Your Last Gift: Make it One They Will Appreciate

Standing on one side of the attic of my childhood home, surrounded by several dozen boxes, my eyes started to tear up. Most of those boxes hadn’t been opened since my father stacked them in place in July 1973. Just beyond the boxes were the built-in shelves I helped him install when I was 10, still filled with the books and vinyl records I’d helped him organize.

What made my tears flow harder was knowing what lay beyond the door to the other half of the attic. Waiting to greet me there were racks upon racks of clothing (some still bearing tags from stores like Filenes and Jordon Marsh), mismatched camera equipment, dozens of storage containers full of computer cables and power cords, and enough craft supplies to start a small store. Minimalist influencer Joshua Becker talks about the weight of our possessions being a burden and I can chuckle, now, when I recall the auctioneer saying it was a good thing we built those shelves above the load-bearing wall.

My father had just died and left my brother and me nearly 3,500 square feet of “stuff”—some useful, most not. Mom died two years before Dad, and I can't place blame for this stuff solely on him. In addition to the outdated silver platters and flatware from their wedding, and my father’s vast agglomeration of camera parts, on the table between their reclining chairs, one of her 46 pairs of reading glasses were still laying on top of the book she’d been reading.

As a death educator and end-of-life planner, I make it a point to focus discussions on tying up loose ends in planning for your death.

Simple questions guide these conversations. Do you have a living will? Have you named your medical and financial powers of attorney? Do you have funeral plans somewhere in writing? Does your significant other, friend or family member know when the monthly bills are due?

‘The things you leave when you die can be a thoughtful gift, or a costly burden to bear.’

As our technology has advanced, the questions have been updated. Who knows the name of your best friend from 3rd grade? What happens to your social media presence? Have all the passwords been left in a convenient place and does someone have access to them? When my father died in 2014, I knew the answers to many of these questions, but then my brother and I become responsible for the disposal of more than 50 years of possessions.

Now I ask those I work with to accept the reality that what is important to them may not be important to their descendants for many reasons. I don’t want to drag this into the Boomer/Millennial bashing arena—this subject has nothing to do with cohorts and everything to do with lifestyle and circumstance. The things you leave when you die can be a thoughtful gift, or a costly burden to bear.

Lessons Learned from the Death Café

Of the many subjects at the bi-monthly Death Café I co-facilitate, one has been consistent in the last year: Getting rid of things, whether bodies or belongings. For those unfamiliar with the Death Café concept, it is a mostly informal and educational event for people to come together and discuss death over coffee and cake. Where some individuals worry about the morbidity of discussing mortality, our exchanges are surprisingly light and fun. And there’s cake! Conversations around body disposition are often hilarious as we talk about Luke Perry and his mushroom suit, Viking funerals, body farms and compost in the garden.

But possessions are guaranteed to elicit anger and depression. In these discussions, people fall into two camps—the first militantly disregards what happens to their possessions after they die. The “I’ll be dead, I won’t care what they do with that stuff!” attitude prevails.

The second camp loudly whispers accusations of selfishness and short-sightedness at the first. Like me, this second camp may have cleared out the homes and possessions of loved ones and have dealt with the emotional fallout for years. We remember the way our lives suddenly changed and how we lost months of our time clearing out the physical collection of memories.

The Value of Downsizing Ahead of Time

I’ve learned valuable lessons from my experience, ones I pass onto those with whom I work—downsizing their belongings or clearing out the messes they’ve been willed. Starting out, it doesn’t matter if you use Marie Kondo’s “KonMari” method or Margareta Magnusson’s “Swedish Death Cleaning.” You could adopt practices from influencers like The Minimalists or Joshua Becker.

Personally, I guide my life with a bit of each. Anything more would be too complicated and my work life is complicated enough. I started small by getting rid of anything foreign to my personal style, including the gold-edged seven-piece bathroom set my mother painstakingly made for me in her ceramics class, but belonged nowhere in my home.

The many comments like “She made this for you? Does she know you?” were more than enough to convince me it had to go. I pulled from Minimalism and KonMari for the selection of books. Those we had purchased but never read, taking up space and collecting dust, were thanked for their service and donated to a local organization who repurposed them for schools and libraries. Despite what my husband says, anyone can and often should get rid of at least some books. May I suggest Kindle, Nook, or better yet, Libby?

‘Possessions are guaranteed to elicit anger and depression.’

We had a horrible camping experience 10 years ago, and now prefer Camp Marriott or Camp Westin. Why is all this camping equipment still taking up space in my garage? There are stores dedicated to near-new outdoor equipment I will be checking out soon.

My day job is at an organization serving older adults, some on fixed, lower incomes. Many of our gently used items will be donated for our participants’ use, especially clothing. Other items will be disbursed among friends or family over the next few years as others express interest. Beyond minimalism or the concept of sparking joy, death cleaning is an active avoidance of leaving a burden to your loved ones after you die.

Death cleaning is the last gift for those who are left behind—older adults can be encouraged in this practice and younger adults should start thinking about the subject now. Those of us working with older adults should be asking how their beloved items will transition to another’s home, or even if they should be.

I’ve read too many articles with stories of people who get lost in memories while trying to clear out their loved one’s belongings. They feel intense guilt at the thought of discarding something so precious, though the only reason it is precious is its relationship to the deceased.

My brother and I were not offered the luxury of time to wander down memory lane as we played the game of keep or give. Any monetary reserves Dad left to pay household expenses were fast being depleted by the New England winter and the property taxes would soon be due. The fact that neither of us relied upon stacks of belongings to carry our memories helped. There was guilt in realizing how easy it was for me to pick something up and say yes or no, then discard it. Two things lessened the guilt: First, nowhere in my small home is there any room to put Mom’s six curio cabinets and the dust magnets inside. Second, these items are just not my style nor my brother’s and we both refused to be guilted into feeling we had to keep them.

Did I keep the cuckoo clock that was my grandparents’ anniversary present? You bet. Do I feel the need to keep the mass-produced knickknacks purchased through a discount retail establishment? Absolutely not.

Almost 10 years have passed and thinking about the money and time I was forced to spend sorting through and disposing of those possessions, my anger rises like the pot of spaghetti sauce bubbling on my stove. My home and family were ignored for nearly two years. Several vacations were cancelled, my PTO redirected from fun with family to slaving away deciding what to do with all this stuff, and friendships were put on hold or lost completely. All because I was 2,000 miles away disposing of possessions I neither wanted nor cared about because of the “I don’t care” and “you’ll take care of it for me” attitude of my parents. This was the gift I did not want.

Stephanie Latta, MS, is a clinical informaticist at a PACE program in Colorado where she uses technology and humor to help meet the social and clinical needs of the program’s participants. In 2017, while completing her master’s in Gerontology, she co-founded Denver’s Secular Death Café, where she helps to teach others it’s OK to talk about the serious subjects of aging and death.

Photo caption: A shot from the partially cleared attic.

Photo credit: Courtesy Stephanie Latta