I can remember my aunt making biscuits in the jadeite bowl handed down to me, and my go-to necklace comes from her stash of vintage costume jewelry. These items make me think of her every time I use them.
But for other family heirlooms, the history is foggier. Did my great-aunt’s pressed glass sugar and creamer end up in my collection, or did I get passed along a thrifted find? This is the subject of an ongoing family debate that comes to mind when Katarina Blom says to me, “There’s so much of your family’s history that might just evaporate.”
Blom, a Swedish happiness psychologist who starred on the Peacock show The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, has a lot of experience on this topic both professionally and personally. And, as much as this art is about preparing for death and enjoying one’s last chapter by ditching the clutter, an important piece is preserving the stories behind family heirlooms while your loved ones are still alive. Still, the conversation can be delicate.
October being Family History Month, Blom has teamed up with the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) on the campaign Preserving Your Legacy, One Piece at a Time. Not only does she want to help families ensure their stories are passed down, but also, “I would love for everyone to be able to talk about death and loss a bit more casually,” she says. Country Living sat down with Blom to get her advice.
Start the conversation.
“The big misleading thing about death and loss is that no one talks about it, but we all know that it will happen. It can be such a relief to just talk about it in as nondramatic a way as possible,” says Blom.
The good news is that the more we talk about it, the less awkward it becomes. She recalls a friend who told her that questions like “How about that big chest of drawers over there? Who’s going to get that one?” became as natural as asking “Do you want milk in your coffee?” when death cleaning with an elderly parent.
“Of course, not everyone is up for it,” says Blom. “I’ve talked to my father a number of times about this, and he seems kind of fine to talk about it, but he also is kind of quick to end the conversation before we sorted everything out. So I think it’s also about having patience and bringing up the subject at different occasions.”
If you need a little motivation, keep in mind the family history that could be lost if you don’t tackle the subject.
“Maybe you don’t even have to talk about death in the beginning. You can just ask about what are the items that are valuable to them, or carry a lot of dear memories, and try to harvest those stories and those memories. And then from there, that could also be an entryway to talk about ‘What would you like concerning your end of life planning?’ for example.”
Come together and connect.
Blom advises starting by collecting 10 items with emotional value. Then—this part’s important—take a fika break. Fika is a revered Swedish cultural tradition that involves coffee and something to eat, such as a cinnamon bun, but it’s also a time to connect and reflect.
After all, the process can be emotional, and “when we do the fika in real life,” Blom says, “this is really an oasis for you to connect, laugh, get perspective, and blow off some steam in the best way through laughter.”
The pause that a fika break provides is helpful in processing. “It’s so easy to skip these pauses in life, but it’s really a moment to lift your gaze, take a breath, and evaluate, ‘Where am I heading? Am I happy with this direction?'” says Blom.
It’s also an ideal time for storytelling. If you need an icebreaker, Blom recommends trying conversation cards that will prompt your loved one to share memories about their life and the people, places, and events who shaped their course. Recently, she and her aunt, who is in the process of death cleaning, gathered for fika and tried this activity.
“She’s 72, but she’s smart doing this before she gets too old and too tired, and it was so lovely. We had the best time, and I heard stories about her childhood that I never heard before.”
Record your family’s legacy.
When a family heirloom is passed on, consider what are the hopes and lessons that it will give to the next generation. “Walk around and write notes on the history of each item, what it stands for and why it is being given to the next generation. Attach each note to each heirloom.”
You might be surprised at the family stories you uncover. Among Blom’s family heirlooms, for example, is a medal from the Swedish king given to her paternal great-grandmother who, after tragically losing her husband, supported her family by becoming the first female children’s dentist in Sweden.
Learning and recording these stories can also help determine who is the appropriate person to receive the heirloom. I asked Blom about my own family’s tendency to call dibs, which can cause some bickering. “Maybe you need to hear the stories before you can decide who should have dibs,” she advised. (PS—I also learned that pax is the Swedish word for dibs.)
Switch between emotional tasks with nonemotional ones.
Keep in mind that going through nostalgic items can be emotionally charged, so you might start with something easier, “like obvious trash,” Blom says. (Trash is one of the three categories you should have in your sorting station when going through possessions, along with a donate pile and a box for sentimental items that are not used every day).
“That way,” she says, “You feel very fulfilled, like, oh, look at this pile, and I’m getting rid of it. I can breathe better now. And then you start that momentum, which is so important to have the energy to keep going. The hardest things to do are obviously the important things.”
Another pro tip: Death cleaning is a process and takes time, so even if your loved one’s (or your own) space is small, dedicate a corner or one area for the sorting station where it’s okay that it’s messy, Blom says.
Terri Robertson is the Senior Editor, Digital, at Country Living, where she shares her lifelong love of homes, gardens, down-home cooking, and antiques.