Why I Practice Swedish Death Cleaning in My Thirties

Photo by Rachel Claire via Pexels

Although I’ve been minimalist for over half a decade now, a while back, I was thinking about physical possessions and how they build over a lifetime. Specifically, I started thinking about the time I almost died, and the amount of crap I owned back then.

Endless bags and boxes from my childhood, cramped drawers that barely closed, an equally cramped attic, and shelves upon shelves of books and paraphernalia. Not to mention my heavy box of journals which would have killed me all over again if somebody had read them. 

Were it not for the incredible doctors and nurses, my fiance (now my husband) who had just become a father would also have had the task of sorting through my stuff. 

The Effects of Stuff Left Behind

Now aged 37, I’ve lost several people close to me, including family friends, and I’ve personally witnessed the arguments and emotional devastation caused by possessions left behind. I don’t want my stuff to do that to the people I love, or for them to suffer grief and exhaustion going through it all, especially when most of it doesn’t even matter. 

After all, we can’t take any of it with us. Nor does all our stuff make us as happy as we think it does. 

When my dad passed in 2022, mum had the painful task of going through his wardrobe and bagging his clothes. And that was before even making decisions about the rest of his treasures. Much of the clothing from his wardrobe still had tags still attached. Some had only been worn once.  But among all that were the jeans and the shirts that raised a smile because he’d worn them again and again. Hung on his rail was the suit he’d worn to my wedding in 2019. To our surprise, it still had the speech he’d read out inside one of the pockets. 

Since then, I’ve let go of and regularly declutter even more stuff I don’t love, don’t use, or that I wouldn’t want others seeing.

What is Swedish Death Cleaning?

As well as minimalism, Death Cleaning is now a regular part of my practice. 

I get it, death isn’t the easiest thing to think or read about. It’s even more daunting to witness or be personally faced with it. It is, however, a fact. One that is impossible to predict or escape. 

Swedish Death Cleaning was first talked about in Margareta Magnusson’s book ‘ The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’. Since its release, there’s now also a TV series based on the book . It’s a real tear jerker and raw in many places, but it’s also warm and thought-provoking, which is why I think it’s sprinkled with so much humour throughout. 

Despite the heaviness of its name, Death Cleaning isn’t half as depressing as it sounds, and you don’t have to be past your prime to start practicing it. In fact it’s an incredibly freeing experience that’s better to start now, because nobody knows when their time is, and nobody wants to waste their precious hours constantly maintaining, cleaning, and decluttering excess stuff – not really. 

As a regular practice, Death Cleaning is selfless as it’s done with loved ones in mind so that they won’t have the burden of dealing with all of your stuff when you’re gone. It also relieves you of the stress that comes with having too much stuff.

With that said, I know how hard it can be to let go of a lifetime’s worth of stuff, so I’m going to share 8 mindset shifts that will help you to let go:

1. Honour where you are now

As people we go through many different seasons of our lives and our priorities and interests change. We change or quit jobs, move home, become parents, become empty-nesters, get sick, return to education, or decide to travel. We also age and acquire new opinions and beliefs. 

It’s too easy to stay stuck in these past seasons by storing it in boxes or on shelves, but consider trees; when the seasons change they let go of their dead leaves and stand exposed as they make way for new life to emerge. But us humans tend to hold on for dear life. 

These kinds of objects are often there because they represent a certain time in your life or who you were at the time. The problem is that the past has a way of anchoring you down and keeping you there. By letting go of these representations you’re not letting go of your memories or your identity. You’re making room for who you are now and getting to know your current self. 

2. Let go of ‘One Day’ andJust in case’ 

These phrases are the kryptonite of decluttering. When you find yourself saying ‘I’ll use this one day’, or ‘I’ll keep this just incase’, realise that these are nothing but fear responses. If you’ve not used it in the past year, you’re highly unlikely to start now. Ask yourself why you’re really holding onto it. Is your fantasy self telling you you’re somebody you’re not? Are you afraid of not having enough? If so, why? Where are these beliefs coming from?

Either way, I can assure you that 99% of the time, you won’t miss these kinds of objects once they’re gone. Because ‘one day’ never comes and ‘just in case’ rarely happens. 

3. Honour the things that really matter to you

Nothing can take the spotlight in your heart or home if everything else has equal importance. By keeping a select few and displaying them in a way that makes you feel warm and happy inside, you honour what’s precious to you now. I go through my memory boxes about twice a year to make sure I’m not holding onto anything that was important to my past self, but who I am now.

4. Understand that you are not your job/ profession

It’s a common thing to identify with our jobs or careers. When we meet people for the first time, almost always the question gets asked ‘So, what you do you do?’. The typical response is usually whatever we’re doing for a job at the time.

But what happens if you can no longer do that job or career? If you’re hit with disability or lose your job for some reason, what then?

Who are you behind the job title?

People who describe themselves as Type A personalities tend to struggle with this a lot, and it can lead to holding on to old clothing or things associated with that job. The job becomes part of your self worth, and that’s a tough thing to feel like you’ve lost.

Let me reassure you right now, you are so much more than what you do for a living. You’re a living, breathing soul with thoughts, beliefs, relationships, and your own unique path in life.

By letting go of old work clothes or supplies, you give yourself permission to embrace the future and live in the present.

5. Understand that you are not your hobbies

It’s not just jobs we identify with, but the things we enjoy doing. I am a gardener, I am an artist, I am a swimmer, I am a (insert hobby here).  But just like we’re not our objects or our jobs, we’re not our hobbies. You are the person who is enjoying that hobby.

Hobbies are purely something we do for enjoyment and enrichment. They can also connect us with friends and allow us to form new retionshiops.

But what happens when you find yourself no longer enjoying that hobby, or unable to pursue it due to illness, financial, or time constraints? 

What most fail to realise is that we’re so much more than what we enjoy doing in our spare time. That artist is so much more than someone who sits and draws. That swimmer is so much more than someone who trains in the pool. 

You’re a unique soul with many parts that make you who you are, and those parts are always changing and evolving. Letting go of old hobby equipment or of too many supplies can free you up to be more intentional with how you spend your time, take away the guilt of no longer doing a hobby, and breathe into who you are now.

6. Don’t fall into the fantasy self trap

Sometimes we’re so busy trying to keep up with our own lives, we forget to ask ourselves who we are and what we value now. We’re still living out our scripts and our stories as if we’re the same person from five years ago. When you’re not sure of who you are now and what your current values are, the fantasy self has a much easier time convincing you that you’re something you’re not. 

That of course you are a cyclist, you just haven’t found the time yet. That you love going to fancy dinner parties, you just haven’t found the right opportunity. That you are an avid book lover, even though you read a grand total of one book last year. 

In reality, the fantasy self is just the ego desperate to attach itself to an identity. The real you is behind all of that noise and ‘you are’. 

Do yourself a favour and don’t burden yourself with who you think you should be, who you wish you were, or who others want you to be. Let go of the things for your fantasy life and live for your true self.

7. Let go of the fear

Think about the tree I mentioned in the first tip. The tree doesn’t fear letting go of its leaves – it simply prepares for a new season and new life. Meanwhile, we humans cling on. Behind that clinging on is fear. Fear of losing identity. Fear of losing memories. Fear of not having enough. Fear of an unknown future.

First of all, I’d like to reassure you that your memories won’t leave you just because an object has. Memories hold a special place in our hearts and minds and nobody and nothing can take them. Objects, however, can fade or get destroyed. 

Let me tell you about the Dick Turpin mug I held onto when my Uncle Gordy passed. I’d always been terrified of it as a child and he always teased me about it. When I got older, he would often remind me about when I was terrified of his Dick Turpin, and it became hilarious to me. We’d have a good laugh about it, although I could still see its creepy factor as it stared, unsmiling, out of the glass display unit. 

When he passed away I kept the mug for fear I’d forget the laughs we always had about it. One day I was going through my stuff and decided to pass the Dick Turpin on (I couldn’t bear to display it), but it broke in the process. At first, I felt sad that it was now in a hundred pieces. But then I realised that my memory was still perfectly intact. Only the object had been destroyed.  

By letting go, you also won’t lose who you are. You might grow and change, but you will still be you. This you is right now in this moment. It’s impossible to know what the future will bring, and while we try to control it, the future isn’t something that’s even real because it’s not here yet.

Let go of your fears and lightness will take its place.

8. Imagine your burden passed down 

This is a hard-hitting tip which is why I’ve left it until last, but if your stuff is hard for you to go through right now, imagine that same burden on your loved ones when you’re not here. This is at the heart of Swedish Death Cleaning, making life lighter for yourself while you’re still here, and for your loved ones when you’re not.

If you’re also in the midst of death cleaning and would like to share your journey with me, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Meanwhile, I hope these tips help you on your journey, because while we’re all on our own paths, we all share a planet, and we’re all part of each others lives.

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