My Interest in Hoarding

I’ve discovered another reason why I like to watch television shows about hoarders. It’s not what you think, not schadenfreude. To my surprise, it’s not what I thought either. The fascinating insight I’ve just gained is how close my own feelings are to those of hoarders.

I have reached the stage of life (or one might say the age in life) where I have inherited many family heirlooms. These are not necessarily valuable, though they could be. Regardless, they don’t add up to a life-changing fortune. Thus, rather than hire an auction house to run an estate sale, and myself decamp to an island paradise to await a fortune, I have to go through these pieces one by one and determine if they have a place in my future life, or, alternatively, in the lives of future generations in my family. Not much of those future generations exist as yet, so I’d have to be a sibyl to guess exactly right. Nevertheless, every person who has been landed with family treasures has to make these same decisions. Hoarders don’t. They just keep everything.

For a while I thought our family was lucky because we did not have to hurriedly clear out and dispose of a home. I’ve known friends who had a mere week or two to do it all. In our case, we had plenty of time because the family home was not being sold. Turns out that makes the proper disposition of family possessions more difficult rather than less. Family members have grown attached to pieces that have been in the home for decades, yet without ever having made the decision to own them. Now what?

When there are only a few possessions left from a person, each one is imbued with substantial emotional heft. When there are many possessions, you would think that the sentiment attached to them is milder. No, it’s not. If anything, it becomes greater because the perception is that the loved one cherished these items so much s/he could not bear to part with them even though s/he did not actively use them. Confusing that assumption is the reality that until very recently, disposing of family valuables at anything like a fair price for their value and directly to a person who would truly care about the item was not easy. It was difficult for a person who had only one antique doll to find the doll market and deal effectively in it or even to find someone else who wanted to own an antique doll. So the person kept the doll, whether it was wanted anymore or not. Then you inherit the doll and don’t know if it was dearly loved or just something still waiting to go away. The advent of online selling has changed that situation. It’s relatively simple to determine the fair market value of a piece, and only a little more complicated to sell it for a fair price directly to someone who will appreciate it. An excellent book giving many step-by-step details about how to deal with the possessions in an estate is Sell Keep, or Toss, by Harry L. Rinker. But one book isn’t going to solve the emotional issues behind the disposal tasks.

Considerations of value and appreciation are not the issue for me, I realize at last. After all, I am not throwing anything out. Everything is getting recycled to a good and appropriate home. The problem is, each piece gone is more physical proof that my loved one is dead. It is painful for me to part with them, because unless I find a piece incredibly ugly or completely useless, I think I ought to keep it. In fact I want to keep it, as another talisman. This is a completely irrational feeling, but many of us feel this way. I suddenly understand those hoarders on television who have every possession of a dead parent stuffed into their houses. People are lucky who have to make quick decisions about possessions, disposing of them ruthlessly and putting a family house up for sale in a hurry before returning to another state and a job from which they could only take a short leave. They don’t have time to wallow in the hurt of it all, and they certainly don’t have the luxury of wallowing in the pain object by object. They do feel bereft, of course. But the quick, sharp cut heals better, I think, than the repeated jabs of a dull knife.

Has my insight about hoarders helped me deal with the inevitable necessity of parting with some family possessions? I believe so. Objects are merely objects. We imbue them with personal meaning. We also can choose to disassociate from such personal meaning. I have to admit, though, that letting go of the possessions of a beloved dead relative is painful. Yet they can’t take it with them, and neither can we. Sooner or later, even hoarders have to loosen their iron grip on their possessions. My grip isn’t that tight, but I’m surprised at how close my feelings are to theirs.


  1. One of the things I learned from my hoarder relative is that when my time comes, I hope I’ll manage to leave as few possessions behind as possible for my heirs to deal with.

  2. Kind of wandered over here by chance, tracking Scott’s post about Marie Severin. 🙂

    We had to clean my mother’s house out on short notice about three years ago–she had to be placed in a nursing home and we had to get the house ready to go on the market. We’d moved about every 2-3 years when I was growing up (and every move meant my comic books had to be gotten rid of–sigh), but Mom and Dad had settled in that final house for almost 30 years. It took several weekends to get everything out, and that doesn’t include the efforts of getting rid of the stench from her chain smoking. I don’t think we EVER got it out completely.

    There were several items, though, that Mom had designated to people in her will, and we decided to go ahead and take care of that early. One of these items was a hideous portrait of “Grandma Bierman” that my mother had fallen in love with ages ago–mind you, she got it from my father’s mother, who had such high regard for it that she’d stashed it in the darkest recesses of the closet. Well, apparently I was supposed to have the honor or taking Grandma Bierman–and man was I flayed alive when I told her in no uncertain terms that I didn’t want it. Neither did my brother for that matter…so the portrait ended up with my sister.

    Well, my sister recently drew up a will and made me executor. She sent my brother and I a note, letting us know our copies were on the way, “and then you can find out who Grandma Bierman’s ending up with”. The day the will arrived in the mail, I opened it up and started reading…then started laughing.

    Ah, my daughter is SO thrilled to be getting Grandma Bierman someday….!

  3. That’s hilarious.

    We had a portrait of my great-grandfather that my mother disliked–she loved him dearly but thought the artist didn’t capture his essence, or even his likeness. So when she inherited it, she kept it in the attic. Finally, after her death, we had to do something with it because none of us wanted a “captain of industry” type of portrait (absolutely suitable for a boardroom). We had no personal sentiment about his likeness, but we certainly didn’t want to just get rid of it. We had to find the right home for it. We ended up giving the painting to the small town newspaper the family had owned and he’d edited for many years, a perfect place to hang such a formal portrait. The current newspaper owner was happy to have it. We’re glad to be relieved of the responsibility.

    But there’s other stuff…

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