Griefwork: Keeper or thrower?

I skipped spring cleaning in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Twice a year, usually, I sort through closets, exchange out winter and summer clothing and shoes, find all the dust bunnies under beds and in heating/cooling ducts, eradicate the house of piles, and get rid of things we no longer use (like broken toys, knick knacks, books that no longer enchant me, and clothes we no longer fit). For some reason, in 2010, I froze. I couldn't do it. And as 2010 became 2011, it became overwhelming. As one season melted into the next, the piles grew larger and larger, and what was once a week-long task loomed almost too large to tackle. I was at a complete loss. I had no idea why I'd quit - and no idea how to start now, with the enormous back-log I'd created for myself.

Linking arms with aunts and mama, with grandchildren happy as clams up with grandpa and grandma for a week, I started the process on the main floor. I called it Operation Spring-Cleaning Catch-Up. It took about a day for me to realize what halted the process back in 2010. While I was cleaning the dining room table, which had become a sanctuary for piles of bills we couldn't pay and papers we didn't know what to do with, I kept coming across things that made my stomach turn. Old letters from church people begging us to repent and return back in 2010. Artwork I made while struggling through the worst depression of my life in 2011. Letters from my children when I was in the hospital, begging me to get well and come home to them. So much bitter, so much bittersweet.

Again and again, I had to walk away from the piles. Go out to the air on the porch, hot, humid and heavy with the July heat wave. The air felt as oppressive as my spirit. But the sun burned right through the darkness I tried to hide myself in behind my eyelids and lit up that dark room all the way to the corners...lit up those memories, those pieces of paper I was dreading. And as I watched, it was if they all caught fire and drifted away in cinders.

I realized I'd been living in a haunted house. I couldn't face the process of ridding the house of all this built-up bad. So it got buried on the table, or shoved under the bed along with an empty Oreo tray and a crunched up beer can, the refuse of another bad stab at coping. Cleaning it all out - the triggers of my grief along with all the evidence of my burying the grief - was like rubbing the dirt out of an old, festering wound. Hurts like *mmmhmmm while you're scrubbing, but there's hope like never before when you see those clean pink edges of a wound beginning to heal. A wound healing. A clean wound. One you can look at without curling back your lips in disgust.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, 1936
Cleaning out my grandma's kitchen after she died was a lesson in hoarding. Her house wasn't chock-full like you might see on the T.V. show. But the cupboards were full of cans dating back to before I was born. She was from utilitarian German stock, lived through the Depression on a hog farm in South Dakota. To her, everything had a function and you'd eventually use it, if hard pressed enough. Now I wonder, is this where it all began, for me? Is this why I am a hider, a hoarder, and a saver when it comes to grief? Why I can't look it in the eye and toss it in the garbage can and wipe my hands of it and walk away?

Image credit
The other side of my family, my mother's side, are nomads. Native Americans and French Canadian voyageurs, people who lived sparse lives carrying only necessities and the clothes on their backs. My mother is decidedly better than me at saving a few key things to remind herself when grieving, and letting go of the rest. I doubt her grief would have kept her from cleaning her house for 3 years.

How about you? Have you ever faced such crippling grief or psychological pain that you had an extreme reaction to your surroundings in your home? Which reaction did you have - did you pitch it all and start fresh, or try to push it aside and ignore it? Can you identify with me when I say I've been living in a "haunted house"? How did it feel once you reclaimed your house?


Linked to Michelle