Our parents, if we’re lucky enough to still have them around, are growing older. And, most likely, they are also the happy owners of a mountain of stuff, precious only to them. Guess who will have to eventually take care of all that stuff? It’s crucial to talk with our beloved elders about death cleaning—the process of sorting through and whittling down one’s possessions before they pass. As we age, many of us spend less time with our parents, and it can be hard to find the right moment to broach the subject.
Death is the toughest topic, understandably. Death cleaning doesn’t have to be: it’s a very useful and practical way in to what can be a difficult or frightening conversation. Whether you’re middle-aged and facing your parents’ imminent passing, or thinking further ahead, there is no moment better than the present to prepare for loss. My goodness, we plan for everything. Why not death? Help your future self and make your parents truly happy: talk to them over the holidays about what they want to do with all their stuff.
When I was young, it was considered rude to speak your mind to an older person, including your own parents. Thankfully, today we generally believe that honesty is more important than politeness. At best, we combine the two. Talking about death cleaning can be a way for generations to talk to one another about what is important to them.
People often ask me how to approach the topic, how to even start the conversation. If your parents are getting old and you don’t know how to bring up death cleaning, I would suggest paying them a visit, sitting them down, and asking the following questions in a gentle way:
“You have so many nice things; have you thought about what you want to do with it all later on?”
“Do you enjoy having all this stuff?”
“Could life be easier and less tiring if we got rid of some of this stuff that you have collected over the years?”
“Is there anything we slowly can do together so that you won’t be overwhelmed later on by having to care for so much stuff?”
Old people often have balance issues. Rugs, stacks of books on the floor, and odd items lying about the house can be serious safety hazards. This can be a way to start your discussion: ask about the carpets. Are they really safe? Do they have to be there?
Perhaps this is where “tact” is still important, to ask these questions as gently and sensitively as you can. The first few times you bring up death cleaning, your parents may want to avoid the topic. They may change the subject. If you are unable to get them to talk to you, give them a little time to think, then come back a few weeks or months later and ask again, perhaps with a slightly different angle.
Or ask them over the phone; mention that there are certain items in their house that you’d like to have, and could you perhaps take them now? They might be relieved to get rid of a few things and finally see the promise—and possible enjoyment—of beginning to death clean for themselves. If you’re too scared to appear “impolite” with your parents or startle them and you don’t dare bring up death cleaning, then don’t be surprised if you get stuck with it all later on.
It may be counterintuitive, but the holidays are a good time to start the conversation. This season is that warm and lovely time of year when we gather together. It’s also when many of us consume more than we can handle. Presents, food, eggnog—it never stops. The days after the holidays naturally lend themselves to talking about how much we consume in general, and about how many of us just have too much stuff. Maybe not on Christmas Eve per se, or your first visit home in a while—that could be a downer. But it is my experience that most families find the whole holiday experience exhausting, both financially and physically. This is something we can all relate to and talk about, and it can lead to a productive conversation about death cleaning.
If you need some encouragement, picture yourself on a future holiday, after your parents have died. You’re going through the gifts you gave them the year before. They really appreciated those gifts and held on to them. They also valued your conversation about their many possessions and started death cleaning early. These lovely old people helped you all your life. Now they’ve helped you again. The attic is empty, the basement and garage too. They’ve given most of their stuff to charity, helping countless strangers in need, and some of the things you said you wanted they’ve kept and assigned to you with little notes. You loved these parents. You are sad that they are gone, but you do not miss all their stuff: you can cherish their memories instead.
Copyright © 2022 by Margareta Magnusson. From the forthcoming book THE SWEDISH ART OF AGING EXUBERANTLY by Margareta Magnusson to be published by Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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