Just for a moment, stop what you are doing and look around you. Or if you’re not at home, think about the space you usually spend time in.
I’d wager it includes a lot of stuff that you barely notice; gifts, souvenirs, and things you haven’t found homes for yet. There will be items you’ve owned for so long you can’t remember why they are there, ranging through to things you bought just last week.
If you look closely, you might notice the significant moments of your life; graduations, ended relationships, or hobbies you never got round to starting.
Take a wild guess at how much you spent on it all. What do you think you would get for it of you had to sell it?
My mother grew up in the Great Depression, survived World War II, and endured post-war rationing. When she was 40, she packed up our family and emigrated to Australia. When she was 74, she had a series of strokes and entered residential care.
I was working in London at the time and flew back to help her sort out her things. I was young, thoughtless, and keen to get home, so my support mainly consisted of bullying her into getting rid of things. I had no idea how difficult it was for her. Now that I am older and can imagine doing it myself I am more sympathetic.
All those precious embodied memories laid aside forever:
· The WWII Utility bedroom furniture she and my father bought when they got married.
· The dress lengths of beautiful fabrics and balls of wool she never got around to using.
· The fruit preserving set she used to bottle apples in Autumn.
Then there were her collections of teapots, art, and ornaments. And of course, all the everyday things like bed linen, cookware, and crockery. Her “good” dinner service, crystal glasses and damask table linens. The well-stocked pantry full of bargain offers, plus the polyethene produce bags that she carefully washed and stored in case she needed to freeze something.
Almost her entire life went to auction – it took the auction house a day to pack and empty her house of furniture and household items. A couple of weeks later she received a cheque for the grand total of £1,000. Many of her possessions were passed in and taken to the rubbish tip (the cost deducted from the proceeds of sale). No one wanted to buy the treasures of her lifetime.
Fast forward to this year, and my mother passed away at 90, her nursing home room stuffed to capacity with knick-knacks, videos and expired chocolate bars. This time I couldn’t help sort her things out as she had appointed the Public Trustee to deal with her estate.
The nursing home wanted to empty and redecorate her room so that it could be re-let, but none of her effects could be disposed of without the Trustee’s approval. Due to some internal protocols, it was many weeks before an Estate Manager was appointed. In the meantime, her things were thrown into boxes and placed in an insecure outdoor loading bay for collection.
Eventually, I received a copy of Mum’s will. As social historians know, wills provide lots of interesting information about everyday life and the things the testator valued. Sadly, all of the things she had named were things she no longer owned. Her sewing machine, piano, and family heirlooms all gone to the £1,000 auction.
My brother and I gave instructions for disposing of what remained of her belongings, but when the Trustee arrived at the nursing home to take care of it, more or less all that remained was rubbish that her estate has paid to be taken to the tip.
Take another look at the objects that surround you. Are they things that remind you of happy times, or relics of a life you no longer live? Are they treasures to detail in your will, or junk for the tip? Do others know and understand the significance of your heirloom pieces or are they just stuff?
Leaving aside the death, dealing with the decluttering is complicated because you are thinking about your current self, your parents and your future self, your future self and your children. That’s a lot of people’s interests to take into account.
Now that I’ve made it seem a little more complicated, here are five things I learned dealing with death and decluttering:
1. Decluttering is a journey, not a destination: You will always want to bring new to you and exciting things into your home, and at some point, you have to let go of the old to make space for the new. The next time you see something you don’t love, that doesn’t fit your life, and that falls into the rubbish tip category, get rid of it. It’s probably not worth leaving it for your children to deal with.
2. Consider the fable of a dog in the manger: If you haven’t heard this tale, the short version is that a dog is lying in a food trough; it can’t eat the food, but won’t let other creatures eat it either. Think about whether other people might use and benefit from the clothes and household items you have stored away.
3. Use your “good” glasses and dishes: Modern life can be hectic, and often the person you see the least is the one that you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. Dispose of your old mismatched crockery and make every meal an event. Lay the table with clean linens and your dinner service, turn off the TV and reconnect with your family.
4. Make decluttering part of your household routine: Take an inventory when your insurance renewal comes in to make sure you are fully covered. As you assess the replacement cost of your belongings, think about whether they still have a place in your life, and if not get rid of them then and there. Hint: little girls love costume jewellery and sparkly clothing.
5. Protect your decluttered future: Talk to your parents about the things they own and encourage them to share items they don’t need. They may fondly feel that they are are stockpiling value for you after their death, but they are likely to be mistaken about that. Even assuming that you hope to receive any of it. Call an auction house or similar to assess the current market value – perhaps they might enjoy spending that value now.
As I start getting back to “normal”, I will be taking William Morris’s advice and keeping only useful or beautiful items. Preferably both at the same time.
Biography: Writer and philosopher Alexandria Blaelock advises embracing the things that matter like beauty, friendship and wisdom. She is the author of two personal development books describing how rational thought about activities like getting dressed and feeding your friends can lead to the kind of pleasure that makes life worthwhile. Discover more at: https://alexandriablaelock.com/.