Most of us are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (from On Death and Dying 1969). Away from home and unable to do any serious downsizing, other than reading some old family letters I brought with me and have yet to touch, I contemplated my downsizing journey, the grieving process that can accompany letting go of parts of one’s life, and my changing attitudes. I wondered if my emotional responses followed Ross’s grief paradigm. Realizing that her five stages don’t necessarily follow a specific chronology, but may reappear in different forms, I came up with the following more generalizable set of parallels. Can you relate?
DENIAL. Initially, after a burst of activity, we may find ourselves procrastinating and avoiding downsizing. After all, we aren’t moving for ages or maybe not at all. Why do we even need to undertake this gargantuan and overwhelming task? I’ve heard some people say, “Let someone else deal with my things after I’m gone.” Or, “There is nothing I am ready to part with now.” Or, “I’ll do it when I need to.” Denial can also push us into doing insignificant tasks that make us feel busy but don’t do much to move the project forward. Sound familiar?
ANGER. I know I’ve experienced bouts of fury when facing the need to downsize or downsizing roadblocks. Sometimes the anger is directed at myself: “Why have I been such a saver/packrat all my life?” Sometimes, at others: “Why didn’t my mother do a better job curating her life so that I don’t feel like I have to do it?” General dismay and discouragement are common, too. “Why is it so hard to find good homes for things?” “This is taking up too much of my valuable time. I should just set a fire to the whole lot.” A good walk may be sufficient to calm us down and help us regain perspective. Sometimes it's a matter of realizing that "something's wrong besides what's the matter," as a friend of mine used to say. Or, anger may be an indication that we need to take a longer break from downsizing.
BARGAINING. For me, bargaining results in endless list-making, scanning documents, and photographing objects to keep them alive in some way. Is this a bad approach? Not at all. I’ve argued for this tactic in previous posts. But one can be too obsessive about it, as I believe I’ve been. Do I need a list of every book I’ve given donated? Even for tax purposes, a count would be sufficient. In reality, will I go back and look at all those lists? Do I need to find a “good home” for everything my mother made, or can I be more selective? Bargaining is the stage I find myself most stuck in—a relentless perfectionism that slows me down and endangers my emotional well-being if I don’t step back.
DEPRESSION. It’s easy to get bogged down and discouraged, leading to periods of reduced motivation and activity and self-flagellation. “I’m a bad person because I can’t seem to devote sufficient time to my downsizing, can’t seem to let go of things, don’t seem to get anything done.” We can become anti-social during such periods, just when seeing friends and sharing stories might be a good anti-dote. It’s especially important during the long stretches of slow downsizing to maintain our other life activities and not to give downsizing an outsized place on our calendar.
ACCEPTANCE. Here’s where we’d like to be—realistic and adaptable; coming up with doable solutions; living with the ups and downs and stressors of downsizing (the inevitable disappointments when we can’t find a home for something important, when a potential dealer lets us down, when we can't find something we are sure we'd saved); staying mindful; acknowledging and celebrating our successes; and feeling some sense of hope that we will sufficiently meet our goals.
I don’t mean to trivialize real grief that results from trauma and loss. But as I talk to other people who are attempting to downsize and also step back to consider my own reactions, I realize that disposing of a lifetime of things that contribute to our personal stories is huge for many of us. It’s normal to feel a gamut of emotions, and perhaps if we can accept that fact, we will be able to work our way towards acceptance, even if all doesn’t go as desired.
Images above are all from paintings by my mother, in another attempt to honor her work as an artist.