Grief and clutter series introduction

“I kept his shoes. He would need them, if he was to come back.”

Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking” 

My grandmother, circa 1945

When we lose a loved one we are only left with three things: our memories of them, the ways they changed our lives for the better, and the stuff they left behind.

The stuff they left behind is the only tangible thing on this list. This is what makes “grief clutter” so difficult to part with. It is the most emotional kind of clutter there is.

I’m very much still learning to deal with grief clutter. I was closer to my grandmother than I am to my father. She passed away over two years ago and yet I still have a terrible time bringing myself to even think about getting rid of many of Gram’s things.

I’m going to spend more than one post on this topic because hoarding is a coping mechanism in my family. Gram was very involved in all of our lives and nothing we’ve had to cope with in the last few years has been as difficult as her death. I know this event plays a role in my mother’s clutter-related behavior and mine. But whether or not you are a hoarder or the child of hoarders, losing a loved one is hard. Parting with their belongings is not easy.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be writing posts about dealing with clutter following the loss of a loved one. Some will be about strategies for parting with this “grief clutter,” and some will be about hoarding as a coping mechanism for grief and other stresses. Hopefully this series won’t be depressing but instead will help us realize that the truly important things our loved ones leave us with are the intangible ones.  

What objects have you held onto from family and friends you’ve lost? What have you gotten rid of? Why those objects?

Moving out of a hoarder’s home: what does and doesn’t work

I’m 28. I still haven’t moved out of my parents’ house.

In a way it didn’t make sense before because I’ve moved eight times since 2001. And now that we’re buying a condo I’m moving again! Yay! Argh.

Since we’re staying put for a while it’s time to grow up and empty out my old room. But my parents are hoarders, so this is easier said than done.

Exhibit A: their basement (there’s a bar under there somewhere)

Exhibit B: Their offices

Alright, the living room isn’t so bad:

But my own room needs help.

About half of that is my sister’s and my mother’s stuff. But that means the other half is mine. I was a hoarder too. Oh I want to cry.

How do you move out of a hoarder’s home?

These strategies DON’T work:

Trying to throw things out.Your trash will be edited and you will find it right back where it started. Hoarders can’t bear to see anything go to waste, particularly if it has meaning to the person it belonged to, even if it has no meaning to them. When I went home last spring I tried to purge a 55-gallon trash can’s worth of primary school projects and souvenirs. I found about half of the items back in my bedroom the next time I returned. 

Removing everything all at once. The sudden substantial loss will be easily noticed by the hoarder. It will also add to their stress and make them more defensive. They’ll work harder to keep the stuff around and this will make life harder for you.

Trying to tackle the clutter while the hoarder is around. They will notice what you’re doing, and they will panic.

These strategies do work for me:

Pack up anything and everything and take it off the premises. Then dispose of it where the hoarders can’t see you and where they won’t find the items.

Get your friends and neighbors to help you. Quietly explain the problem to a few neighbors or friends that you trust. Ask them for a little space in their trash cans so you can discard the items you need to be rid of. They will likely be more than happy to help. The holidays are not a good time to try this though, as most of our neighbors weren’t around and I didn’t want to interrupt those who were.

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!

What makes this all so frustrating is the amount of energy it takes. There’s only so much we can fit into our car.  There are only so many times we drive up to Philly from DC each year. It’s exhausting to have to do all of this just to throw things in the trash in another state. But as you’ll see in the coming posts, I did get rid of some stuff and it’s better than nothing!

Just remember — you’re moving OUT not in with a hoarder. It’s hard to get the stuff out and keep your sanity. But leaving will keep you more sane than staying.

Musing on going home for the holidays…to a house of hoarders

i don't know who holds copyright on this. no infringement intended.

My parents are hoarders. My dad’s mostly one of those “I can’t bear to throw anything away because it it’s wasteful” hoarders. His case is so mild that I’m not sure he’s a hoarder so much as a compulsive saver. It’s only one week of newspapers completely covering his half of the dining room table, not weeks of them, for example.

My mother does have an honest-to-gosh hoarding problem and is the one of the pair that I’m truly worried about. She struggles most with the emotional attachment to completely usesless/worthless objects and feeling too overwhelmed and ashamed to do anything about it (I doubt I’m helping with that one by writing this post. I’m sorry, mom.) She’ll buy anything cute even if there isn’t space for it. Stuff is love for her.

My parents have a basement that is the size of our entire apartment. It’s filled up to my shoulders with boxes, laundry baskets, old furniture, piles of magazines, catalogs, books, videos, childhood games, you name it. It was the coolest room in the house during the many years we didn’t have air conditioning. And it was completely unusable.

Their two in-home offices fit similar descriptions. Last time I opened the fridge there wasn’t an inch of space. When I finally did locate the six bottles of salad dressing I was looking for, all of them were two years expired. I could go on but I think you get the point.

Understanding How We Cope With Hoarders

Dealing with the hoarders in your life seems to fit the pattern of the Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s five stages of grief. I’m realizing that understanding where you are in the process makes a huge difference in how you choose to react when you return home to hoarders.  Where do you fit? Let’s see where I am right now: 

  • denial. No, my parents don’t have a problem. It’s normal that I was never allowed to have friends over as a kid because the house was a disaster, right?” Ah, the ignorance of my childhood and college years.
  • anger. This happened when I visited over the summer after the salad dressing incident when I didn’t feel like I could even eat safely in my parents’ house anymore.  I threw a fit and that puts it mildly. My mother was in tears. Not helpful.
  • bargaining. Funny, when I went home in November (first time home since the salad dressing blow-up), I came home and I could see the surfaces on the first floor of the house again. Huh? Apparently my begging and bargaining over the phone between these two visits had temporarily convinced my mother to try to clean up in order to please me (or to shut me up, take your pick). And it worked, until I realized that the junk had mostly moved to other parts of the house.
  • depression. This part I’ve been navigating with the help of a wonderful psychotherapist. Realizing that my mother is dragging herself into a deeper hole and that I’m not helping has been a struggle, especially since I’ve been dealing with my own self-destructive coping behavior. But my psychologist insists that I have to choose the next step to be happy when I go home.
  • acceptance. My mother is probably never going to stop being a hoarder. My father is no help. I’ve never gone home with this attitude before. But if I want to actually have a good time and not be stressed while I’m away from my home, I need to make this happen.

How can I accept that my parents are hoarders? My psychologist suggested mulling over these thoughts:

  • You can’t change other people. 
  • Hoarders do not hoard to spite you or make you miserable.
  • Hoarding is a psychological coping mechanism.
  •  You have every right to carve out a physical and psychological space that is safe and comfortable for you.
  • You have done all you can for them already. They have made the choice not to get help and they have chosen to live with the consequences.
  • This is not your fault.
  • You are not your parents.
  • Parents aren’t always right. 
  • You need to do what is best for you. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
  • Relax. And leave the house! Go have fun on your own.

We’ll see what happens. I hope these strategies will make my holiday (and yours) a little easier. If you have a family member who is a hoarder, I’d love to hear your strategies for coping with a trip home for the holidays.