Dostadning: a hybrid of the words death and cleaning. It’s been a part of Swedish culture for generations.

“Swedish death cleaning” isn’t as morbid as it sounds. In fact, it’s actually quite a loving act. Swedish death cleaning or “dostadning” has been described as psychological minimalism. It is making a conscious and deliberate choice to properly and thoroughly downsize. I have very recently seen what happens when the decision is “no decision” and it’s heartbreaking.  

I can’t imagine leaving all this “treasure” of mine to someone else to dispose of. As I approach 60, I have to be mindful that with no kids to help me sort this out later, I would be best served to start now while I am still of strong mind and spirit. 

In the summer of 2015 we did a deep dive into our “stuff”. As it turned out it would be the first of many attempts and, although a painfully slow process, we actually DID part with a lot of unnecessary things. We used the (then very popular) “kon-mari” method and while it isn’t flawless, it’s helpful. 

“If it doesn’t bring joy, let it go”.

It isn’t meant to be a “how-to” so much as a guide. What brings YOU joy will be very different than what brings ME joy. And what really IS joy when it comes to “stuff” ?

“It is not our memories, but the person we have become because of those experiences, that we should treasure. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” 
― Marie Kondo

Amen to that. 

Swedish death cleaning feels like relaxing into a simpler life. Rather than hanging on to what brings us some measure of joy, we embrace the idea of sparing those we love the burden of our “stuff” after we’ve passed. It’s a “tell the truth” moment. It goes beyond the question of whether it brings joy . It is another thing altogether. It is more: what would happen to it if I died tomorrow ? Will it make anyone happier because I’ve saved it ?

When we replaced all of our floors this past summer it was easy to let go of a lot of the bigger things: Twin beds in a kids room that no longer held kids, wonky chairs and a kitchen set (table and chairs) that neither of us had really liked from the beginning (2003; bought along with the house). It never brought joy, in and of itself, but we had some very special joyful meals with the kids around that table so it always “made the cut”. 

For the most part, we replaced a few things and only brought back IN what we knew we wanted to keep. The rest has been staged in boxes in the garage. (Some of which I haven’t unburdened from the original cardboard in 40 years) It’s those boxes that seem to be in front of me these days. 

Boxes and bins in need of a little “un-burdening”

Both cars fit into the garage so it’s not “out of control” but it is an ongoing thing. It is still what’s in front of me. It’s a process. Sort of like “journey vs destination” and we’re choosing the journey. 

I recently shared this on Facebook:

“Here is why going through boxes takes me so long: This stub of a candle was one I held at a vigil the night John Lennon died. It was at Seattle Center by the fountain. There were just a handful of us and more who came later. We just held our candles and sang his songs in the glow. It was amazing. And I can’t get rid of the candle. My whole life is made of moments like that. Without the candle, the memory of that night might slip away completely and that would be a damn shame. A real damn shame”

I’d have never remembered that night without the candle. It had already begun slipping away like so many other things. 

Here are a few other “impossible for me to part with” things:

My “running away” note is a classic. I just knew no one would be sad to see me go. Planting seeds for therapy even back then. My sister put it into a small frame several years ago and it’s one of my favorite things. There is still a little of that Bonnie Rae in me today. Is it because I won’t toss the note ?

How about the small juice glass that my grandmother would have her “medicine” in every night. Just a shot or so, never more. I didn’t understand back then why she might have needed it. I do now. I used to get apple juice in a small identical glass and sit on the couch and drink it with her. She had a way of making me feel special in those moments. 

These are sweet memories and yet they bump up against the other truth that is in front of me : attachments. 

I recognize that my attachment to “things” often translates into attachment to old feelings that come with them. That’s never a really good scenario. Think: baggage. It gives my mind another place to wander to. It is no better than wandering into the future. We miss so much by not appreciating what lies right under our feet. 

Just because you are
seeing divine light,
experiencing waves of bliss,
or conversing with Gods
and Goddesses
is no reason to not
know your zip code.

Ram Dass
Be Here Now

Your life is right in front of you. With that in mind, I am more easily tossing things into the recycle. Some I let go because they don’t bring joy, some because they no longer serve any purpose and some because they hold memories that keep me connected to someone I was and not someone I am now. 

We love the things we love
for what they are”   -Robert Frost

The pitcher that sat on the table for every family dinner when I was growing up

As a side note, I read Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning this past week. It is sweet and anecdotal, but not really the guide I had hoped it would be. I found some suggestions helpful and I think I got the gist of it. My advice: You’d be better served to read lots of personal accounts until you land on one that resonates with you. Maybe I should write the book I had hoped to read …

There are no simple tasks when leaving people, places or things behind. Nothing about our lives is unremarkable. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard has been this:

Most of us say about ourselves: “I have a hard time letting go.” Exhalation is the most complete expression of letting go, and we do it without thinking thirty thousand times a day. You know how to let go, and only you can do it.                   – Karen Maezen Miller

We intuitively know how to do this. We just need to get out of our own way.

( I remember a friend writing about this topic a couple years ago and so I revisited that post and wanted to share it here. It may be even more relevant for those who have had that task left to them by others. You can read Gretchen’s post here )

17 Comments on “Dostadning

  1. I sit here midway through the Ann Patchett essay in the New Yorker (a week behind in New Yorkers) then stopped mid-sentence and landed here. Isn’t that interesting? Interesting too that she titles her essay “How to Practice.” I don’t need memories to remember what to do.

  2. With Swedish great grandparents I remember the ‘time’ spent having a cup of coffee made on a wood stove in an enamel coffee pot. My great grandmother also taught us a Swedish ‘call to breakfast’ in Swedish. My name has a ‘th’ in it, which is not a part of the Swedish language. My great grandmother always called me Keeta Sue. (Keitha Sue) The lilt in her voice made me smile.These memories are still kept as treasures. Now that I have moved to a new home it seemed like the stay at home order issued almost a year ago would make it easy to unpack and sort through things. Then why do I still have 2/3 of a two car garage full of boxes? The car had to endure the recent snow storm in the driveway. Dostadning is a new concept to me. As I arrange, and rearrange the interior of the house to create work spaces the boxes in the garage stay put. Two folding tables are set up in the garage to sort through each box that is opened. Many books from my teaching career have been given to the children in the neighborhood. Art supplies as well. Clothing I no longer wear found a place at Quixote Village. Priceless notes from students are being saved to enjoy again. Pictures of my foster daughter have been given to her to enjoy. She came to live with me three days before her thirteenth birthday. In February she turned 51. My grandmother’s china has been given to a cousin. Several years ago a student placed a piece of rose quartz on my desk with a nice fifth grade boy’s note that read, “We’re really sorry for our behavior when the principal was in the room. We hope we didn’t get you fired.” That note will always be kept to remind me of the joy of teaching.

    • I just love that note !! Oh, I think that there is a lot that has value to us. It’s different for everyone of course, but as my friend has told me, if it makes the cut only to be stuck back in a box, I’m defeating the purpose. I’ve started using a lot of the things I had been saving: plates, glasses, linens. What on earth am I am saving them for if not to make my days a little happier ? I don’t collect much these days and the things I have coveted in the past are now being used. Journals are a perfect example. I no longer sit them on a shelf, I actually write in them ! Joy is so subjective ..

  3. These decisions weigh on me too. As a child, we moved around so much and my things were constantly given away or donated, with never an opportunity for me to keep toys/treasures that were meaningful. There was so much upheaval as a child, parents divorce etc, that in my adult life, I’ve clung to things for the memories for myself and my family. I totally relate to how these bits and pieces of our lives and reminders of the past are so difficult to part with. Seeing that juice glass brings that SAME memory to mind. I loved having “a drink” with grandma, but now understand more of her reasons. You inspire me to do the work, to begin the purge. The hard part is knowing how to begin. Thank you for sharing! xo

    • I will tell you that I’ve been down memory lane this week and it’s a bit like falling into a well. I love that you remember Ma’s “medicine”and shared that with her. I also have a small shrimp cocktail glass, her Timex watch and several of those brownish “village” plates they used for every day. I will try to keep just one in the kitchen and actually use it ! The best thing of hers I have is the hall table where she smoked and talked on the phone for hours. It’s in the garage and has been for years but I can’t give it up. I’ll bring it in this year, I love it so much. Remember the button game on the stairs ? Thanks for writing, Shawna. My best advice is what I’m following for myself: will someone be happier because I’ve saved it ? Sometimes the answer really is yes ♡

  4. The flip side of this equation is, of course, the art of collecting, present and future – without regard to jettisoning all the artifacts of distinction we collected in the past, whether the past was 25 years ago, or yesterday. My eye is always drawn to beauty, innovation, or whimsy. A heady cocktail that has left me awash in so many ‘artifacts’ that they now form the Oceanas Artifactus. I dont but should have nightmares about what Ann and Lynn, or worse, Matt and Ben, will do with the detritus of my life. And still, my eye is drawn…*

    • I’m not talking so much about things that have obvious value. I can see your pens and inks, typewriters and journals. (And I am imagining a few books too … ) I’m talking about paper-ish things, that only have value to you, that will unceremoniously be tossed in the recycle. The 10 mixing bowls, the dozen plates. The magazines you wanted to read someday, the hobbies that never took hold, the knick-knacks …I believe it when people say that they breathe easier. I want to give myself that gift. 

  5. I’m finding that I have to be in the right mood. I’m less sentimental in the morning so I’m choosing to dig through boxes on the mornings I stay home. The best advice seems to be to save the photos and paper-ish things for last. They trip me up every time. Good luck. And always remember it is a loving act ♡

  6. I’ve been trying to clear out our clutter. It’s a difficult task, but one that must be done. With the recent passing of my father-in-law and mother-in-law, the task of cleaning out their home has fallen on the children and grandchildren. They had too much stuff in every part of their home. Not always valuable or memorable stuff, but mostly junk. That should not be someone’s legacy. It’s sad and it’s costly and it’s a lot of work for those who must clean it up. You’ve inspired me to step up my clutter-clearing game and get it done!

  7. Great essay. You might like Ann Patchett’s latest essay in the New Yorker called “How to Practice
    I wanted to get rid of my possessions, because possessions stood between me and death.”

    • Oh my, I love Ann Patchett and that essay of hers is brilliant. A few things jumped out at me, the first being that “writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done”. Amen to that. Thanks for sharing that and for writing !

  8. Oh, geez. This is so great. (The running away note made me laugh out loud. That is a true treasure.) Thank you for linking my post; it sent me back to reread it. That room in the basement is even more full now. Had my pandemic year not including family living with me, maybe I would have tackled it—sisters who insist it be left until they can be present, be damned, because that is never going to happen. And now it’s spring and the equivalent of throwing out, keeping, or ignoring needs to happen outside. Blessings on the journey.

    • Ha ha … seeing all this stuff in boxes makes me want to run outside and never come back in. If I use a hybrid of Swedish death cleaning and kon-mari I have a little optimism. Thanks for writing.

You know I'd love to hear from you !

%d bloggers like this: