Clearing Life's Clutter Through Trauma


Two-time cancer survivor offers ideas to reduce clutter, even through difficult times.

I have been derailed by a “normal” but very unhappy event this past summer. My mom, after three battles with breast cancer followed by hospice care, passed away in June. My dad had passed away several years ago after battling dementia. On top of this, my husband and I downsized our home (moved) in the midst of Mom’s final weeks. It was terrible timing, yet these things are part of life — and death. Still, as an adult, I never wished so hard that I hadn’t been an only child. I know I am not an orphan, and I know life will get better.

As cancer survivors, we know the dark side of life, and hopefully we can use that to our advantage to focus on life’s priorities. Life isn’t about the stuff, and yet sometimes in the midst of emotional trauma, we must deal with the stuff too.

I had a “prized” yet dated Mission oak mid-2000’s kitchen set, dining room set, hutches, chairs and two formal living room chairs that got crowded into our garage after the downsizing move while I hoped for buyers. I got pennies on the dollar for my “prized” possessions. Important lesson relearned—as the stuff of life changes over time and flows into and out of our homes, I wish I had furnished my home initially with less expensive Craigslist furniture. In the end, it is just stuff, and now I have no hutches and a small used kitchen table that better fits our current smaller home.

After our move and Mom’s death, I weeded through boxes—hers and mine. As I looked through my own “treasures” and boxes of my mom’s “treasures” as well, I wanted to keep the memories, but I didn’t want to store lots of stuff—mine or hers. Sometimes I took photographs. Sometimes I just let go. Sometimes my feelings were too raw to peel back all the layers at once—especially since my mom’s possessions included memories of my dad, too. I felt like weeding through her boxes, hastily packed to release her apartment back to the assisted living building, was like finding treasure in the middle of my grief and at other times, it just felt like a violation of her privacy.

I remember finding the original metal turtle button box that had started Mom's extensive turtle collection. It was the basis for the first article I ever published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. This turtle held some of her sewing buttons when I was growing up, and it is a keeper. I also found photographs of younger and happier versions of both my parents—when they graduated from school, when they wed. These photos make me smile and think happier thoughts than when I recall their final days. Sometimes I find cards, letters and pictures of people I don’t know or recognize.

Keeping those makes no sense and yet there is a tug at my heart as I recycle and realize I am tossing someone else’s past. It is too late to ask questions now.

I know it is time to lighten up. Minimalism has usually felt good to me. There have been a lot of changes happening in a short period of time—the downsizing, the empty nesting and the moving forward to life’s next chapters. I believe that it is easier to move forward when less encumbered by the stuff of the past. I will be journaling the memories and letting go of much of the stuff. As a breast cancer survivor with two daughters, I also can’t help but think that I don’t want their clutter-clearing task to be any more difficult than it needs to be. To my fellow survivors, I want to share the following:

“You’ve got to know yourself. You’ve got to know what ignites your magic, what fires your soul into performing majestic acts of love. You’ve got to know yourself so much that not even a hundred voices will drown yours. You’ve got to own yourself, this journey is all yours. All yours. No one can do it and you decide whenever you are ready to embark on it. Unlearn, learn, master yourself and love yourself or else they will define you and that’s a poisonous kind of life. That’s death.”—Ijeoma Umebinyuo, female Nigerian poet (I found her through Paul Wesselmann,

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