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How to Declutter In the Present, As a Present

How to Declutter In the Present, As a Present

I recently met with a woman who told me her top priority was making things easy for her heirs. She’d heard horror stories of wills getting bogged down in probate, and heirs waiting years for resolution. “I know lawyers can see farther up the road than us,” Mollie said with a smile. “I don’t want to leave my children a mess. Not in my will, and not in my home. That’s why I’m hiring a lawyer – and that’s why I’m doing dostadning.“

Doing what? Well, first you should know Mollie was right. Estate representative appointments and estate administration often take years in New York. Many of the “Surrogate’s Courts” downstate which handle this are still moving a lot slower than before COVID19. And even if the heirs are in agreement on the distribution of belongings – i.e., “tangible personal property” – probate laws restrict when they can be distributed or discarded. And appraisers, estate sale organizers, and clean out services may be needed.

I’ve heard of someone still renting a storage unit 8 years after his parent’s passing. And someone who paid high maintenance for over a decade on an unoccupied but still-furnished Manhattan apartment. Because it’s emotional and time consuming, some people put this task off for years.

So I often advise clients to sort through their belongings during their lifetimes. But the method of dostadning (Swedish for death cleaning) was new to me. I asked Mollie if I could interview her, and she generously agreed.

Bracha: What prompted you to start the dostadning process?

Mollie: One morning, I couldn’t find something in my clothes closet. It dawned on me that I hadn’t worn some of the clothes hanging there for many years. It actually took me back twenty years to when I cleared out my parents’ home. All I wanted was time to grieve – but there I was, going through piles of possessions for weeks on end. As soon as those memories hit, I told myself, “Mollie, you are not going to do that to your children!”

Bracha: So, it started with a closet?

Mollie: Yep, I went after those clothes with a vengeance. If I hadn’t worn a piece in five years, into the box it went. If I knew something wouldn’t ever fit me again, out it came. And when everything was packed up for donation, I swear I felt lighter! Plus, knowing those clothes would be worn by people who really needed them made me happy. I was so thrilled, I headed to my storage area, but right away, I knew I needed help. I was in way over my head!

Bracha: Where did you go for help?

Mollie: I went straight to the computer to look up decluttering. After a lot of false leads, I came across a book by Margareta Magnusson that people were raving about. I have to admit, the title put me off at first. I’d just turned 70, and I was having a hard time confronting my mortality, so a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning wasn’t that appealing. But people seemed to really like it, so I took a deep breath and ordered it.

Bracha: Did you find it helpful?

Mollie: Absolutely! I found out that “stadning” in Swedish means cleaning, and “do” means death, and decided I’d just concentrate on the stadning part of the word. But the truth is, I started to feel better about my mortality, too, because I knew what I was doing would help my children.

Removing unnecessary things from my home wouldn’t just save them time when I passed- it would spare them emotional pain too. For me, dostadning was about continuing to help my children, even after I’m no longer here.

Bracha: I imagine some people could find what you did difficult.

Mollie: Well, going through possessions you’ve accumulated over decades can be daunting, but I took it step by step. Setting small goals helped. And once I started it became easier to continue, because it was actually a positive experience.

Bracha: What made it a positive experience?

Mollie: Suddenly, there was space all around me – and I knew where things were for a change! Plus, some things required a lot of maintenance, so letting go of some of those created more time in my life. And my “background” stress level really dropped.

But it wasn’t all about getting rid of the clutter. When I came across something that meant a lot to me, I knew I wanted to share it with my kids. So dostadning also gave me the opportunity to cherish my memories.

Bracha: Do you have any advice for people considering this method?

Mollie: First, I’d say to take it slow. Pace yourself. And don’t start with emotionally difficult things, like photographs, which can be hard to go through. Definitely leave the sentimental stuff for later, once you’re in the groove.

And you will get into the groove! The process is very self-reinforcing. Once I started separating what really mattered to me from what was just taking up space, I naturally wanted to continue. And knowing that what you’re doing is a gift to your heirs is very empowering.

Bracha: Thank you for sharing your experience, Mollie. Despite the off-putting name, this process seems really life affirming. Now, my own overstuffed closet awaits!

*For more tips on the dostadning process, see Swedish Death Cleaning Checklist – Sourgum Waste.

*Some facts have been altered to protect the client’s privacy.

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