I’ve been to some haunted houses in my time. Once I went to Alcatraz and the Winchester Mystery House on the same day, and I can tell you that standing in a cell at Alcatraz gave me one of the creepiest, worst feelings I’ve ever had. Historic haunted sites are all missing a few things, though. They have the history, they have the structure, sometimes they even have carefully restored landscaping for extra authenticity. What they don’t have are the haunted families, the people who lived inside - or the stuff. Most of the haunted houses I have visited are very much inhabited. Whether they’re haunted by those who have crossed over is up for discussion. The real haunted houses are those haunted by the living.
I deal with squalor and hoarding. I don’t always win, either. As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’m still unable to guess who is going to make it and who is going to fade back into the shadows. These homes are packed to the rafters - often quite literally - with physical objects. Much more so, they’re filled from wall to wall with unprocessed emotion. That’s the first level of haunting. Almost all the time, this emotional mist consists mostly of grief. For some reason, losing a loved one seems to trigger hoarding, even in people who had always been immaculate housekeepers. Losing more than one family member in a short period of time seems to escalate this tendency. A grief so heavy it creates its own weather system.
The second level of haunting is within the objects left behind. Anything owned or used by the departed becomes a holy relic. In many ways, the less value the object has, the more it is made sacred. I’ve seen hairbrushes with the hair still in them, bedside tables with the pill bottles and tissues still strewn around, sheets and blankets unchanged for who knows how long even though the bereaved partner is still sleeping in them. Usually, the bedroom is left as a shrine, and I’ve known people to decamp to a couch or recliner for months or years after the passing.
We have to ask ourselves if this is what our loved ones would have wanted for us. Is this how they would have wanted to be remembered? Think how they would have wept to see us this way, clinging to their old clothes and casserole pans, mired in sorrow, feeling that we’ll never laugh again. It’s like we become ghosts in our own homes.
That’s the third level of haunting.
Not everyone hoards due to grief. Some don’t even realize there’s another way to live, because everyone they know keeps house this way. Others are very deeply bound to their stuff, regarding their personal belongings as auxiliary organs or limbs. It’s pretty common for my people to keep every single book or article of clothing that comes through the door, and I do mean every. Ten years or more and they haven’t let go of a single thing, because why would they? What are you saying, that every molecule of stuff I’ve ever touched isn’t incredibly and deeply meaningful? To me, this extraordinary emotional attachment to physical objects is very similar to how we picture ghosts being attached to haunted houses. Can’t let go. Refuses to step into the light. Rejects the idea of moving on. This place is MINE.
One of the most commonly hoarded categories of objects, from what I’ve seen, is holiday decorations. Halloween is great for this. Now, don’t get me wrong - I adore Halloween and I think it’s the second-best holiday. I really get a kick out of extravagant Halloween decorations. It’s just that I know how bulky they are, and I’ve been in enough storage units and garages to know where they spend the other eleven months of the year. As huge a horror fan as I am, I don’t have a single Halloween decoration. I like to wear costumes, watch horror films, read horror novels, and of course eat candy. I might dress up my dog, who loves to wear clothes of any kind. But my 680-square-foot apartment and nomadic lifestyle don’t support storing anything I don’t use in daily life. I don’t know how other people do it. It often surprises me, the way my people will put out decorations in a room filled with stacks and piles. It’s like sticking a bouquet in a laundry basket or setting out a birthday cake on top of a sink full of dirty dishes. Or... like placing flowers on a grave?
I’ve worked around urns, the cremains of both humans and animals. I’ve been warned away from the off-limits stacks of grief boxes, sometimes of multiple generations. I’ve even worked with friends when I’ve known the deceased. It’s hard. It’s like picking your footing in a thick fog. We weep for our loved ones, for the life they missed out on, for the experiences they won’t get to have. We forget to look up and notice that we’re doing the same to ourselves. They wouldn’t want this for us.
In grief, nobody ever says the right thing. We can’t believe anyone could ever possibly imagine our pain. We think this even as we know that everyone has lost someone. Grief doesn’t really tend to bring out the best in anyone, does it? We cling to the things our loved ones used, as though they represent the person in some way, rather than remembering them through their true legacy. What they leave behind are the impressions they’ve made on us. Their character, their personality, the words and actions that impressed us the most. The values they’ve taught us. The stories they told, the recipes they passed on. Sometimes unresolved issues, sure, and those are the ones that make us hang on the hardest, unable to say goodbye, not in this way, not yet. It’s safe to say that no matter what, nobody wants to be remembered through a stack of crumbling cardboard boxes.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.