I Thought Decluttering Was About Just Purging, But It’s So Much More Than That

It's not about getting rid of stuff; it's about what you can gain. Yes, really

illustration of woman decluttering shelves in the shape of a large human brain

The Spruce / Madelyn Goodnight

This year I did my first death cleaning, and it was a big one, both in terms of emotional impact and of the magnitude of the task. My father passed away in early May, leaving what felt like just about every object he crossed paths with during his almost 90 years. Before moving to a new home, my mother wanted to shed much of this stuff. So I traveled from my home in Texas to hers in Georgia to help.

What Is Swedish Death Cleaning?

A translation of the word döstädning, Swedish Death Cleaning is a method of organizing your home that asks you to consider what will happen to your worldly possessions—and the people tasked with dealing with them—after you’ve passed.

I had long known what the scope of this job would be. But, much like grief itself, decluttering after the loss of a loved one had facets I did not anticipate. The experience will change the way I talk to others, and to myself, about what to let go, what to keep and how we relate to the things we allow to stay in our lives.

What's Under the Clutter

Going into this death cleaning, I focused on everything we needed to get rid of. This was understandable. I certainly didn't want my mom to have to worry with the contents of their overstuffed closets and the "mystery boxes" in the garage when she moved. Maybe it's the former newspaper journalist in me, but give me a challenge with a deadline and I'm all over it.

But as this process went on, it became increasingly clear to me that I was there not just to help my mom, but also to learn from what my father had kept. I felt sad about all the things that clogged their space but served no purpose: the old receipts, the obsolete devices, the mind-boggling supply of promotional notepads. But I felt even sadder that the volume of these things obscured the presence of other, precious things—ones that would have enriched life for my father, and all of my family.

old-fashioned promotional pamphlets for cuba
The Spruce / Sarah Beckham

One of the things I loved the most about my dad was that he maintained a rich variety of interests and curiosities until very late in his life. He gardened, cooked and took on just about any household project. He taught himself guitar, watched birds and traveled the country into his 80s.

NASA 5 cent stamps
 The Spruce / Sarah Beckham

Under the layer of easily discarded things, we found myriad books, articles, photos and other accessories from those passions, plus many I had few or no memories of, like stamp and coin collecting, home movies and his time in the Navy. In death cleaning, I saw many of these things for the first time in my life. I don't know when he had last seen them. But I wish they had been unearthed for him to enjoy and to share.

How We Talk About Clutter

Long before my father's passing, I had wanted my parents to declutter. But my attempts to talk about it with them were half-hearted and, I realize now, ineffective. As someone who works in communication, that's painful to admit. I always talk to my clients about the importance of meeting their audience where they are, but I wasn't doing that with my parents.

I live a low-clutter life myself. Spaces with plenty of breathing room and without a lot of objects clamoring for my attention help keep my anxiety at bay. I ride hard for Marie Kondo and home design guru Bobby Berk from "Queer Eye." I ogle pristine pantries and linen closets on Pinterest.

What I understand now is that my motivations aren't shared by everyone. My dad had never lived in uncluttered space or even watched home reno and design shows. So when I offered to help them declutter so they could enjoy their home more, it must have fallen on deaf ears. I was trying to inspire them by a vision that drove me, but that meant nothing to him.

Instead, I believe that what came up for him—and what comes up for many people—at the idea of decluttering or downsizing is loss. Loss of the things they are keeping "just in case" and that give them a sense of security. Loss of beloved memories. Loss of aspects of themselves.

If you're trying to encourage someone to declutter—even if that someone is you—I would suggest taking a different approach:

  • What can you regain from decluttering?
  • What mementos do you want to see more often, both to bring you joy and spark conversations with your loved ones?
  • What interests do you want to rediscover or even pass along to a younger person in your family?
  • What do you need to get rid of to make room for what you really want to keep and savor?

Honoring Our Stuff—and Ourselves

After everything we threw away or donated, I'm happy that some of my father's possessions are finding new life. My sister-in-law has taken over the stamp collection, and my brother and niece collaborate on the coins. I have already put my favorite postcards of his into an album and shared others with a good friend. I'm also taking extra care not to let my own possessions slip into forgotten corners of my house, or my computer, to go unused and unloved. Those fancy skincare samples from Sephora are in a basket on the bathroom counter now to encourage me to use them. And I'm working my way through a backlog of professional learning materials I've saved but never used.

I'm always going to be the kind of person who gets a thrill from seeing a stack of culled items ready to donate or a closet with new freed up space. But I now better understand that it's only part of the equation. Decluttering isn't about how much we get rid of. It's about making room for ourselves.