’s own death, leaving as little behind as possible. While this is certainly a good thing, it focuses on a rather morbid approach that highlights the finality of our life. I choose to think of it in a different light: Like any good decluttering, döstädning leaves us with less of a burden both in terms of stuff AND emotional distress, and cannot be recommended high enough to be done on a regular basis. So döstädning really is decluttering for the older age bracket, with an added incentive on top.
I recently came across a facebook post where someone was writing about their mother having done some Death Cleaning of her own, at which point I thought to myself: “More power to you, mom”! But then I was surprised that the poster actually complained about it in her post. What’s that all about, daughter?
Apparently the mom had been very thorough and had also let go of a set of scrapbooks that she had lost interest in and didn’t want to keep any more. Those are some of the more difficult items to let go as they usually are connected to emotions, experiences we have had, things we are interested in. I have to say that I’m impressed at how far the mom did go and how much effort that must have cost her.
So, generally speaking, the mom has achieved something that – in the realm of Swedish Death Cleaning – cannot be recommended highly enough. Why, then, did the poster complain about that activity? Well, she had her eyes on the scrapbooks and become upset when she learned about their demise. Let’s look at this from both sides:
The mom was going about a productive activity: clearing her home of things she didn’t think served her any longer. THAT is proper decluttering, even without the element of döstädning attached to it, and is a positive, useful activity at any age. So far, so good. The mom was doing this for herself, perhaps with an afterthought that this might make it easier on her children after she is gone one day. Personally, I don’t think many people reason that way, at least as their main driving force. I believe that mom really wanted to make life simpler for herself and she finally had enough of all that stuff she didn’t want or need any longer.
The daughter didn’t know what was going on and might well have been surprised by the whole thing, if the mom hadn’t talked to her about it. And while I understand she might be upset about not getting her hands on her mom’s scrapbooks, I wonder about two things:
That brings me to a more generic conclusion about this facebook item: it all boils down to lack of communication. In general, people avoid talking about the subject of death, especially when it comes to the death of parents. The upsetting thing is, however, that many parents are desperate to talk to their children about the future, including a future without them: what to do with the dog; who gets the silver, who gets the crystal glasses; what kind of funeral do they want;… that kind of thing rarely gets discussed.
We often take parents for either the stoic people who made sure everything works fine and go about their lives without too many hiccups, or the frail elderly who need to be kept safe and apart from the upset in the world around them. We don’t usually engage with them on a deeply emotional level, but often only on a rather more superficial ‘she’s family and of course I love her’ level, either because we cannot deal with their emotions, or we were never allowed to see them.
I was blessed with a mother who took steps to ensure that things could be easy on her sons: early on, when she realised that things were starting to go downhill, she made sure we had access to her bank accounts, at least one of our names was listed on anything ranging from phone subscriptions to doctor’s contact information. This ensured that someone could be contacted if things went badly, but also we had access to the relevant authorities to take care of practical things for her – while she was alive and when she was gone. It worked like a charm and took away a lot of anxiety when we had to arrange a funeral and sort out her estate.
What I took away from my own experience with her gradual decline and death is this: while I didn’t exactly enjoy hearing her talk about “when I’m no longer here”, I did understand that it was necessary to talk about these things. I might have been more open to these conversations than most to start with, but it was ultimately a positive experience.
Both parties have to be ready for this talk, and assuming the other one isn’t ready (or wanting to protect the other) will never get this conversation going. My advice is simple: prepare to talk about these things, and when the subject comes up, don’t shy away from it!
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.