Earlier this year, I threw away my Girl Scout sash, my prom corsage, and various other things I’d held onto from my childhood. As I prepared to move out of my marital home. I had the opportunity to re-visit my childhood, identify the most important items and give my daughters the opportunity to claim my belongings while I am alive and healthy.
I started Silver Linings Transitions, a senior move management company while I was married. I added divorcing clients to our services as a result of my own divorce when I realized divorcing people face similar emotional challenges and are also likely downsizing. Like the clients we work sorting through a lifetime of belongings brings up a mix of emotions and requires one to "let go" of the life I expected to have.
At a recent talk on downsizing a participant shared her plan to have her kids deal with it. There are so many reasons this is NOT a good solution not the least of which are the burden/guilt you will saddle your loved ones with but also the reality that something of value (sentimental or monetary) might end up someplace you wouldn't want it.
With both personal and professional experience, I wanted to share some key things I learned along the way. These tips interweave, the current trend of “Swedish Death Cleaning” (from Swedish words meaning ‘standing” and “death“) emerging as a result of adult children facing the task of going through their parents belongings (after a death or when the parents are downsizing) and realizing they don’t want to leave the daunting task to their own children.
So here are some tips to get started:
Make sure all of your passwords and usernames are written down and in one place. Remember to let somebody know how to access this information. There are sites that will store your passwords too like LastPass which offers a free version.
Go through your belongings and do a photographic inventory of anything you want to go to loved ones. As someone who had a personal experience after my grandmother’s sudden death, leaving clear direction will save your grieving loved ones from many unnecessary battles. Make sure you make notes about any items of value so they can be sold for their value and won't be accidentally discarded. There are software programs likes Fairsplit.com you can use to create these inventories and assign belongings.
Make sure and visit storage units and attics and include these items in the inventory.
Begin to “re-gift” belongings. If you are going to someone’s home and would normally take a hostess gift, thoughtfully consider bringing a token of your affection from your personal belongings rather than spending money.
When going through your belongings, consider this criteria:
Will anyone be happier because I saved it? Rather than put items in the garbage, send old letters or photos to childhood friends who will undoubtedly appreciate the trip down memory lane. I recently attended my 30th high school reunion and there was a table set up for people to share items. I also photographed old letters and sent them via email.
Would I be okay if someone found or read this? If there is something you aren't ready to get rid of but don't necessarily want someone going through it, create a box marked "Private: Please discard without opening the contents." If you have loved ones who you think will ignore your warning, put a tequila bottle inside with the message "You've been warned ;)".
If you are holding onto something because you think it’s valuable, do some research. I held onto a Guess jean jacket I’d purchased in 1985 for $85. I almost refused to allow my daughter to take it to sleep away camp until I looked it up on Ebay and discovered it was only worth $35.
Make the process an event inviting loved ones to participate. You and they will appreciate the opportunity to learn more about each other and what your life may have been like in your youth.
When I speak to groups of people who are now grandparents, I encourage them to consider the belongings they’ve been storing for adult children and determine whether or not the adult child has any intention of taking it. I went through my childhood bedroom in Florida a year ago and traveled home with many of the things I’d held onto. After carrying them across country, my girls wanted the earrings from the 80s but that was it.
If you have high school students, have them do their own version of Swedish Death Cleaning. It helps them prioritize, frees up space and is a wonderful opportunity to reminisce about their childhood.
Anything we do proactively is going to be less stressful. Taking charge of your life, your belongings and on your terms will have an impact.
Here is a link to more information and the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson
Jami Shapiro is President of Silver Linings Transitions. As a cancer survivor, she embraces aging and the challenges it presents.