Years ago I read the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I had become semi-obsessed with all things organizing and the psychology behind why we keep things and why it can be so hard to let go of them. My husband, seeing the book title, was rightfully concerned. Even though I plan to live a long and full life, the passing of a loved one put into hyper focus for me the need to have my house in order should anything happen. It's one of life's truths that "you can't take it with you" and I wanted to be sure I only kept those items I truly cherished and needed.
Fast forward now to 2020, a year that has left so many people without a family member at the dinner table, my family included. In August I watched from behind the glass as my father passed away due to Covid-19. The following weeks were a blur of trying to plan a socially distanced funeral, sorting through his belongings, and closing down and packing up his office. What happens when a loved one's passing is sudden, and you are forced into some very big tasks while struggling through your own pain and sorrow at the same time?
Don’t Go At It Alone
When my father died, there were so many people that reached out to help, but to be honest, I was too embarrassed to let people in to help in the ways I really needed. Life can be messy, and the task of sorting and packing so much sensitive stuff is not for the faint of heart, and I didn’t want to burden my friends. Looking back, I should have accepted more help. After all, this is exactly the type of work that I do myself. I help people sort through the nitty-gritty, difficult parts of their lives without an ounce of judgment. I see people as they are, with beautiful, complicated lives, striving to get through the day with a smile on their face. More importantly, having help from someone who is less emotionally attached will help keep you focused as you sort through what to keep.
Make A Plan
There is a reason why in Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she instructs people to sort through those sentimental items last, because it’s too difficult! Start with the easiest, bulkiest items with no emotional value first. It will help you get in the right head space to organize those harder things and will delay the eventual tears from flowing till this process is farther along.
Approach This Time With A Grateful Heart
While I sat on the floor packing up book after book that my father loved, I was mindful of the fact that this was a very specific time in my life. I knew I would never get this feeling back. To be surrounded with the essence of what made my dad "my dad" was very overwhelming at times but also a huge comfort. Still, even though it may feel silly, in your heart you really should thank each item for taking care of and helping your loved one that has passed on. They had every item for a reason, and respectfully acknowledging each item will help your parting with it.
Have A Destination In Mind
Going through my dad’s belongings, I was head deep in books. Reading was his passion and he had collected books throughout his lifetime that were vintage and rare. How do you honor those items that in many ways are a physical representation of a person? Whether you choose to sell them, have a third party estate sell, or donate them to a meaningful charity is completely up to you and the position you are in. For my dad’s collection, we saved a few books that were especially important to him, let friends and family choose some that would remind them of him, and we will probably be donating the rest to his favorite library so that the books can have a new life and hopefully allow someone else to be able to learn and grow from them.
Cherish The Important Things
In the end, things are just things. Not every item your loved one possessed was especially meaningful to them and I would encourage you to try to understand that as unemotionally as you can. We all have space constraints, and our loved one would not have wanted us to be burdened with their things, much less need to pay month after month to keep them in a storage unit where they would go unappreciated. Trust your initial instincts and keep those things you know that they cherished or that especially remind you of them.
When I read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, it made me think about all the random things I had. That if I were to pass on unexpectedly, no one would have a clue what to do with them. They would ask themselves if the item was important to me, who had given it to me and on which adventure did I find it. I wanted those items that were meaningful to have a prominent place in my home and have their stories understood. Tell your family about those favorite items in your home. As an example, I recently pulled out my favorite fountain pen in our drawer of stationary and told my husband about how it was my favorite pen because one of my good friends gave it to me and had my name inscribed on it... How if we could have no other pens, I would be happy keeping only that one. He had no idea and was surprised to learn I had a favorite pen!
I implore you to pull out those items that are your favorite and use them. Dig up and print those photos that are important to you and have them framed or printed in a photo book so they aren’t lost in our digital age. People should know if there is an item you want gifted to them in the event of your passing, and they should understand why (I've also known people to write the name of the person that would inherit an item on tape and stick it to the bottom). All the rest of the things in your home, if they no longer serve a purpose, should go.
Cherish your loved ones while they are still alive. Let them know that you love them often. If your relationship is on the rocks, mend it now and say all the things you would regret not saying. Please let this be a gentle reminder to put down your phone and go have some quality time together.