Who’s Gonna Sort Out My Stuff When I Die?
As I survey my office (aka my bedroom) this morning, I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of dread. I have shelves and shelves of books, stacks of journals and sketchbooks, photo albums, music books, not to mention folders full of articles and essays and stories I’ve written. What’s going to happen to all this stuff when I’m gone?
What about the boxes stored in the closet and under the bed? I can’t even remember what’s in them, but they were valuable enough to keep. And the stuff I’ve stuffed into drawers and cupboards. I’m hyperventilating.
I distract myself by going to my laptop. Check Facebook, check email. Then that’s when it strikes me. What about all this stuff I’ve accumulated online? When I die, who’s going to clean up my online presence? Social media accounts, newsletter subscriptions, apps, email accounts, bank accounts, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and on and on. Close my laptop. I’m having a panic attack.
Wait! Take a breath. I know what to do. We talked about this during the facilitation training I did. It’s called “death cleaning”. It’s part of a good end-of-life plan.
Cleaning up someone’s stuff after they’ve died is not new. People have been doing it for as long as we’ve been accumulating stuff. But in recent years, getting your affairs in order has meant more than just having a will, your powers-of-attorney for health care and finances, an advance care plan, and funeral arrangements. It also means planning to downsize, declutter, and sort out your stuff, I mean, treasures.
The thought of dealing with both our online and offline property can be a little daunting. Many get overwhelmed at the prospect. “I can’t do it,” admitted a client of mine, “I’m just going to let the kids sort it out.” But is it fair to expect our loved ones to clean up after us? Especially when they will be grieving? Won’t they have enough on their minds without wondering what to do about your online property and all that stuff you stuffed under your bed and in your closet?
So why not make a plan? Get a notebook and begin writing some instructions. A little at a time. Look around the room and ask yourself, what do I need to decide on that would be difficult for someone else? Start small — the dresser across the room. Start at the top. There’s a TV and a cable box. Write the name of the cable provider. The TV stays, the cable box gets returned. There’s an empty gift box. Why not give it away? Behind the TV lies a broken wooden flute. Another giveaway or repair. Ok. Start a “give away” box.
Next, I move to the top drawer. Socks and underwear. Time to get rid of what you don’t want or need. And what are these USB cables stuck at the back for? They’ve been there for more than a year. Into the giveaway box, they go. On to my T-shirt drawer. Again, out with the old. What does Marie Kondo say? If it doesn’t bring you joy when you’re holding it in your hands, out it goes. I’m enjoying this exercise. Less than an hour later, I’ve culled the contents of my chest of drawers. And amazingly, I feel good. Time to reward me with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Tomorrow, I’ll move on to the adjacent bookcase and begin pulling out books that I’ve read and will no longer read again. Why not gift them to friends or donate to a charity? I can do it.
Suddenly, I’m calm again. Minor victories add up.
I still haven’t gotten to the closet or under the bed, but that can wait for the time being. Start with what you can see.
What about the online stuff? Well, fortunately, most social media companies are there to help. Facebook, for example, offers the option of “memorializing” your site. You appoint a friend to administer your site after you’ve gone. They can maintain it (with limitations) or they can delete it. To find out how, go to your settings and check under “personal and security”. Other social media accounts offer a similar service. Google does too, so you can delete all your Google accounts like Gmail, Google Drive and Workspace, Google Photos, and more all in one go.
For your online banking and shopping accounts, you’ll need to make sure you have your passwords and related information in a safe place so that your executor or other designated person can access your accounts. Many people will make a son or daughter a joint account holder to allow access in the event of your passing or lengthy stay in a hospital.
If all this still seems overwhelming, help is at hand. Accredited end-of-life planning facilitators like myself can coach you on making a plan and “hold your hand” as you make your way through cleaning, decluttering, and downsizing. Having that accountability can be the difference between getting the work done and giving up. “Knowing I had someone who cared that I got things sorted,” said a recent client, “really helped keep me going.”
One of my colleagues, Diane DeVivo, has been offering online workshops on “Death Cleaning” as well as personal coaching to support women (and men) in the planning process. Diane’s an expert in helping others sort out their belongings. To learn more about Diane’s work and upcoming workshops, go to www.dianedevivo.com.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have faced the sudden demise of their loved ones. Most times, their loved ones had no time to make preparations, and those left behind have faced sorting out the belongings and online property left behind. When families and friends are grieving, the last thing on their minds is sorting out all that stuff. Yet, it has to be done.
So if you feel overwhelmed at the amount of stuff you have and want to save your loved ones from the onerous task of cleaning up after you, why not ask for help with making a plan? After all, it’s always easier to undertake a task successfully when you know someone has your back. Ask an internet-savvy friend if you could appoint them as your “digital legacy contact” and provide them with the information and instructions on what to do with your online accounts.
Ask a friend or hire an end-of-life planning facilitator like me to help you create a plan and support you through to its completion, or at least until you feel you’re on top of things.
I also offer support for anyone seeking to create a comprehensive end-of-life plan or any aspect of it, including preparation for a will, powers-of-attorney, advance care plan, funeral arrangements, and legacies. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a short, no-obligation consultation to learn how I can help you.
Finally, Diane DeVivo and I have started a new podcast entitled “Death-Defying Discussions” in which we, and often a guest, discuss death, dying, grief, and end-of-life planning. Listen wherever you download your favorite podcasts. You can also join our free, monthly, online discussions where you can share your thoughts and feelings about any matter related to death. We feel that the more we can feel free about talking about death, the freer we are to live life to the full. These discussions are free and held at the end of the month. Check on Eventbrite or go to www.myendoflifeplan.ca for dates and times.
Michael Williams, Ph.D.
Accredited End-of-Life Planning Educator and Facilitator