Swedish Death Cleaning – Gloomy or Liberating?

About six months ago, a lovely little book with a rather morbid title was published and immediately exploded in popularity. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a short, simply written book that seems to have resonated with so many in our stuff-burdened society. Margareta Magnusson writes of her journey with de-cluttering, Swedish-style, as she ages. The twin desires to downsize and not wanting to leave her loved ones with the burden of dealing with all of her physical possessions after she died inspired her to begin the process of “döstädning,” or Swedish death cleaning.

I only read the book recently, curious to understand its popularity and wanting to be able to answer questions about it from clients and audience members in my speaking engagements. It’s a quick read, only 117 pages long, and a very personal and endearing account of her ongoing process to minimize her possessions and simplify her life as she ages.

While the book is rather simplistic, I found some nuggets to take away. Whether you indeed are in the later stages of your life and trying to downsize, or desire to leave a smaller burden for your loved ones, or just trying to clear the physical clutter from your space to lead a simpler life at any age, Magnusson’s advice is useful. It was particularly meaningful to me personally.

My husband and I unexpectedly lost three out of four parents in our 30’s, while we were in the midst of raising young children and pursuing our careers. The overwhelming grief was compounded by the immense task of dealing with the “stuff” left behind – houses full of possessions, unresolved estate and final affairs issues, and having very little information with regard to anyone’s final wishes. It literally took years to sort through, and the toll it took on our lives and our children’s lives was devastating.

However, there was one good thing that arose from this trial by fire. We were absolutely determined that our two daughters would not have to endure the same fate. When our youngest left for college, we started the long process of downsizing. It took five years, and involved some difficult decisions, but our long-term goal was not just to make things easier for the kids, it was to make our lives simpler and easier to manage as well. We pared down our stuff and our space, took care of legal matters, and gathered and recorded significant information and paperwork. When we began this process, it was much earlier than most of our friends and family considered reasonable (we were barely in our 50’s when we started.) Many of them just rolled their eyes and considered us bananas, or just over-zealous. They’re probably more than a little right! One of them said, tongue firmly planted in cheek, “we don’t love our kids as much as you do. We’re just leaving it all for them to deal with when we die!” While we all got a good chuckle out of that, I’m reminded of one of Magnusson’s statements in the book. “Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish – or be able – to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.” It will be different for everyone, but for us, it felt good and like the right thing to do at the right time.

My one criticism of this book is that Magnusson makes the process seem so easy. It’s a little glib and simplistic to say, “just let it go.” Clearing out your home of a lifetime of possessions with all of the attached memories is NEVER easy. And it takes some time and more than a little energy, both mentally and physically. But not doing anything and leaving it all behind for someone else to deal with is not ideal either, and in my mind, just a little selfish. As Magnusson states so succinctly, “A loved one wishes to inheritnice things from you. Not all things from you.”

What do you wish for those you leave behind? Do they know what was important to you? What was special? Put yourself in your children’s shoes, or in the shoes of anyone who will have to deal with what remains when you leave this earth. Do you want to compound their grief by leaving them a huge pile of stuff to deal with, or a tangle of final affairs to sort through?

Perhaps you’re not there yet. You’re thinking, “I’m too young to worry about this. This doesn’t apply to me.” My question for you is: if your life is filled with clutter and it’s getting in your way, what do you have to lose? Does your stuff make you happy? Or is it keeping you from living the life you really want to live? Perhaps you need to consider the “gentle art of LIFE cleaning!” Wherever you are in your life – just beginning your journey, nearing the end, or somewhere in the middle – it’s always important to figure out on a regular basis what to hold on to and what to let go. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or time clutter, if it’s keeping you from living the life you desire, it’s never too soon to start!

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