By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
For the past year or so I’ve been tiptoeing around getting rid of stuff. I’ve watched friends downsize as they went into senior living apartments or had to clean out their parents’ homes after they died. It didn’t look like much fun. I’ve also noticed how clutter and disorganization weighs me down.
I looked in my closet. There were clothes that I never wore, but really liked. They look great on the hanger, but not on me. I kept them, I guess assuming that one time when I would try them on my body would have changed and they would look fabulous on me.
I tried on some of the clothes. Some were too big. I considered altering them because I liked the fabric. But then I remember thinking the same thing 20 years ago! A friend was with me giving me encouragement to discard some of the “extra baggage.” Some of the clothes still had the price tags on them. How embarrassing.
Then I thought I needed two wardrobes—one for my professional life and one for my real life. Truth is, I haven’t needed much of a professional wardrobe for years. A few outfits are all I really need. But I have had to convince myself of that.
I’ve managed to throw away 75% of my files in my office. I had to keep reminding myself that I probably wouldn’t be needing them to help prepare for talks anymore, or for research I dreamed of doing. And I now can find just about everything I need on the internet. Those file cabinets were security blankets of a sort. They are filled with the past—useful only to me at one time, but no longer useful to me or to anyone else in the present or the future.
The first pass at getting rid of stuff was hard. My throw away pile was pretty puny. I couldn’t bear to let go of those memories on paper. Granted, I hadn’t looked at them for probably 20 years. But oh, I loved going down memory lane, reading letters that had been sent to me and even articles that I had written but had forgotten about.
The second time I approached this task it was much easier. Just get rid of it. It was quite freeing. I no longer felt weighed down by all this stuff that was taking up space.
My closest friend needed to clean out her very full and cluttered space because others were moving in to her house to be with her. She rarely went into those rooms that were full of yesterday’s memories. She asked her children to help, but they never came. They had busy lives and, to be honest, this was a daunting task for anyone to take on much less four adult children who had very different ways of doing things.
My friend tried to tackle the project, but her health and limited ability to make decisions relieved her of her responsibility. So I was left with the job that had an end date quickly approaching.
She had boxes and boxes of audiotapes that she had recorded at almost every meeting she had ever attended. I remember how we were sure that those who were unable to make the meeting would sit down and listen to these tapes. That never happened. Plus, we no longer have a working tape player.
There were at least 12 very large boxes of photos from sixty years of overseas work either in slide, negative or picture form. Few were identified as to subject, location or date. There were stacks of magazines, articles, notebooks, at least 500 books, and memorabilia from years of living in the Middle East. Storage containers and back packs of every size, shape and vintage were crammed into these rooms. All had to find a new home. I asked the one daughter who wanted the photos to make one scrapbook for her mother to have if she wanted to look at them sometime. I found giving her a few boxes to look through herself gave her a sense of peace and accomplishment. I removed her from the painful scene of watching most things being discarded.
I went through an array of emotions from anger, resentment, sorrow and guilt as I dismantled this amazing life. She said her kids wanted the stuff. They said, “no way” to me, but not to her. They were afraid it would be insulting to her if they told her the truth.
This experience was humbling for me. I would not want my kids to have to go through this ordeal. Though I have started this process for myself there is still much more for me to do. I am old enough to die. If I get rid of stuff now I can claim a sense of accomplishment and enjoy a lighter life.
A woman in the stage four cancer group that I facilitate mentioned that she had started the process of paring down. She found old diaries and, after getting a chance to read them again, she decided some of it was too personal and she was fine letting these diaries go after the last read. She did decide to leave the earliest ones from when she was in grade school because they were so funny. Some things she wanted to keep till she died because they brought her comfort, but decided she would mark the boxes to be tossed after my death. Her main objective is to minimize the work for her family in a very organized way.
One friend went through her house and put a piece of tape on the bottom of each piece of furniture with the name of who it is to go to after she dies.
I have found guns, sex toys, cash stashed in odd places, old Playboy magazines as I have helped to clean out houses following deaths of those I’ve know and their family members. My mother found out she was adopted by going through the safety deposit box after her father died. I wondered how these people felt about these items being found.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years of cleaning up for others, and some questions that I have learned to ask:
- The first pass is hard. It gets easier.
- I need to decide: Do my children really want this stuff, or do I want them to want it? And can I be okay if they say no thank you?
- My children love me, but they may not love my furniture.
- Are there things I don’t want others to see or find?
- Why would I put the burden on my kids of keeping this stuff if they don’t really want it? Wouldn’t it be better to allow someone who really needs this stuff to use it?
- I need to make sure my children know what I’m giving to whom so there is no uncertainty about it after my death.
- I am not defined by my possessions.
- I don’t want my kids to have to go through all my stuff that I could have gone through long ago.
- I am asking myself “why have I kept this and do I really need to keep it any longer… just in case?”
My mother had very little at the end of her life. She was a true minimalist. It took 15 minutes at most to clean out her room after she died. I appreciated that. My sister, the historian in our family, took the photo albums. My mother didn’t ask me to keep anything of hers. But I chose to hold on to her small desk and chair that I remember her sitting at ever since I was a little girl. Writing letters at that desk was the most important thing in her life. I also kept the black tole letter holder that always sat on her desk. I’m fine with these cherished items that hold memories for me not being kept in the family after I’m gone. There are traces of my mother everywhere. She’s in my smile, the way I act, the way I walk, the way I treat others. She’s still there, and she was never a part of her stuff.
So am I ready to start getting rid of some stuff? Yes. And as I sort through so many pieces that I carry from my past and let them go, I can feel my load get lighter. I enjoy feeling less weighed down. I savor the fact that my children will not have to bear the responsibility of sorting through all my stuff. I feel accomplished as I sort through all that I have saved, but I feel even more accomplished being strong enough to then let it go.