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Seriously? Swedish Death Cleaning?

I had been planning to do it for a long time now. And I had already been doing it– sort of, unintentionally, and very slowly. COVID-19, however, gave me concentrated periods of time at home – something we rarely find ourselves with. And so I decided to tackle my “Swedish Death Cleaning” – seriously.

Thanks to this unexpected Coronavirus lock-down, I was self-isolating at home: not going to work (temporarily laid off); not attending art and dance classes (cancelled); not seeing the grand-kids several  times a week (social-distancing); not planning our Europe trip or my sister’s visit to Toronto (too risky). Within a few days our universe had turned upside down as governments all over the world, including Canada, declared a “state of emergency”. ‘Time on my hands’ became an opportunity to take my “Swedish Death Cleaning” seriously.

Not to be macabre – but I now had added incentive too. Before COVID hit us, I was planning to accomplish the task over several months, maybe even years. Like many seventy-year olds, I still felt like a “spring chicken” – with plenty of time ahead. But with the death rate amongst seventy years olds being at the highest of the people affected by COVID globally, I realized that the risk was real that I could possibly become infected and even die. It was time to seriously pick up the pace on my “Swedish Death Cleaning”.

How is death cleaning different

What exactly is Swedish Death Cleaning?

Döstädning, or the art of death cleaning, is a Swedish phenomenon by which the elderly and their families set their affairs in order. Whether it’s sorting the family heirlooms from the junk, downsizing to a smaller place, or using a fail-safe system to stop you losing essentials, death cleaning gives us the chance to make the later years of our lives as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Whatever your age, Swedish death cleaning can be used to help you de-clutter your life, and take stock of what’s important. Radical and joyous, eighty-something Margareta Magnusson’s guide is an invigorating, touching and surprising process that can help you or someone you love immeasurably, and offers the chance to celebrate and reflect on all the tiny joys that make up a long life along the way. Döstädning was previously published as The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.

So rather than being morbid, Death Cleaning is more like applying the KonMari method of “sparking joy” – for Seniors.

Most tidying methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which dooms you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever.

The KonMari Method™ encourages tidying by category – not by location – beginning with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items), and, finally, sentimental items. Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.

People around the world have been drawn to this philosophy not only due to its effectiveness, but also because it places great importance on being mindful, introspective and forward-looking.

I had already been using the KonMari Method for sorting my clothes, kitchen and some of my bookshelves. So now it was just a case of continuing on with my papers and sentimental things, which are always the hardest to discard.

How is death-cleaning the same as other tidying methods

Both Swedish Death Cleaning and the KonMari Method emphasize a few basic principles:

  1. De-cluttering means simplifying – so you can find what is important more quickly;
  2. The purpose of filing is not where to put something, but where can you find it (even more important as we age, and cannot remember, or spend far too much time searching for lost items);
  3. Make decisions on what you will keep – based on: what is important to you, and/or if it sparks joy in your life;
  4. Reflect on your life – as you decide what to keep or discard – and be grateful (give thanks for what your life has been in the past, or for what joy this item has given you);
  5. Be forward-thinking and honestly ask yourself whether you, or anyone else, will need the item in the future.

Why now

So with gusto, I started the project on March 16th (a few days after Canada was placed into our COVID lock-down).

My motivation however was amplified because I couldn’t find my “Will”. My Will had been written more than twenty years ago and filed in some forgotten box. It was definitely time to get my affairs in order, just-in-case my husband or family would have to take over. And the greatest benefit would be that – when I survive this pandemic – I would have more time to spend on the things I love to do, like writing and painting. And I’d be able to do them stress-free, because my home would be so organized.

For me, Döstädning was definitely going to be a large, messy job. The closet in the spare room (my office and studio) was filled with boxes, many that had been in my life for more than twenty years. I am a hoarder when it comes to information. I save anything that I think I might want to read again. I save articles that I think I might want to reference when I write. I save ideas just because they are interesting. So I had boxes and boxes of files to sort through. This was NOT going to be an easy task. In fact when I looked at the piles – I was overwhelmed. Finding my Will would be like finding a needle in a haystack – only my haystack was paper. And lots of it.

There was an elephant in the room with me. And how do you eat an elephant? I think I’ve said this many times before – when I am faced with my clutter: “One bite at a time.”

Three steps forward

That’s how I would deal with this project –break it down into three easily digestible courses:

  1. Compartmentalize – Sort everything into categories. It is really important to have “like with like” in order to see just how much of it you really have. When files are scattered all over the place, first of all you cannot find what you want, and secondly you have no concept of what the volume is really like. For example, when I gathered all of my travel articles in one place, I realized that it required more than a banker’s box to store them. And then I asked myself these questions: “What do I really want to do with all of this? How much of it do I need to move forward? Will I ever use any of it again?”
  2. Discard – Go through each category or pile and get rid of all unwanted items first. According to Marie Kondo, you would first thank each item for serving the purpose it did in your past. For the items you decide to keep, think about the role they will play in your future. Ask yourself if the item will bring you happiness, or whether keeping it will stress you out. That stress includes whether it is taking up space you’d rather use for something else (in my case more art supplies) and/or frustration when you try to find it again (like a favorite recipe or a quote for an article). At this stage, I experienced a great deal of pleasure from throwing out old files that I no longer needed. It was very liberating to discard the unwanted/unneeded, while realizing they did have value in my past life. And I also appreciated the joyfulness of the items that I decided to keep. Sometimes discarding needs to be done in stages. As per the KonMari Method, I started with three piles: definite YES, definite NO, and MAYBE. And then I did several culls of the MAYBE pile. That process has merit because it isn’t always easy to decide how you might need something in the future. An example for me is: travel articles = YES, business files = NO; a gardening book = MAYBE (I still like to help my children with their gardens even though mine is now confined to pots on the balcony). However in the second go-round, I decided that anything of value in the book can be found on the Internet and the book is best passed on to a gardening neophyte (who would get more joy from it than I would at this point).
  3. Organize – This phase cannot be done properly until you have culled each category or pile (the previous step). It’s not until you have the final pile that you can decide how best to organize your items for the future. It is only when you understand “why” you are keeping it, “who” will need it, and “when” they might want to access it – that you can decide “where” to put it. In my case, I wanted to distinguish the information that would be relevant to others from the stuff that was meaningful only to me. I decided that there were items with personal history or important documents that my husband or children might need after I passed on – or perhaps I might need before then. This included my “Will”, medical history, photo-books or valuables that I was saving for the grandchildren. These would be placed in easy to find binders, drawers, or plastic boxes – all clearly labeled with their interest, disposition or value. On the other hand, there was still much to be kept for my personal pleasure or creative activities in my waning years –important only to me. These still required sorting, labeling and storing in a tidy manner. They would include research for my writing, photographs that I want to paint, and artwork that my grand-kids made for me over the years. When I am not around anymore, these can be discarded without a moment’s consideration – as they are only significant to my life and no-one else’s. However, it is still important that these items also be stored in an orderly manner. If I can’t find what I am looking for when I do need it, then it is absolutely useless. While this principle applies at any age and stage of our lives it becomes even more critical as we age and become more forgetful.

And still working on it

After seven weeks of isolation, I am still Döstädningseriously. I am at various phases of the project, but mostly finished the “classification” phase – with everything sorted into piles.  Now I am working on the throwing away phase – at least the first culling. And in some cases, I am at the “organizing” (that is sorting and storing) phase. For example, I am putting the important documents that my Power of Attorney or Executor might need – into a clearly marked binder on a very obvious shelf.

And some things still remain a “mystery”. Where did I put my Will twenty years ago? And when will it show up? Guess it’s time to write a new one…

Hopefully I won’t need it for many years to come and by then I will have finished Döstädning – or NOT.

Have you ever tried Döstädning? What motivated you to take it seriously? What worked best to maintain your momentum? How long did it take?

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