• Sorting through possessions before you die can save your family stress. (Getty)Source: Getty
Sorting out your clutter even years before you die can be beneficial to those you leave behind.
Elli Jacobs

8 Nov 2017 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2017 - 12:46 PM

In the age of decluttering and minimalism, getting rid of unwanted possessions does more than "spark joy". It also saves your loved ones a lot of unnecessary stress when you pass away.

Something Alyce Haack, 39, discovered when she was left with many of her father's possessions when he died in 2004. "I was living out of a backpack and working in Ayers Rock when my father passed away, so taking any of his possessions was near impossible," the Queensland-based End-of-Life Discussion Facilitator, tells SBS.

Nearly four years later, she was in the same situation when her mother passed suddenly from cancer.

"My sister and I had to go through a whole house and determine who wanted what and what could be disposed of or sold. We had one big garage sale with very low prices, and some second-hand dealers took advantage of our lack of knowledge on mid-century furniture."

Ten years later, Haack is still trying to get rid of her mum’s belongings. "All of these artefacts were only sentimental to mum, not us, and because of this burden, my sister and I both live very minimalistic lifestyles," she says.

I wish my parents had disposed of some items themselves or at least had a broader discussion with family members

Dealing with their parents' possessions also caused tension within the family. "This situation created a strain between us and other family members as they disagreed with our decision to sell most of our parent’s belongings. And what made it even harder was when we sold an old antique dining table that belonged to mum's friend and was her family’s heirloom. She asked us to track down the buyer to get it back.

"I wish my parents had disposed of some items themselves or at least had a broader discussion with family members about what goes to who and if we could sell family heirlooms once they passed, including their material value," she says.

There’s a Swedish word for this process: “döstädning", dö meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning.” The idea of 'death cleaning' is to leave behind as little as possible for your loved ones to deal with after you pass on.

“Asking the question, 'Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?' can help you decide whether to keep or get rid of an old possession,” writes Margareta Magnusson, Swedish artist and author of the forthcoming book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. "If after a moment of reflection you honestly answer, no, toss it,” she says. “As what may be a treasure to you can easily become a burden to others."

Lisa Oshlack is the managing director of Moving On, a company that specialises in retirement and aged-care home relocations including deceased estates clean-ups. They receive calls to clear a minimum of 10 deceased estates per month and about four-to-six estates from nursing homes per week in the Sydney and greater Sydney area. 

"How much a clean-up can cost a family depends on the size of the estate, what’s left behind, the level of access granted to the property and tip costs, but they can be roughly left with a cleaning bill between $3,000 to $7,000," Oshlack tells SBS.

A good time to declutter

According to a 2008 study by The Australia Institute, 88 per cent of homes have at least one cluttered room and the average home has three or more cluttered rooms. Four in 10 Australians say they feel anxious, guilty or depressed about the clutter in their homes; and 59 per cent of women said there was a room in the house they don’t like visitors to see because of the clutter.

"Australians can learn a lot from organising their homes as early as possible and not waiting until their 70," Sydney-based professional organiser at Creative Surrounds, Lynda Eagleton tells SBS. 

"Forcibly downsizing from a four or five bedroom house into a two-bedroom retirement home - because one spouse has passed, is in long-term care, or because of our own health reasons - is a really desperate time, and having to go through a life-time of memories will be the last thing you want to deal with in these difficult stages of the ageing process," says Eagleton. So it’s a good idea to learn the art of maintenance early. For example, for every new item in the house, another item has to go. She also suggests passing on family heirlooms while you’re still alive so you can experience the joy of sharing family history.

Most arguments occur after the death of a loved one over their physical possessions

‘Death cleaning’ can also have health and financial benefits. Research suggests that decluttering reduces stress, and increases productivity. "Clutter stales energy in our homes but when we clear things out it’s like weight has been lifted of our shoulders," Eagleton says.

If you’re asset rich and cash poor, downsizing when you become an empty nester can mean a smaller mortgage and selling some of your belongings can also free money for you to enjoy in your retirement. "I always feel such shame when people spend money on storage units, because all clutter really is at that point is just a procrastinated decision,” says Eagleton.

Start a conversation

As a result of her experience, Haack created her own business as an end-of-life discussion facilitator, where she encourages an open discussion amongst family members.

"I have found that most arguments occur after the death of a loved one over their physical possessions - including photos and insignificant momentos," says Haack.

If bringing up the topic of death feels challenging, you can make it easier by inviting the family over for Sunday lunch or dinner and open up the topic in a casual tone. "It’s best to get it out in the open as this will ensure that everyone is on the same page," she says.  

"Begin by taking stock of what’s in the house and have a talk about who wants what so your kids don’t inherit things they don’t have space for or interest in. In the same way ask your parents for permission if items are to be sold and gain knowledge of their worth.

"Therefore, when the time comes you’ll be organised and not weighed down by the emotional attachment of not knowing what your parents would have wanted you to do," says Haack.

For Eagleton, having had this discussion with her collector father gave her emotional freedom. "He has given me permission to sell his items once he dies so I don’t feel I have to hold on to all these things and that is wonderful." 

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