Fresh off a dejunking high on Memorial Day weekend, I went on vacation with my extended family and enthusiastically shared what I had learned about Swedish death cleaning.

It did not go well.

Swedish death cleaning is really the idea that when you die, someone is going to have to clear out all the stuff you’ve left behind, so why not do it now? It’s kind of like minimalism, but not quite, as you can (and should) keep the most meaningful things around you. It’s not an organizational method, either. Nothing about Swedish death cleaning tells you what kinds of storage systems to use, or how to file your papers.

It does, however, cut to the heart of our emotional attachment to stuff, and as my mom put it, she loves her stuff.

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‘Stuff’ isn’t the problem

Stuff isn’t really the problem, though. Letting go is the problem.

While our stuff isn’t us, it can feel like it defines us, that it shows proof of a life well-lived.

Matt Paxton, who was on the show “Hoarders” for several seasons and now hosts “Legacy List” on PBS, wrote a book I read this summer called “Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff.” (It’s a good one. I recommend it.)

He writes, “There are a lot of reasons that we struggle with letting go of the stuff, but I’ve found out that we really attach to the people behind the stuff, not the actual stuff. It’s the memories. It’s the people. It’s the stories. It’s the way those people made us feel. All of that’s wrapped up in the stuff and so when we let go of stuff we’re letting go of those people that we love so much. So it’s hard.”

Seniors who are in their 80s and beyond were either raised by Depression-era parents or they were Depression-era babies themselves. Letting go is hard, even if that’s to downsize to a more manageable house or apartment.

Look, I get it. I am married to a man who grew up under constant financial stress. It leaves a mark. His mom saved everything, just in case they needed it someday. Even though we’ve always been able to feed, clothe and shelter our family, he has a visceral reaction when we even talk about throwing things away. And I mean things like his computer science textbooks from the 1980s. They were obsolete before he graduated, but it took me 20 years of prodding before he finally agreed to part ways with them.

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Leaving a legacy

Everyone wants to “leave a legacy,” right? That legacy doesn’t have to be stuff, though. In fact, kids nowadays just don’t want their parents’ stuff. An article in Psychology Today suggests that changing social values have made stuff less important. I think it’s also changing lifestyle norms. Our teenage daughters don’t store china and linens in a “hope chest” anymore. China hutches are too big to fit in many homes and there’s no room (and no desire) for silverware sets with 12 pieces for just one place setting.

Saying “no thanks” to things my parents own is difficult. There are maybe a couple of small things I would enjoy, but I don’t need the big grandfather clock or the large collection of seasonally appropriate teddy bears. Sorry, Mom.

The legacy I’ve already inherited from my parents includes a strong work ethic, stretching myself by setting big goals and a love of learning. My mom has also been able to write a family history, complete with pictures, that is valuable.

The legacy I want to leave my children is similar. When I die, I want them to know that my faith was foundational to my literal survival when we went through some very hard things. I want them to remember me when they are praised for their work ethic, when they are civically engaged, when they follow their passions and when they speak up for the marginalized and oppressed. Most of all, I want them to know they were loved and seen.


It’s easier to write about Swedish death cleaning than it is to actually do it. I had a great burst of decluttering success at the beginning of the summer, but since then, well, my 72-hour kits still have size-8 boys clothing in them. My youngest son is 23.

I haven’t dejunked a single bathroom drawer, or tackled even a single stack of papers since the beginning of July. I still have hope, though. Even Matt Paxton, someone who has built his entire career around decluttering and downsizing, had difficulty doing it when it was his stuff he was going through.

He had to rewrite the entire book because when he got down to the last week before a move that required a lot of downsizing, he thought: “I don’t think I can do this. It was the first time I’d experienced my clients’ fear and I was like: Oh, this is what they go through. OK, I get it now.”

Still, it needs to be done in my house, my parent’s house and probably yours, too. Let’s get ’er done.