Life, Death & Laundry


I hate clutter. Piles of stuff around the house make me feel overwhelmed, out-of-control and claustrophobic, which is somewhat of a problem as I am a naturally untidy person, perfectly capable of turning a room from pristine to pit within seconds.

Putting stuff in cupboards doesn’t really solve my Clutter Fear either; a bit like the hair dye on my roots, it simply masks the reality. You may think I have tidy rooms and dark hair, but I know what is rammed behind the doors just as I know what grey lies beneath the dye. I also know that at some point I have to deal with both these issues.

Even other people’s clutter can have me hyperventilating. I recently had a peek into Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower’s loft; it was packed with stuff. I felt quite ill just looking at it, which was completely irrational because it wasn’t even my stuff. When I was told that there was another loft equally as jammed to the rafters I became quite hysterical and had to hit the sherry bottle to calm down.

Truth be told, I am in danger of becoming a hoarder, though hopefully not in the same league as those who appear on television programmes about extreme hoarding, the sort where someone living in a huge house is confined to the downstairs toilet because they haven’t thrown out any newspapers, soup tins or even kitty litter for two decades. It’s both sad and yet fascinating to watch the Environmental Health team go in and start removing what any ‘normal’ person can see is filth and junk, whilst The Hoarder, anxious and desperate, tries to dive into the skip to retrieve old copies of The Times, now rigid with dried cat urine.

Before my husband died, I used to watch these programmes and wonder how on earth anyone could get themselves into a position where they became emotionally attached to a plastic bag full of till receipts. It was only after JS died that I noticed a link between the hoarders. In each case, the hoarding started after a loss: a parent, a child, a spouse, a home. The hoarding may have escalated unchecked beyond the initial loss, but loss seemed to be the starting gun followed by depression, anxiety and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Hoarders feel trapped by their possessions, yet fear their loss and the safety and comfort they represent.

I now understand this hoarding behaviour in a way I never imagined I would.

When JS drowned, I was convinced that by about the six-month anniversary of his death, everything would be sorted. I don’t mean that my grief would be sorted (if only it could be that easy!), but that JS’s estate and businesses would be wound up, his clothes shipped off to any homeless men that needed Armani suits and Hermès ties, and his golf paraphernalia listed on Freecycle. I had plans to finish the decorating that had been started before he died, clear out and close down the office-storage facility, and get back to writing the book that my publishers were waiting for.

Have I accomplished any of those tasks I set myself in the first six months?

Dear reader, next month it will be two years since JS died, and I haven’t even washed the last sheets he slept in at home; they are still in the laundry basket along with his dirty washing: a golf shirt; a T-shirt; boxer shorts and some mismatched socks. There wasn’t much laundry because it was done before we went on holiday. Speaking of holidays, JS’s suitcase is still unopened. It stands in his study next to his desk. I haven’t even taken the luggage tags off. I read about someone opening their suitcase and finding a colony of lizards inside. When I eventually get round to opening it, perhaps I had better open it in the garden, just in case some scaly beast slithers out.

But I digress.

I wouldn’t want you to think that for two years I have slept between the same unwashed sheets. Grief does weird things to folk, but even for me that would be taking weirdness to a whole new level. I think it was around the three-month post-death point that a friend tried to change the bed, whereupon I flung myself on John Lewis’s finest non-iron bedlinen, clutched it like a Lioness protecting her cub and snarled, “Leave them alone.” The ridiculous thing was that by that point they didn’t smell like JS, they just smelt of my sweat and tears and whatever wildlife excrement The Hound (now sleeping with me) had rolled in. A compromise was reached: the sheets came off, but they were put into the washing basket on top of JS’s laundry, all to be washed another day, a day which two years down the line has yet to arrive.

Nothing has moved, nothing has been cleared, nothing has been thrown away other than a couple of golf videos, a tube of Deep Heat and some fish oil capsules, and only then because the latter two began to ooze smelly gunk.

Do I go to the washing basket, bury my head in the sheets and underwear and sob? No, I don’t. I open it, get out my washing and then seeing the sheets, aka The Divide of Death, feel depressed, frustrated and angry with myself that I don’t seem to be able to fire up the Bosch and load the bedding into its drum along with a capsule of Persil Bio. I feel the same about JS’s wardrobe, his bedside cabinet, his golf clubs. The list is endless. Others have said that I will know when the time is right, that one day I will wake up and simply fly through the house in a whirlwind of black bin bags and charity sacks. I am not so sure; I have previous form dealing with the possessions of lost loved ones.

It is ten years in March since my friend Karen died. Little did either of us know when she walked out of the office we shared that she would never be coming back. After she died, I guarded her desk in the same way I protected those used sheets. Everything had to remain just as Karen had left it: her hairbrush matted with golden-blonde strands of hair; Post-It notes with scribbled messages stuck around her computer screen; a smudge of pearly pink blusher on her phone handset. At first, it was comforting to come in and see her things left exactly as she left them; it felt as if she had just popped out to M&S for a prawn sandwich. Then things changed. Karen’s abandoned hairbrush was no longer comforting, but a brutal reminder of the gap she left in our lives. I started to dread the emptiness of our office, and yet I couldn’t bear to even move a pencil in her desk-tidy.

It took five years to clear out Karen’s things, and only then because it was forced upon me as we moved offices. Right up until the burly removal men arrived, I longed to have an English Hertitage Blue Plaque on the wall outside the office and her desk listed as a site of historical interest. For once, I’m not joking.

Just before Christmas, I tried to start decluttering JS’s things. Websites advised using the mantra: If it’s not beautiful, useful or sentimental, chuck it. The problem was, I found the most ridiculous things sentimental.

I started with the best of intentions. If I couldn’t clear out JS’s wardrobe, paperwork would be no problem, surely? I bought several recycling sacks from a company that promised (for a fee) to shred paperwork in the street using a shredder on a lorry. I was ecstatic at just how easy it would be, and started to work my way through files of financial information with gusto, tossing letters, receipts and bank and credit card statements into the sack.

But what I have here? The receipt for a meal we had at that lovely restaurant! I’d completely forgotten we’d even been there. Perhaps I’ll just keep it to remind me. And look at this entry on the Amex statement. It’s for that Fawlty Towers-style hotel we stayed in! The one next to the prison where the heating kept us awake and sweating all night and I had a strop because they kept trying to fob me off with a flat champagne cocktail. I couldn’t remember its name, but now I can. What if I forget it again? I’d better keep the statement, just in case.

And so it went on…

Despite constantly being sidetracked, the sacks filled up, but then I thought, What if I’ve missed something? What if there is something important in there? When it’s gone it’s gone. I’ll never get it back!

I sat in front of the television and sifted back through all the rubbish I had thrown out. I found new things I wanted to keep, nothing legally important, just more memory joggers.

A few days later I did exactly the same thing all over again.

The sacks are still in the house.

Forget the ‘big’ things like JS’s clothes, shoes and sporting equipment, I am compelled to keep things I don’t even want to keep: the boarding pass from British Airways for the nightmare flight back to England without my husband; the return train ticket from London to Gatwick when JS joked with the guard that we would be coming back together, “Unless something terrible happens.” We collected hundreds of matchbooks from the days when hotels and restaurants gave them out. I find these matchbooks incredibly painful as each one reminds me of happy times and the sort of life I no longer live, but throwing them away feels as if I am throwing away my old life and I simply can’t do it. I feel trapped by the possessions associated with my past life. I may not be physically confined to the downstairs bathroom with towering piles of junk around me, but mentally I feel trapped. I know others trot out lines about memories being kept in your heart, not your home, but I seem to need proof that my old life existed: We did this! We did that! We went here! We travelled there!

I’m sobbing as I write those last few lines because I realise that the only person I’m trying to convince of my past life is me. Only two years, and yet it all seems so long ago and far away and so utterly alien from the life I live now, it feels as if those twenty-three years of living and working and travelling with JS, half my life, were a figment of my imagination.

JS did exist, he must have done.

I have his bank statements to prove it.

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16 Comments

Nicholas Butler
Reply January 29, 2013

I know exactly how you feel. I'm only a year and a bit in.
I've had ban my mother in law from throwing anymore
Of my darling Andrea's clothes away.

Marieke
Reply January 29, 2013

Helen, I always feel better when you post. Obviously not because I like it that you are sad. But it makes me feel that it is OK what I am doing. Someone I feel is walking a very similar path to me is doing the same thing. That must mean I am not entirely weird. We are doing it right. And it is perfectly OK to be sad and happy at the same time in your life.

Although I do not hoard like you do (heck, I threw half of JD's clothes in a box the day she died), I am reluctant to dispose of the last box of clothes. They have been stored at a friend's house for nearly 2 years due to lack of space. It has remained unopened. I simply forgot about it. This week I had to retrieve the box due to moving house. I opened it. It smelled musty. I should give the clothes away. I have not much of an emotional connection to them. But still......... If they are not in the way, surely might as well just leave them in the box in my basement. No real need to get rid of them. Which then leads to all kinds of soul searching: Why do I want to keep them? For me? I never look at them. For others? Who? Because I can not bear the thought of someone else wearing JD's clothes? Doesn't that mean I am still grieving far more than I thought I was? Is this proof I am nowhere near as far along the path as I think I am? Will Girlfriend expect me to throw them away and think I am clinging to JD if I don't?

Until I have the answer to those questions, I will just keep the box in my basement. Where it will sit untouched, and most likely forgotten about, for the next two years or so.

Your last paragraph is so touching. I know exactly how that feels. *hugs*

Gill
Reply January 29, 2013

Alas Helen, rambling as we are towards the 9th anniversary of that awful event, ill admit to still having his slippers under the bedside cabinet, a box of his everyday clothes at the bottom of my wardrobe and 'all the company papers ' literally ALL of them ...... Well you have to keep them for 7yrs for tax purposes don't you? Hummm not convinced having been told the principal director had died the HMRC would be cold enough to come and do a 7yr inspection ... But in reality that was my reasoning ..... So what happened at 7yrs nothing there was no magic switch in my head that said that's it they could be dumped now :( so alas there they all still sit, a piece of paper flutters to the floor when I open a cupboard in the office, a receipt, a phone number and I wonder if I claimed the vat on it or if that customer was called back or if need they had their plumbing/heating problem sorted, but it gets a cursory glance and replaced in the cupboard!

I tell a lie, the house is on the market and I have de cluttered tonnes of stuff...... Anything from that previous life, belonging to him, not a thing, not a single thing ...... Memories are wonderful things but sometimes they can hold us trapped in our grief. However I am no expert on how and when to do these things! :/

G xx

Charlie
Reply January 29, 2013

Hi Helen, It's all so true. It'll be three years for me in March. I am on the brink of attacking the cupboard full of Gavin's clothes, and emptying the suitcase he had with him abroad when he died. No doubt I will continue to put it off... I keep hoping I will get that moment where it just feels like time.. Thanks again for a great post. Cx

SETI
Reply January 29, 2013

Hi H,

Not our usual mode of discourse but these things need an airing don't they?
I hear and read about others ways of dealing with the "stuff" issue and the more I absorb, the firmer I become in my conclusion; it doesn't matter. They are gone.
Sound harsh? I don't mean it to sound so. I was at one extreme. Debbie died, as you know we knew it was coming so it wasn't a shock in the surprise way (but that's another string of discussion) so within the first week I had sorted out her clothes into three categories. (1) Must keep - for our daughter to decide on in later years, clothes she particularly identified with her Mum's style. (2) Keep to give away to friends - Deb collected extravagant scarves! I gave one to each of her close friends and women of the family as a personal keepsake (tears are flowing right now...) And (3) Charity shop fodder.
I had the stair lift removed and the hospital bed taken away - everything was put back to how it was BEFORE. That is the key.
So, within a week the wardrobe was bare and vacpaks stored. Paperwork followed as each was resolved until I have nothing but photos and medical reports etc. All her books and DVDs/CDs went to her sister or Cancer Research.
Sounds draconian doesn't it? Maybe so but I felt better. Why? All the care paraphernalia just reminded me of the final months, it not being there was to reset the house to happier times. Her stuff? I will admit I was terrified that if I didn't do it now, I never would. All I have on show now are a few photos and ornaments she chose but my memories are still as intense and happy, she burns bright in my life and the children's.
As you also know, that hasn't stopped me from "moving on" - I hate that phrase – to find love and comfort where I had assumed there would be none. Such things bring with it other problems both related and unrelated, but that's another story.

megan
Reply January 29, 2013

Oh I know that - the "but what if there's something in here that would be - something?!" Memory devices, evidence of life. Insane how it feels like the real life was only imagined, it is so clearly not here now.

xo

Dawn
Reply January 29, 2013

Helen, I always get a sense of relief when I read your blog. Yes I am crazy but I am not alone. I have just remembered when I came home after burying Paul I went through the recycling bin and lifted out the last bottle of beer he had drank in our home. I kept this under the sink for two years. I never brought it out to look at it, did catch occasional glimpses when looking for cleaning stuff but I never touched it. I couldn't. I couldn't get rid of these things, I need them to trigger the memories I so easily forget. Or is it because I am convinced he will be home soon if I keep everything as it was?
Well I just don't want to keep this stuff anymore, but saying it isn't the same as doing it ;-(
Recently I have been binning things. I mean tiny things. His jars of favourite food that I never touched, bottle of his homebrew, some receipts. Tiny little things I can live without. But the only reason I have been able to let them go is I take a photograph of them. In years to come I can look at this photo and see his homebrew, remember how excited he was, how foul it tasted, him pouring a bottle and placing it in the fridge so that on Monday night when he came home he'd have a chilled bottle waiting for him. That bottle sat in our fridge for over two years waiting for him to come home. But you know? I smile as I remember the homebrew adventure. I don't need that bottle to remember that time. But hopefully if I ever forget the photograph will trigger all those happy memories of my beautiful boy. I still can't touch our campervan or his clothes or toiletries. But maybe if I can get rid of the tiny stuff the big stuff might come more easily?
God knows, hugs anyway.
Dawn

Cicely Davey
Reply January 29, 2013

I so relate to all of this. 8 years next week and I am trying to declutter to sell the house. His dressing gown is still hanging on the back of our bedroom door. His slippers are still under he chair in the bedroom, special ones e bought in Sweden and was told they would 'last a lifetime'. Will I throw them out? Probably not, they will end up in a storage unit until i manage to sell the house!

Sophie Day
Reply January 30, 2013

Pure pain, and how does anyone ever know what to do with these things? In Egypt I had to make a decision to leave most of Luke's things as I was alone and could only carry so much home (and it was all waterlogged so really, really heavy...). I regret some of what I left but also that I was forced to leave it. Bag had to be unpacked pronto before everything rotted, so I don't have the suitcase problem. But the few things I returned with are still at my parents house in a drawer under the spare bed.

Back home I did some sorting after about a year I think. I think I was a bit ruthless. But now I still have a box of clothes and some other things, and am at a loss as to what to do with it. A box of his enormous shoes are in the attic. I can't go near that box. I know exactly the feeling of wondering why I am keeping all this stuff yet being unable to get rid of it. Until two weeks ago Luke's toothbrush was still in the cup in the bathroom. I brought that back from Egypt. I finally decided that little things like that should have a place, but maybe not at the forefront of everyday life now. So I found an old favourite bag of his and have put in there his sunglasses, toothbrush, a book he gave me and some clothes. There is almost nothing left apart from about 200 CD's. Soon after the accident (first year - 18 months) his sister visited a couple of times (never previously, in the 6 years we shared this house) and quickly asked for things that reminded her of their childhood. I couldn't bear the upheaval of seeing these fixtures of my home being taken away but also couldn't bear the angst associated with refusing. So I let it go. Only a few items but he was always a man who could move house in a car. So these few items were nearly everything he had. I still haven't worked out how I feel about losing those things but I have concluded that I can't keep it all.

Replying to your posts is cathartic, and I must thank you for that. I am just so sorry that you and all your followers are also going through this hell.

I realise the anniversary is coming up and wish you love and strength for getting through and past it as best you can. It is important to feel sad and desperate and to engage with the grief, but I also know it is distressing and exhausting. So a virtual hug for you PG.
xx
x
x

    Emma
    Reply January 31, 2013

    I related most to your reply Sophie...

    2 years next month for me and I am at the point of having a spare room full of Mark's things, his clothes and the things that were 'our's like cards, postcards etc..

    At present I am in quite a funk with everything.. contract at work finished in December so I am busy looking for work but am sick of being told I have great experience and skills and interview well...then not getting the flipping job!

    I have more time to think, and just of late this has been exhausting. I to had no choice but to get rid of some things of Mark's as circumstance with moving meant I had to. Most things just got put into boxes and shoved in storage... but to save myself £175 per month that was emptied out by myself and new partner (is he still new one year on?) and bought back into the spare room.

    I feel like a I have a Mark mountain, and only I can move it.. but I can honestly say I don't have the strength to deal with it...

    I'm tired of this balancing act, of being happy in my relationship now, but having so much loss in my heart for Mark...
    I feel he is getting further and further away, and I just want to talk to him

    I have normally faced everything head on, but I am losing my fight to do that now.. who knows if it will come back?

    xxx

Linz
Reply January 30, 2013

Oh Helen,
It was 2 years for me last Friday... I thought it would be OK, I went on holiday with a random stranger that I met in an airport in Peru - of course I was going to be OK, I wouldn't book a whole holiday with a man I'd met once, over the anniversary if I wasn't OK, would I....?
But your words at the end of the blog are almost making me cry now, as last friday that was exactly how I felt - 2 years is a WORLD away. I would NEVER have gone on holiday with a random guy before that... Is that a bad thing? Perhaps not, but I can never go back to how I was before.
On the 17th January it was 2 years since James was rushed into hospital and never woke up, and the thing that made me most sad was I couldn't remember how we had sepnt the last night together, I couldn't remember what we had last said to each other. I have come a long way.. Too far? I don't know.
xx

KimBoo York (@kimboo_york)
Reply February 1, 2013

Oh, I get this. The only reason my parents' bedlinens got washed after they died was that I had to move out of the house and everything had to go. 17 years later, my mother's unwashed pillowcase sits folded at the bottom on my linens drawer. I never touch it. But it's there.

I call this the "Troy" syndrome, actually: your history with JS is your own personal mythology, and though it really did happen, you are the sole rememberer and the rest is threatened to be lost to the sands of time. We cling to the "archeological proof" that our loved on really existed and is a part of our history. <3

Karen W
Reply February 6, 2013

I'm the opposite! 5 months in and apart from a few clothes of Steve's in his wardrobe everything has been moved out of our bedroom....

Back when i first got with Steve we had bed "arguments" we were in my double bed and he thought i took up more than my share, so one night as we were snuggling down and arguing on who had the most room, he got out of bed got some parcel tape and taped it down the middle of the bed and said "right we shall see who is over that line in the morning"...

Well i won that one but his answer to this was "well i'm bigger than you so I should have more space" We went and bought a kingsize bed....

I have just downsized to a double bed, and cleared out the last of his 100! pairs of white trainers from under said bed.

They haven't gone far just to the garage at the moment waiting for the nice weather for me to sort them and his clothes out....

Felt good and bad, and now my fight for space in my new double bed is with the mut who seems to think he is my new husband, maybe i need to get the parcel tape out again....

Karen

Julia Cho
Reply February 16, 2013

I too need proper evidence that my old life was real.

Lizzie Wallis
Reply March 8, 2013

My husband was a hoader, and your comment about this behaviour starting with a loss was a bit of a revelation. i think it was perhaps the loss of his mother 30 odd years ago that triggered this behaviour.

My sister has came up to stay with me virtually every month since hubby died, and I found her help enormously beneficial - in fact I couldn't have found new homes for his stuff without her. It's like she gave me permission to let things go. It was too overwhelming a task for me to tackle on my own - I would open a box and move a few things around and then just feel it was all too much.

She was brilliant at physically taking things out of the house - carting boxes/bags quickly out of my sight to the charity shop or the tip. She was always gentle, making me see how preposterous it was to keep some of the things i was intending to, but never pushing me when it all became to much and I started reclaiming things we had previously packed for removal.

How I viewed the whole removing things from the house thing (in my warped grief sodden head), was that i was finding the best possible home for his things, not 'throwing away/clearing out'. This view led me (in a demonstration of my own OCD) to catalogue 1600 items which had been destined for his 'never to be finished' model railway (most brand new, unopened). I eventually sold the 17 document boxes full to a very grateful man from Dorset. And that was just one room partially 'done'.

Shirts have been made into cushions and lavender bags - it took me 2 years to be able to take scissors to them - and I gave my step daughters one of each.

So - perhaps having someone assist would help?

Hugs as ever
L

Alison
Reply May 25, 2013

My husband Chuck and I spent the last almost 4 years traveling the United States, after selling our home and most of our belongings, so when he died, I had very little at hand to go through. I gave his daughter quite a few things that she could then give to our grandson-Chuck's hiking boots being the thing I thought the 11 year old would love the most, as he and his papa had a wonderful hike together in VT.

I'm forever grateful that I don't have a houseful of things to go through. I've kept a small bag of his clothes to carry with me-I don't know when I'll give them away. A couple of things I'll give to our sons.

During the 4 years of our traveling together, we'd done well in learning to live simply, out of suitcases, changing things up from our storage unit as necessary, but even the small amount that he carried with him, and had with him when he died, has been almost too much to deal with emotionally. I like the idea of making something out of his shirts/t-shirts and might do that, though yes, cutting into them will be tough too.

There isn't anything that isn't tough about this.