How to Get Rid of Your Stuff When You’re Dying

I’ve always been a bad minimalist

Photo: Aniket Das/EyeEm/Getty Images

As I get more serious about my end of life, I look around and realize just how much stuff I own. If I ever published my personal essays, I would totally copycat my title from Roxane Gay: Bad Minimalist.

I am intrigued by minimalism and try to incorporate some of it into my daily life. I love watching Anthony Ongaro on YouTube. I’m not a rabid consumer. I avoid malls. I don’t shop online. I deliberately and conscientiously stopped conspicuous consumption years ago. But…

I do not listen to Joshua Becker. I am not a Marie Kondo acolyte testing every item in my house to see if it sparks joy. I found The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning annoying; I could not get past the tedious, cutesy, preachy tone of the book.

And I have a lot of stuff.

A. Lot. Of. Stuff.

I’m a bad minimalist, and I know it.

Questions bombard me when I look around our house. Why do I have so much stuff? Where did it all come from? What does it mean to me? And, most important of all, what is going to happen to all this stuff when I die?

Because, let’s face it: Dying is the ultimate minimalist experience.

Let me give a couple of foundational facts to my life that complicate this discussion. First, I have a later-in-life marriage; we both came with lots of physical stuff. My dear husband of too few years is also a keeper of stuff — family stuff, personal stuff, heirloom stuff, professional stuff, outworn and outgrown and outdated stuff — in short, lots of stuff. For the record, I’m not worried about his stuff. But his stuff makes my stuff seem acceptable.

Foundational fact number two: My adult children are 2,400 miles away, and neither is particularly sentimental about stuff. Neither is likely to call me and say, “Hey, Mom, you know that [fill in the blank] that’s in the cabinet? I’d like to have it.” Each son’s attitude seems to be “I don’t want stuff, now or in the future.” I suspect they even occasionally think, Oh, crap, am I going to get stuck with that [fill in the blank] when Mom dies? My sons baffle my youngest brother, who has fierce feelings about family history and the importance of keeping mementos for his children and grandchildren. He once said that he was sure my sons would want the [fill in the blank] if I explained the family story behind it. I didn’t miss a beat. “No, they wouldn’t.” So, with a few exceptions, my sons are not likely to be clamoring for my stuff, now or after death.

So what’s a bad minimalist to do?

Dying is the ultimate minimalist experience.

I don’t want to die leaving behind piles of stuff for my friends and family to confront. It falls on me to let my stuff go out of my life and on to another while I can.

One step is to dump my stuff. “Dump” as in giving it to Goodwill or another donation organization, selling it, even throwing items away if no longer usable. Take books. I love books. I grew up in a family that did not give books as gifts. Toys, bicycles, clothing? Sure. But books? I had to beg for them. So when I went off to college, I started buying books to fill that void in me. Over the years, I have acquired lots of books. In recent months, I have gifted some, sold some at Half Price Books, and am slowly paring down my bookcases.

Another step is to give things away now. Now. I just gave away one of my most beloved items: my Nikon-FG SLR camera body and several lenses. That Nikon, to me, was the greatest film camera ever made for amateur photographers, and I held onto it long after switching to digital. A month ago, I finally accepted that I was never going to use it again, even though I love that camera. So I boxed it up and sent it to my youngest son and his girlfriend, who shoots with film. I wanted that camera in the hands of someone who would love and use it. There are many other items to go, but that was the most emotional one. And having taken that biggest step of letting my Nikon go, the rest will be easier.

The final step is making my wishes known. I have made it abundantly clear to my husband that other than a few specific items and some family paintings (my dad is a watercolorist), everything else goes after I die. (The watercolors go to my youngest brother if my sons don’t want them.) I have a will that specifies certain items to certain people. But the rest that my husband can’t use? Dump it.

A few years ago, I wrote about the stuff we carry through life and how we deal with it as we move towards death:

Baggage

If there were limitations

on how much baggage we could carry

in life,

well, we’d all be paying extra.

Never mind the weight.

The weight is ponderous.

The weight is Augean.

No, I mean just the amount:

the sheer staggering number

of steamer trunks and parcels and portmanteaus.

I am starting to repack mine.

I am dividing up my baggage between

the here and now

and

the there and thereafter.

I am readying myself to throw over the trunks,

kick away the duffle bags,

stack the suitcases in a teetering tower,

and just walk on.

I will take just a carry-on.

No, just a backpack.

No, just a clutch bag.

No, just my empty hands open to the stars.

But not yet, not yet.

For I am

still

in the baggage room,

opening yet another dusty bundle,

wondering aloud, “Why did I ever pack this?”

finding two dog-eared postcards,

an old arrival schedule,

a scribbled phone number,

detritus of my past.

And yes, I need to deal with the desk drawer and the computer file full of poetry as I clean out my stuff.

It’s not easy to give up stuff. I suspect my hesitation is that the stuff defines me, or at least defines who I used to be.

But I’m trying. Bad minimalist that I am, even I can see the progress.

Now in my 60s, I pursued lots of other paths before finding a way to wedge writing back into my life.

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