Sunday, September 18, 2022

Guilt trap

A grief journey is bad enough in itself, but they can be made worse by whatever we were dealing with before our loss. Those unrelated side trips can make the grief journey feel worse and longer, compounding what’s already bad about it. I’ve recently realised how a side trip was affecting me.

Over the past three years, I’ve learned how common it is for people mourning the loss of a loved one to, at least sometimes, adopt a defensive posture because they feel guilty about something. That may be directly related to their loss, such as things they feel they should or shouldn’t have done in their loved one’s last days (though it could be about anything). It could also be guilt about something that happened after the loss, such as, doing something or not doing something that we feel “should” have been different. That’s what it’s turned out to be for me.

There’s one thing—and only one—that I feel intensely defensive about, but that’s in addition to feeling shame, embarrassment, tremendous guilt, and, maybe especially, self-disappointment. That one thing that all that emotion is tethered to is one word: Stuff.

In July of last year, I started a project to tidy my garage, and it was such a massive project that I dubbed it, “The biggest project of all”. That project had fits and starts, wrapped around lockdowns and such, and then abandoned when it simply got too hot to work in there.

Things have deteriorated since then, for a variety of reasons. For example, I added boxes from stuff I bought, but they went on top of piles that had fallen over (apparently, my normally stellar stacking abilities were somewhat lacking…). Things ended up being as bad as they were before I started the project—maybe even worse because stuff was no longer in boxes.

The biggest thing I added, pretty much literally, was back in March of last year: A kitset garden shed I somewhat impulsively (and probably foolishly) bought online. It arrived just before my brother-in-law and I went up to Auckland to retrieve the last of the stuff I had in a storage unit there. The shed’s shipping box fell apart when we moved it out of the garage to make room for the stuff we’d brought back with us, so I moved the bits and pieces into the garage, where they remained, unassembled.

Several of the parts (various panels) were quite large, and they seemed to be everywhere, blocking my access to the storage cupboard in the garage, and creating obstacles for me to step over or around when I need to get the lawn mower out, or even just to get to the recycling and rubbish wheelie bins at the side of the house. There reached a point where I’d finally had enough, and decided to sell the shed, something I talked about back in August. The auction closed Sunday, August 28, and it went for roughly half what I paid for it—which was actually a lot better than I thought I’d get (and even a bit more than I was “realistically” hoping for.

That Sunday afternoon, I moved the shed’s parts to the front of the garage, by the overhead door, to make it easier and quicker for me to get it out when the buyer arrived to collect it. As it happened, it all ended up sitting not far from where it was when it first arrived. The places in the garage where the big parts had been are now really open. The guy picked up the shed a couple weeks later, on September 10.

What this gives me is, first, a sense of accomplishment and completion. Every little success encourages more successes, something I’ve seen again and again in the two and a half years I’ve lived in this house. This was my main motivation.

Beyond that, it clears space in many ways—not just the obvious physical space, but also emotional space. Clearing clutter makes people feel better, and that fact makes it easier to clear more. I’ve seen that again and again, too.

The thing is, I’m well aware that people can look at my situation and wonder what the problem is: Why has it taken me so long to get this house in order? Why don’t I just get on with it? I know that because if we were talking about someone else, I’d be wondering that, and I know that because I think it about myself.

I feel guilty about how long it’s taken, and I’m a bit shamed by it, but my main feeling is self-disappointment, and that’s mainly because I feel in a strong and completely bonkers way that I’m letting Nigel down because nearly three years after he died, I’m still not settled.

This is, I now realise, utterly absurd. First and foremost, I’ve had to adjust to living without the most important person in my life, and, ya know, that ain’t an easy thing to do. Also, most of the stuff I’m struggling to deal with was Nigel’s—the “toys” he desperately wanted to take care of for me, but he ran out of time. It’s also absurd because a journey out of major grief isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it takes as long as it takes. The slogan I came up with at the very beginning of my journey—“What I can, when I can”—is quite possibly the most true and profound realisation I’ve ever had in my life.

So, why does it even matter to me? I mean, apart from making me risk tripping over stuff on my way to put the rubbish in the bins? This is where the uniqueness of a grief journey truly asserts itself: Since every grief journey is unique, no one ever feels entirely secure or self-assured on that journey, and some of us are particularly sensitive the judgement of others, regardless of whether it’s real or perceived. I’m no different. Hardly anyone’s actually voiced disapproval of how long this is taking, but it turns out that I can quite easily dispense boatloads of disapproving judgmentalism on myself.

Then, a particular realisation popped into my head: This thing I feel guilty about? It’s absolutely not new.

The simple truth is, Nigel and I were slow to get rid of stuff. We were both packrats by nature, but we were also busy with life, and a bit too lazy to deal with the stuff we accumulated. I couldn’t even guess how many times we ordered a skip bin (a “dumpster”) to send junk away, nor the number of times were drove a carload of junk to the tip (dump), but the fact that we did that so much that I have no idea how many times we did it points toward another obvious fact: We were acquiring more stuff all the time.

That underscores how having lots of stuff was always a problem for us—there was probably never a time it wasn’t. I’ve mentioned in the past how Nigel often asked me to organise his stuff for him because he didn’t feel he could do it. I’ve also talked about my frequent organising projects, like the shelving systems I installed in the wardrobes in our last two houses. I did what I could to deal with the issue, but organising stuff is much easier when there’s not much of it.

Throughout our life together, our garages were never exactly tidy: In fact, they were always dumping grounds. On the other hand, Nigel was always able to park in the garage until our last house (our house in Paeroa didn’t have a garage).

Here’s an example of how it went: Nigel and I lived in our last house roughly two and a half years before he died, and that house was never finished: The garage, my office, and also Nigel’s office, remained messy right up until I packed up to move out, just shy of what would’ve been our third anniversary in the house. In his last year, Nigel started tidying his office, and had me buy him some storage bins to help with that, and I made progress on my office, too. The garage, despite tiding efforts, was never completed, not the least because Nigel bought more parts for his projects. This meant that the mess was simply moved to the house I now live in, just as it had been moved to our last house from the house before it, which had been moved from our house before that, and so on.

What I managed to forget until recently is that the stuff left me feeling felt guilty and overwhelmed at each house, and it was when Nigel died that it became something else: It became a personal failing that led to a feeling I was letting Nigel down. Grief journeys are seldom logical or sensible, and they can distort and twist what had always been obvious into a completely different reality.

That recent realisation that this is nothing new has made me far more relaxed about my reality. I’m no less determined to deal with the stuff, and I don’t feel any less burdened or frustrated by it, but now that I can see the true context of the issue, the sense of guilt and personal failure is gone. The truth is, if Nigel was still alive, and regardless of whether we were still living at our last house or somewhere else, the one thing I know with absolute certainty is that I’d still be dealing with too much stuff. I’m not letting him down now by not finishing all the clearing of stuff, because, in a sense, we let each other down for 24 years.

So, dealing with stuff has been an ongoing job for me, and that’s why the particular guilt I felt about all the stuff in this house is so silly. Unrelated side trips in a grief journey can make the journey feel worse and longer, compounding everything that’s already bad about it, but when it’s all based on something that’s not even true, it makes it even worse. I know that now, and the guilt is over.

I still have way too much stuff, though—and that really means our stuff, and that it was our fault.

Because this is the first chance I’ve had to publish a post since last Tuesday, the Seventeenth Year of the AmeriNZ Blog got a late start. Still, here we are: The first post of the new season!


Roger Owen Green said...

Yeah, stuff. Mine, I don't THINK, is as bad as yours, maybe because my stuff is in bookcases, music cabinets, file cabinets, and the like. But probably too much stuff.

Arthur Schenck said...

Think of an episode of "Hoarders", and you have my garage. Other parts of the house, not so much, but still just plain too much too much.