Earlier this year my mum passed away. It was sudden, with no warning. She was exactly one month away from her 69th birthday when her heart failed.
Nine months before that, her brother Eric had died under spookily similar circumstances. Mum and Eric were very close, and I watched his death wreak devastation on her life. When he was gone, nothing could fill the void that he left behind. Not even me and her three grandchildren.
I dealt with both estates as executor, and the process was emotionally grueling each time. Both of them were hoarders and collectors of inordinate amounts of stuff. They had difficult childhoods and seemed to take comfort in possessions in a way that I recognized as unhealthy from an early age.
As I went through every box, every piece of paper and every item that my Mum and her brother owned, over a process of months I saw with complete clarity the lessons that their lives had passed onto me.
1. Showcase your sentimental items, and be selective about what you keep
There is an unimaginable amount of stuff to sort through when someone dies. Aside from the usual clothing, kitchenware, and furniture, there is also a flood of miscellaneous objects which are kept for sentimental reasons. Pens, keyrings, notes, trinkets, postcards, teddies and much more. When I sorted through Eric and then Mum’s belongings, I wondered over and over.
“Was this important?”
“Why did he keep this?”
“What did this mean to her?”
When you are gone, no one will know the meaning of your things unless you shared the memories associated with them when you were alive. Choose what you save carefully and then display it proudly.
Talk about, and name, the people in your old photos. Read aloud the letters that make you smile. Dig out the souvenir from your best holiday ever and put in plain sight.
Minimalism isn’t about having nothing, it’s about finding true value in what you do have and keeping only what meets your high standards. Once you’ve done this for a few items, you’ll begin to realize that all the sentimental stuff you thought you had to keep, can go.
2. Don’t hide your past, and don’t let it dictate your future
Self -acceptance is the key to graciously letting go of what you don’t need. When you fully accept yourself and who you are, you no longer need to keep the things that you bought to be someone else or to impress someone else. Owning a lot of books doesn’t make you erudite. Reading a lot of books does.
You also don’t need to keep things to hide behind or to cover up the parts about yourself you do not like. Rather than hide behind objects that you imbue with emotion, be brave and tell your stories. Deal with shame head on and bathe it with love and acceptance. Rewrite your experiences in the positive and be proud of them. My Mum and her brother hid their terrible childhood for their entire lives, and it tortured them endlessly.
Bad things happen to good people. You are not to blame if something bad has happened to you, but it is your choice if you let it consume your thoughts for decades afterwards. I watched Mum and Eric devote almost 55 years of life to feeling bad about what happened in the first 15 years of life. It is surprisingly easy to waste a lifetime over things that amount to a fraction of the physical time that you have on this earth.
3. Take 100% responsibility for your health
Don’t put off looking after your health until you have time to do it perfectly. Small changes DO make a difference. Your body wants nothing more than to live as long as possible and it will fight for this until your very last breath. Mum spent her life looking for someone else to look after her, both mentally and with her ever-decreasing physical health. She thought the answer was on the outside, instead of on the inside.
You won’t find what you need from someone else. You are 100% responsible for what you eat and how you move. There is no pill or addiction that will do a better job than self-acceptance and listening to what your body needs. Sometimes the whisper is so faint you have to listen hard.
The only person in charge, and the only person that can tell you if something is okay with absolute certainty is you. Mum spent her life believing everyone else’s opinion was more valid than her own. Don’t let anyone tell you that what you think doesn’t matter. Stand up and be proud to be King of the Land of You. Take care of the physical body that you have been given. It works hard for you, night and day.
Life Goes On
It seemed impossible to me, on the day that I lost my mum, that other people were carrying on with their lives as if nothing had happened. But life does go on. After many days and nights, you realize you’re not crying every day anymore. Then you feel guilty for feeling better. And finally, you begin to find memories to make you smile instead of making you sad.
Losing someone you love after decades of life is the hardest thing to go through, but as part of that unavoidable circle of life and death, it also teaches us so much. If we are willing to hear it.