Ever wondered why minimalism matters? Over the last seven years, I’ve been unlucky enough to lose four member of my immediate family: my last two remaining grandparents, my uncle and most recently, my mother.
It has not been an easy time, and each death has affected me quite profoundly. I was lucky as a child – my brother and I grew up in a family where death remained at a distance. We didn’t know what it was like to lose someone until our grandfather died, by which time I had left home and gone to university and my brother was in his teens. Then, we had another long period of time where death seemed to be something that only happened to other people.
Of course, life can’t continue on without death at some point. In 2011 my Dad’s mum passed away. She was in her 90s and had lived a long life. It was still very hard for my Dad. Not only did he have to clear out her flat after she passed away, but he also then renovated it throughout so that it could be sold. It must have taken a degree of emotional fortitude to have done this in the aftermath of losing his mother. My Dad loves to fix things and repair things, so perhaps in a way, restoring her flat to something new and neutral helped him deal with the grief.
Two years later my Mum’s mum passed away from lung cancer. From diagnosis to death was only a few months. I was the Executor for Nan’s will and all her papers came to me. My Mum and her brother Eric cleared out Nan’s flat. This was my first real experience of dealing with what we leave behind after we go.
A Life of Loose Ends
My Nan’s affairs weren’t complicated as she had sorted so much out after her diagnosis, but it still took months for me to sort through everything, close off all accounts and insurance policies and tie up all the loose ends. In addition to her papers I had photos, birth certificates, keepsakes, newspaper cuttings and all the paperwork that she had kept from her husband’s death years before.
I found letters I had written to my Nan when I was younger, photos of people neither me nor my mum recognised, to-do lists and handwritten budgets.
When you die, even if you are prepared for it after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, you die in the middle of living. There is no one out there who can know exactly what every item you own means to you. So when you go, you leave behind mysterious piles of things that are – for the most part – checked over and then recycled, donated, or thrown away.
You can’t take it with you
All the things you have around you, all the sentimental items you have collected, the ornaments on your shelves, the clothing in your wardrobe, and every other item that you hold on to, will be sorted and touched by someone else after you have gone.
It can be difficult to think about this, but when you have dealt with the death of others, you realise how unprepared you really are for your own.*
My uncle died four years after my Nan (his Mum). He was fine on a Monday, and he spoke to my Mum twice on the phone. He went to bed and at some point in the night he got up and tried to get to the bathroom. His heart stopped and he fell down dead on the floor in the hallway. It was so fast, and there was no warning. He’d been to the doctor for a general check up recently, and the doctor had said to him,
“There’s no reason why you won’t go on another 20 years, Eric.”
Eric’s flat was left to me and Mum to sort out. Eric had so much stuff in his flat that you could barely walk from one room to the next. He had boxes and boxes of things piled high in every room. A lifetime of stuff he had collected. Most of it unused. He had debt too.
It was the saddest thing, to look around at everything and see the sum total of 70 years of life piled high in disarray.
But also, it caused a lot stress and unnecessary heartache for me and mum as we tried to deal with the mountain of things he had left behind. Why minimalism matters is clear when you are in this situation. Grief is hard enough to go through. The burden of sorting through someone’s multitudinous possessions makes it much worse.
Losing my mother
Mum and Eric were close. After what happened with Eric, my mum became preoccupied with dying. She missed him so much. Nine months later her heart stopped one evening and she passed away as suddenly as her brother had. I had no idea that she was coming to the end of her life. I had spoken to her on the phone just hours before she died.
When I cleared her flat I took most of her things home with me. Over the following six months I diligently sorted through every box that I brought back. It was a very emotionally difficult process. But what stood out were two things.
My Mum collected so many different kinds of things. Stamps, crystal, china, coins, spoons, playing cards, brass, watches, and more. She had spent an enormous amount of money, over many years, on valuables and collectables.
But why? To some extent I knew that buying these things made her happy. She loved tracking down rare and unusual items and giving them a home. She was particularly fond of animals and a lot of her things were animal themed.
But there came a point when she could no longer display all the things she had, so a lot of them were packed away. Then, when she got something new, she would have to put something old away to make space for it. And she still kept buying.
What was happening here? Was this fulfilling a need inside her that was unmet?
Lack of knowledge
I would say that probably 90% of my Mum’s stuff had no emotional value to me. I had no idea which things she loved, and which things were important. She never really talked to me about what she owned. Some of the pieces she had I hadn’t even seen before. She didn’t explain where things came from or why she bought them.
When I found her photos there were loads of old black and white pictures I had never seen. Full of people I didn’t know. Some of them I recognised, but many I didn’t. Why hadn’t she shared these photos with me? Why hadn’t she told me about who they were?
Share your sentimental items
If you own things that mean a lot to you, tell your loved ones about them. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Make sure they know which items are really precious and make you smile. And if you have things hidden away that make you sad – why are you keeping them?
When somebody leaves us, the physical items they leave behind take on a completely different perspective. And in a way, it helps to remind us just how unimportant so much of our stuff really is. This is why minimalism matters so much.
When we look at our own collection of pens, books, clothes, and DVDs, we really believe that we need them all. Or even, that we need more! We go shopping and buy things we already own, in different patterns or colours.
But when you look at the possessions left over from someone’s life, you realise how little they really did need after all.
When someone dies, their worldly goods end up being scattered far and wide. The most precious and sentimental things are shared between relatives and friends. Useful items that no one has the space or need for tend to be donated to charity. A lot of things – a surprising amount – just ends up being thrown away.
Take care of what you own, and don’t own more than you need
Take a moment to think about everything you own, and what would happen to it all if you died. Where would it go? Who would find a use for it? Would people even know what it meant to you? Would they know the stories behind certain pieces of jewellery, old photographs or favourite clothing that had seen better days?
It may seem morbid to think about our things like this, but actually, it’s a fantastic way of seeing clearly what really matters – especially when it comes to keeping sentimental items.
When you are gone, everything you have will be laid bare for your family to sort through.
Why Minimalism Matters
So, the crux of this post: why minimalism matters.
Minimalism is important because it gives us grace in both life and death.
In life, less physical (and emotional) clutter gives us space for new adventures – from our youth to our oldest age.
In death, less clutter allows us to pass on knowing that we didn’t stagnate in a lifetime-collection of our own existence.
And that’s why minimalism matters.
Because it gives us, and those we leave behind, freedom.
Because when we are gone, it will not be our possessions that had the greatest impact on those that knew us, but our minds.
*For the record, I don’t think being 100% prepared for your own death is something you should aspire to be. It is probably not healthy to be obsessively strict about how you live your life in order to make things simpler when you die. But it is healthy to understand that life is transitory and impermanent. It also so important to share what is important to you with the people that you love. When you are gone those things will help them remember you, through the stories that you told about them and the esteem you held them in. If your sentimental things are gathering dust in the loft, how will anyone else know what they meant to you?