Learning How to Declutter After My Immigrant Mother’s Sudden Death

Learning to declutter after my immigrant mother's sudden death

“I can’t find Mom, have you heard from her?”

Ten years ago, my sister called me in a panic, because Mom was missing.

Our worst fears came true when police confirmed that she was killed in an accident.

In addition to grieving and planning the funeral, my sister and I had the impossible deadline of clearing her house in 1 week.

Mom was in the process of selling our family home, but nostalgia got in the way of packing.

In order to close the sale, we raced to vacate the place. Our own apartments had little space for keepsakes.

Starting from nothing

Growing up, my parents constantly reminded us that they immigrated to the United States for a better life.

We had to understand what they suffered so we could appreciate our freedom.

Farmwork was a part of Mom’s schooling.  At one notable lunch, her friend left a grain of rice in a bowl.  Horrified at the waste, the farmer smacked her friend with chopsticks.

Mom never dared to make the same mistake.

Initially, Dad’s family lived comfortably, but conditions became bleak.  Dinners were often limited to rice and soy sauce.

I can’t elaborate further, because he would say it’s too 丢脸 (diūliǎn / shameful).

In the United States, my parents started a new life in a studio apartment and a list of possessions that fit a small sheet of paper.

As they worked hard to live the American dream, our inventory remained humble but gradually grew to fill a house with a basement.

We were never hungry.

Then, Mom became a widowed empty-nester, and the quiet rooms amplified her loneliness.

Hoarding remnants of memories

Mom knew she should downsize but didn’t know how.

Besides a few black-and-white photos, she had nothing from her childhood.

She was afraid of regret, of giving up something she had the privilege of owning.

Never wanting to waste money on birthday or holiday gifts, she habitually collected free Ketchup packets, mis-matched coffee mugs, and grocery store bags.

As we cleaned the house, we saw that she clutched on tight to our kid drawings, cassette tapes, expired medicine, broken music box, Chinese newspapers from decades past…all “just in case.”

Meanwhile, her closet had brand-new clothes with tags that she 舍不得穿 (shĕ bù dé chuān / didn’t have the heart to wear).

She couldn’t enjoy new things until she wore out old ones.

Learning how to declutter in one week

Because we had no choice, we became de-cluttering experts that week.

With robot-like efficiency, tears were paused to tackle 3 priorities:

  1. Determine the few things worth keeping
  2. Hold a garage sale
  3. Donate and discard the rest

Through the avalanche of boxes, we swiftly triaged what we could use ourselves, share with our future kids, and fit in my car.

Few items made the cut: bibles, photo albums, some handwritten notes, and dishware that Mom used for daily homemade meals.

I couldn’t take Mom’s wedding dress or Dad’s yearbooks.

But I was so illogically torn about my almost-30-year-old raggedy Winnie-the-Pooh bear and crammed it in my trunk before driving away.

Everything else was sold, donated, or trashed.

Struggles with sentimental clutter

Surprises happen all the time.

In an instant, tragedy can uproot a cherished home.

Despite full awareness of our unpredictable fate, I was still trapped by sentimental clutter.

I tried sorting dozens of photo albums, failing to see the end of blurry and unflattering images that nobody wants to remember.

Due to the astronomical cost of digitizing thousands of prints, those boxes remain in storage today.

But Pooh bear was small and didn’t seem to take up much space.

Since he was extremely musty, and freezing can kill dust mites, I crazily zipped him in a bag and put him in the freezer.

After months of pushing Pooh bear aside to get ice, my husband gently sat me down and said Pooh bear needed to go.

Our children would not need Pooh bear any more than I need my mother’s wedding dress.

Pooh bear was interfering with my ability to move forward and live a healthy life.

The best way to honor my immigrant parents

I can still hear my parents reiterating their reasons for immigration.

They wanted to give their children and grandchildren freedom, to be liberated from past burdens.

So minimizing emotional clutter is one of the best ways I can honor my parents.

On a weekly basis, I organize, donate, and discard.

I’ve learned to take pictures with my mind and recycle most of my children’s cute artwork.

Outgrown baby books and clothes have been redirected to friends.

Superfluous gifts from insistent loved ones are re-gifted or returned without guilt.

Occasionally, I drop my guard and make impulsive decisions, like re-buying my daughter’s beloved lion after she voluntarily gave away most stuffed animals.

But detaching from things of the past is worth the conscientious effort for my family.

I have more time and energy to pray, play outside with my children, serve others, and take care of myself.

I accept that our physical home is temporary, and God has a better place for us all in the future.

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 5:1

More about our family’s journey

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  1. Sorry to hear the news. Thanks for sharing your journey and lessons

  2. You write so beautifully! And what a wonderful personal lesson to share. Thank you.

  3. My minimalist journey was derailed after two kids, but I’m trying to get us back on track. We all have our Pooh bear. Thank you for sharing your story!

    1. Thank you so much for reading <3 It's really hard to keep the clutter down with kids! I keep feeling FOMO especially with school materials!

  4. Nova Lillie says:

    Thank you for sharing these tips. I have been trying to be minimalist-ish as we got to our new place. The move almost killed me and I thought we don’t have a lot of stuff but they sure grow after 3 kids. Seeing you guys laid out the educational toys and books inspire me weekly to go through what we have and think things through on what to buy as well. Much love.

  5. Betty, this was amazing to read, and I especially appreciate your viewpoint of it all from an eternal perspective and from a practical one to serve. Thank you!

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