For sake of loved ones, get your house in order

Over the last several months, I’ve dealt with death a lot.

My youngest brother died in April. My father-in-law died in October, and a friend’s grandmother passed away in November. The day after Thanksgiving, a close friend who was more like my sister died in an automobile accident.

I’d like to share with you what I’ve realized from all this tragedy: Get your house in order.

I’m not suggesting that you live in fear of death, but I am asking you to do what my 54-year-old friend, Juanita Ann Waller, did for the people who loved her. She left her personal affairs and her apartment in an awesomely organized manner.

I know you’ve heard this advice from me before. I’ve stressed over the years how important it is to have an estate plan. But Juanita’s death has touched me like few others. She was always thinking of her family and friends, and what she left behind is a testimony to her thoughtfulness.

Yes, she had a will, life insurance and the necessary paperwork to take care of her estate. But there was a higher level of organization in her affairs than I’ve ever seen.

Juanita had a place for everything. She cataloged what was in her file cabinet. She had a composition notebook that detailed what was in each cabinet drawer. As a result, when our mutual friends packed up her belongings, we didn’t have to look through her private papers to be able to label the boxes.

She kept binders of her awards and accolades, including a letter to her signed by President Barack Obama, protected behind plastic sheets. She had sent Obama an email saying she was praying for him, and the White House responded.

There wasn’t a single junk drawer in her apartment. There were no stacks of papers on her desk threatening to unleash an avalanche of craziness on the floor. Nor did she have bags of papers stuffed in corners or in her closets.

She didn’t even have a trash can because there wasn’t much waste to throw away. Her closets weren’t overstuffed. Her pantry and refrigerator weren’t overstocked with food that would take months to eat or go to waste. There wasn’t a single item in any room that we could tell went unused for very long.

My friend could have been the spokeswoman for the simplicity movement, which strives to get people to reduce their consumption and material possessions. Her place was so tidy and uncluttered that I wept. It made me ashamed of my personal living space, my cluttered office and my hoarding of things that long ago should have been tossed or donated.

Over the years, I’ve promised myself to get organized. But whenever I clean my office, it’s cluttered again only a few weeks later with piles of papers sitting in stacks on the floor.

Just think about this: If you were to die, how long would it take for people to go through your stuff? How many hours would they have to take off from their jobs to find and organize your personal property? Could they find your will? Where would they look for any instructions on your estate? Have you written down in a secure place the passwords to your computer or phone so friends and family can contact people if you pass away?

I wouldn’t characterize Juanita as obsessive with her orderliness. She never lorded it over anyone or criticized us for our clutter.

No, Juanita was organized for a purpose. She never wanted to cause confusion. Clutter can contribute to a sense of unease because you can’t easily put your hands on the things you need or the things others might need on your behalf. Every year, Juanita would purge her place of unneeded items, another friend recalled.

Juanita kept copious notes in her day planner and in notebooks, to remind herself and others, especially me, of things we needed to take care of. This practice gave comfort to her family who could see their special events or moments documented over the years. No loose paper or sticky notes for her.

As we were boxing up Juanita’s possessions, we all felt embarrassed, mortified. We, in our abundance, saw a woman who kept only what she needed, knowing it was more than enough.

We all pledged to spend some time organizing and getting rid of stuff as a remembrance of Juanita, who gave an abundance of hugs. We promised her that we’d get our houses in order.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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