Reflections of 'Death Cleaning' as a Cancer Survivor


Surviving breast cancer showed me that life is precious, but I also would like to prepare for life's eventualities.

Illustration of a woman with gray hair and cat-eye glasses.

Surviving breast cancer always reminds me of how precious this one life is. A brush with mortality also reminds me that one day I will not always be here on this earth. Of course, the older I get, the more I imagine other ways my life could wind down at the same time I assume cancer may visit again. Meanwhile, with the gift of age, I enjoy preparing for life’s eventualities.

Preparing, with the leisure retirement brings, means organizing my household: filing, decluttering, donating and downsizing. Like many older folks these days, I read Margareta Magnusson’s book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” which shares pearls of wisdom. “Death cleaning,” however, is not peculiarly Swedish. I learned about the practice when I watched my elderly mother organize her household. I also witnessed it decades before when my older brother, died of cancer at 21, with most of his treasured items, except his car, whittled down to one shoebox.

I will leave a little more than a shoebox behind because I have had the opportunity to live a long life. Still, I aspire to organize stuff for my son to sort through easily one day. I also want to discard or donate what I can before that time. Recently, for example, I tossed almost all the cards I collected from the year I was in treatment. Just in case, I have found an archive that accepts diaries whose pages we can keep private until a specified date.

More importantly, before I leave this earth, I aspire to pass down almost everything of importance. A quilt and sampler went to a museum that conserves nineteenth-century textiles. I loved giving my daughter-in-law a pair of silver earrings my mother wore in the early 1950s. Recently, unpacking a Mickey Mouse tunic my brother bought at Disney World in 1973, a shirt that has been waiting for somebody to wear it for 50 years, I asked my son if he would want it. A grown man, he said yes. He also asked for my brother’s “vintage” watch, which he refurbished and wears.

Usually, I just know what needs to go and when. Those sock puppets my college boyfriend made in 1974? They take up so little room. That ukulele I rarely played? A little girl plays it now. One thing currently nagging at me is a t-shirt my mother gave me with brightly colored insect appliques. It deserves to be donated and worn. My mother’s sweatshirt with her name embroidered so people would always greet her in the nursing home? It will always be mine.

It can be daunting for survivors focused on living to think about life’s eventualities. Living life, while surviving cancer, can be much more adventurous than organizing one’s possessions and papers. But organizing a household, from safekeeping important files to downsizing superfluous possessions and memorabilia can serve the person doing it as well as family members. A good place to start is to consider what feels right, and practical, for you.

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