Why Swedish Death Cleaning Is A Gift For Everyone

Why “Swedish Death Cleaning” is for everyone – seniors, divorcing couples, empty nesters and high school graduates 

Last year I was able to experience the process of “Swedish Death Cleaning.” I went through belongings I’d saved, all of my drawers and deep into my closets. Among the things I threw away were my Girl Scout sash, my prom corsage, my retainer, and old love letters. As I prepared to move out of our family home, I had the opportunity to revisit my childhood, identify the items that were important and gave my daughters the opportunity to lay claim to my belongings while alive and healthy.  

Like the clients we work with, I was both saying goodbye to my old life and preparing for my new one. Sorting through a lifetime of belongings brought a mix of emotions the hardest – saying goodbye to a life I expected to live and also confronting the fact that one day I would depart this earth and leave my daughters. 

During my “Do You Own Your Stuff or Does Your Stuff Own YOU” talk, there is almost always an audience member who jokes they are going to leave their stuff for their adult children to deal with. I hope this article changes your mind.

With both personal and professional experience, I wanted to share some key things I’ve 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. 

Tips to get started on Swedish Death Cleaning: 

Document Passwords and Logins: 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.

Divide Belongings and Clearly Identify Who Gets What: 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 like 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.  

Uncover Hidden Belongings: Many people, especially the Greatest Generation hide valuables in case of burglaries. While it’s a good idea to hide valuable belongings and not keep them in obvious spaces like underwear and sock drawers, it’s important to identify for a trusted family member or friend what you’ve hidden and where. Perhaps store this information with passwords.

“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.  

Create a Memory Book: If you toss belongings, you may find a photograph of the items works well to preserve the memory. You can also create a memory book with these photos.

Look up the item’s value: 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.

Host a Memory Lane party: Make the process into an event by 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. Since so many of our lives now include video chats, you can now do this with loved ones whether you can be together or are apart. 

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, you have a couple of options – get a safety deposit box just for these items or create what I like to call a “Tequila Box.” Mark the box “Private: Please discard without opening the contents.”

Whenever I deliver the talk, I ask for a show of hands, “How many of you have friends or relatives who will ignore the note and open the box?” There is ALWAYS a raised hand. Expecting most people will have their wishes ignored, I suggest a “Tequila Box.” Place a bottle of tequila on top of the box’s contents with a funny note “I’ve suggested you not open the contents of this box but since you’ve clearly ignored my wishes, get drunk and have some laughs.” I know when I pass I’d like to bring a smile to my family’s faces.

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 when my stepfather was dying and discovered my girls (and I) wanted very little of the things I’d held onto. 

Have your high school children pair down: If you have high school students, have them do their own version of Swedish Death Cleaning. When my daughter was graduating high school, I had her go through the things I’d saved for her and told her she had one box of belongings I would store for her. It helps them prioritize, frees up space and is a wonderful opportunity to reminisce about their childhood.

Purging and clearing your home proactively is a gift you can give yourself and your loved ones. Taking charge of your life, your belongings and on your terms will save your family from potential fights and having to clear your home when they are grieving your loss. It also helps ensure your belongings end up where you want them to and also helps identify where treasured possessions are hidden.

Silver Linings Transitions, is a transition management company helping seniors downsize whether they are staying in their homes, moving into smaller, easier to maintain homes or moving into senior communities. We added divorcing clients to our business services realizing divorcing people face similar challenges and are also likely downsizing. 

Learn more about Swedish Death Cleaning and the book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Margareta Magnusson