Death Cleaning

Like many of you, I read Marie Kondo’s book when it came out and did the “does it spark joy” test with my belongings. (After moving several times and, ultimately, living alone, my belongings were spare anyway, which made the task easier.) I was enjoying my “only what you need or love” home. Then I moved.

I whittled again because I was paying by the pound for what would cross the country. I was “temporarily” moving into my mother’s home and would pay storage for what I didn’t need or have room for in the near term. If you’ve read Mother Lode, you know “temporary” was not what happened. (The lies we tell ourselves for courage to change the course.) I emptied the storage unit eighteen months after the move, purging again.

My mother has been gone nearly six years, and I’m still in her house with her lifetime of belongings. This would be the ongoing “load” part, the part that didn’t evaporate with her death. She, vaguely, didn’t want to leave it to her children to do, but—despite my delusion that I would get the house cleaned out with her in it in one year—she did leave it all behind. I can see why.

My father was busy keeping up the property. (I wonder, now, if there were even conversations about needing to clean out. I wish I’d asked my mother if there was a plan, and I know it would have burdened her to be reminded that she was leaving a burden.) She was nearly eighty when he died and left her everything. How could she even consider leaving this house? It was overwhelming; and at that point, she also had to take care of the house, the finances, the everything.

Since Mama’s death, I have disposed of, given away, sold, and donated boxes upon boxes of stuff. And there is so much more. I’ve taken a break the past two years to promote my book, but it’s time to return to the task. I don’t want to leave it to my own old age, nor to my children, nor until the last minute. Am I resentful that I have it to do when I’ve done so well with my own treasures? Yes, a little. It is what it is. And now, having been in this house for twelve years—longer than I’ve been in any house in my life—I need to death clean out my own stuff again.

I read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a few months ago, and it strengthened my resolve. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave this house, but I can’t until it’s cleansed of the past. I recently shifted my thinking to trying to figure out how to stay, rather than how to leave, while—unlike my mother—being ready to leave. All maps, regardless of the destination, follow the road of death cleaning.

And so I am back at it.

You can read on my blog about my inaugural foray into the squillions of slides my parents took. Leave your own story of death cleaning (your parents’ home or your own) in the blog post comments or on the comments page on this website. I would love to hear your story.

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Debra Bures

We cleaned out both of our parents’ houses after their deaths. My father-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s disease, lived for about a year and a half after my mother-in-law died. Overnight, we became his caregivers. He had been a Depression kid, and so, kept things, because, you never know when you’ll need x,y,z. Add a side of dementia, and you have A. Lot. Of. Things. He wasn’t able to differentiate between what was an important document, and what was trash.
After his death, we got a dumpster that was intended for construction debris. We filled it with 3.6 TONS of stuff, including empty margarine containers, a stack of old telephone books, and more. But first we’d had to go through all the papers and pages to make sure nothing important was inside (there were important papers in between the pages!).
We have begun to purge. So many things that we no longer need, and our daughters haven’t wanted. Interesting times, eh?