The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman - Part 3

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2

category_bug_journal2.gif Dealing with a mother's death usually falls to a grown child, but my father had died two years earlier. In a telephone consultation with Aunt Edith, then in her late 80s, and my brother, both in Portland, Oregon, it was decided I would go to St. Paul to handle the details of Grandma Hazel's terrible demise.

Aunt Edith said there were valuable antiques to be collected from her sister's house and garage – Meissen china, oriental rugs, crystal, probably some beautiful, old furniture. My brother asked if he should go too, but I felt confident that I could arrange shipping, find someone to cart away what remained and handle what little else there would be to do.

In the intervening years between my visit with Grandma Hazel in early 1968, and her death in 1984, she had sold the house on Winslow Avenue and bought a much smaller place in a less grand neighborhood. I assumed she needed the money from the sale but as I indicated, not much personal information passed among the members of my small family.

If you don't count Maine where I live now, there is nothing quite as snowy or cold as Minnesota winter. I was unprepared, in my then-fashionable mini-coat, for the bitter morning air and freezing wind as I made my way to the attorney's office in St. Paul.

There was no estate, he told me as he ticked off a list of the documents he had asked me to bring, except the small house and its contents. There were a few papers for me to sign and, he said, I would need to meet with a city official. The medical examiner? A registrar of city deaths? With what happened later in the day, I don't recall.

I asked how it happened that my grandmother froze to death. How was she found? Neighbors, who had not seen her recently, had called the police. The furnace was broken and apparently had been for most of the winter. She died in bed.

Then he told me it would be better not to visit the house, that it was in awful condition and I could hire someone to clear it out. I dismissed his warning. Probably, I surmised, a tiny, 92-year-old woman who was trying to stay warm for the past two months or so would have been a less than meticulous housekeeper.

No, he repeated, it was much worse than I was imagining, not something I would want to see. I appreciated his desire to shield me, a stranger to him, from an unpleasant experience, but how bad could it be, I thought. And it wasn't his decision to make.

Next, I met with the city official. There was more paperwork after which he gave me a simple gold band, a wedding ring, that had been cut from Grandma Hazel's finger and a brown, plastic box about the size of an old-fashioned family Bible. Her ashes.

Ominously, this man, too, strongly suggested I hire someone to sort the contents of the house. Doing it myself, he said, would not be a good way to remember my grandmother.

What could these people be talking about while they were being maddeningly short on detail?

Without my learning anything further, the official and I sparred about this for awhile until he was convinced I would not back down. He had the keys and would take me there. He said I should not be alone when I entered the house.

Set back from the sidewalk about 25 feet, it was a white bungalow left unpainted for many years with a badly weathered, wooden garage next to it. The surrounding homes, although in better repair, were about the same size. So far, I was still puzzled about why these men showed so much concern for me, a grown woman with a dead grandmother she had never known who was just taking care of family business.

The city official unlocked the front door and stood aside. I didn't get through the entrance before the stink knocked me back. The unexpected combination of dirt and grime, rotted and still-rotting garbage and most of all, filth - human urine and excrement - was overpowering. Holding my breath as much as possible, I took a couple of steps inside.

Whatever furniture may have been in that living room was buried under dozens of full, garden-size, trash bags piled as high as a five-foot, frail old woman could stack them. Mixed in with them were as many bundles of newspapers leaving only a narrow path, no more than nine or ten inches wide, through the room to the right toward the kitchen.

I was horrified. Someone had lived like this. Not just any someone you might read about in the newspaper. It had been my grandmother. Grandma Hazel. Aunt Edith's sister. It was hard to fathom even with the evidence in front of my eyes and the stench nearly gagging me.

Next to the front door, draped over a couple of the bags, was what must have once been an elegant sable coat, now moth-eaten with patches of fur missing and the lining torn. For just a second or two, I distractedly wondered if that was all Grandma Hazel had to wear when she went shopping. The question, as I realized, had no relevance; the temperature in the house was no warmer than outside.

My god, I thought. What would this smell like in summer.

What I could see of the kitchen from where I stood, still near the door, didn't look any more promising, nor did the bedroom I could peek into over the piles of trash bags in front of me. Something sloshed when my foot bumped it - a copper kitchen kettle filled with urine, a turd floating in it. Disgusting. The entire place was grotesque. I was sickened and repelled.

This massive accumulation of waste could not have happened in the couple of months of that winter. It was years in the making. I pushed back the humiliation that washed over me – with the city official nearby - for my grandmother and for me for not knowing of this. But right then, with no more than two minutes having passed since I had walked in, I refused to be shamed for the ghastly life and death of a woman who had no motherly affection for her son - my father – or for me.

I backed out and closed the door.

Having no heart for further investigation on my own, I returned to the hotel and called my brother. I was wrong, I told him. I can't do this alone. Please come.

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 1
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 3
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 4
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – A Followup

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Adams: Get a Job


Amazing story.
Truth really is stranger than fiction.
TGB and your deep interest in the welfare of the old took roots the moment you opened the door to your Grandmother's house didn't it?

Ohhhhhhh my!!!!!!!! I think I've just seen the shades of Christmas Yet to Come. It isn't pretty.

What an ordeal for you, Ronni!! This is one of my greatest fears for myself and definite food for thought. Thank you for sharing this gut-wrenching story. I know it can't be easy for you.

I felt a tingling, an urge, a force, a wave coming over me as I read your description of entering your grandmother's house. What a terrible and sad story about a life that lacked the most essential ingredient of all, love.

Can you imagine what was going on in her mind as she stacked those bags of garbage? Some people can not let go of anything, even lint.

Even love.

She couldn't give love but she could hoard junk.

What was she holding on to?

Poop in a kettle?

Gives new meaning to "a turd in a punchbowl."

I can't stand clutter, and will toss things out quickly. Clutter makes me nervous, like I'm living on a runaway train.

I cannot wait for the rest of the story. You write so well; perhaps a book?

This story made me feel society really needs to rethink how it treats the elderly. How very sad!

This story is probably more common than we would like to believe.

I wept as I read this story.

I'm moved by the kindness of the strangers you encountered, Ronni. They could have been judgmental and they chose instead to be kind.

What an ordeal. My parent's house was filled with stuff - but not garbage or excrement. I am sorry that you had to deal with that.

How sad--the poor woman never broke through her isolation and fear. Thank you for sharing this story. Fearsome, and instructive.

What a sad story - Ronni. OMG... she was in need of help and care from social services.

This story is horrible. I have a relative that if left to their own devices would live like that. But she is mentally ill...obviously. But my family understands her limitations and we take care of her anyway. I wouldn't trust the government to do it.

So many thoughts were running through my head as I read this sad experience of yours, Ronni.

I have no surviving family and know that without fostering human contact this could be my fate too. Buried in garbage and slime. Gaea said it besat. Fearsome and instructive.

It is the responsibility of each human to reach out to others. Good Karma will come of that act alone.

Thank you for sharing your horiffic experience, Ronni.

This reminds me of Grey Gardens except their situation was discovered earlier because of their family 'fame.' It must be a gradual step by step process for people and somehow not recognizing in time what is happening. That talk radio psychologist learned of her mother's death months earlier and although not the squalor, the mother's body lay undiscovered for months because she had disconnected herself from the world. It's not just about family but about friends, anybody who checks sometimes on someone.

I'm glad to read of your boundaries. Once the situation became clear (it seems within minutes if not seconds), you instinctively preserved your sanity. And stepped out, and called your bro. You didn't need to prove anything to anyone. You were doing your duty without compromising yourself.

This is so sad for you. And how terrible an ordeal it must have been for your grandmother.

I am 77 and when I think ahead, it scares me to death. No brothers or sisters... end of life is a fearful thing.

This is heartwrenching, and I'm looking forward to the next post with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

This is a tragedy but I'm glad that you stepped out and saved yourself from further grief. The old lady rejected you when she was alive - what were you to do? The love we get is the love we make and if all she really loved were her "things," then that was - at a fundamental level - her choice. My aging but still very vain mother has always chose "things" over her daughters. She's lucky that we have a strong sense of obligation and duty but it's very very difficult.

I thought my family was slightly odd in that I have cousins I have never met and I only met one of my Dad's sisters about half a dozen times as a child, but this...

I find myself wondering how many others have cut themselves off from family and friends only to end their lives in similar circumstances. I often hear said that on one should die alone, but I think it happens more than not.

What they said. You are a wonderful writer, Ronni. This is compelling stuff & BTW, thanks for telling it so well. Dee

Yet again--TGB will be my first blog check tomorrow morning!

Weirdly enough, I am writing a book about moving--and helping a small nonprofit move at the same time--and am thus revisiting all my favorite "clutter" rules. Actually there's only one: As little as possible.

My own parents died 6 days apart--natural causes--but we also had a very detached family, with all of us at least a thousand miles apart.

Cleaning out their house fell to me, their only child. It wasn't a nightmare mess but it was a nightmare just the same, because of all the physical evidence of how hard they had to struggle to keep going. They stayed, far too long, in a no-transit suburban single-family home with stairs they could no longer climb, a dumpster's-worth of medical paperwork they could no longer deal with, a freezer's full of food they could no longer cook, and a mind-boggling plethora of throw rugs and knick-knack encrusted end tables they could no longer safely navigate around.

Lesson learned. The look I am going for in my own house is when people walk in and say, "You moved here two years ago. How come all your stuff didn't come yet?"

This story is haunting. How many other elders have cut themselves off from any human contact to die alone in squalor? Why didn't someone investigate her condition sooner?

I am sure your grandmother was mentally ill, but I am sure that was little consolation to you when you discovered the filth of her home.

I am so sorry. Yes, she was ill. I've seen this before.....I know of humans who live like this now. I am so very sorry that your grandmother ended up like this.

I am so sorry you faced this trauma, sorry that your grandmother faced such trauma in solitude.

Add my name to those readers who have witnessed such incidents and felt shamed by our society's failure to eradicate elder neglect by the 21st century.

You did all you could in this horrible situation.
The comments following this post are heart breaking also.
There but for the grace of God we all face the possibility of such a death.

You write beautifully about such a terrible subject.

Astonishing story. You really should turn this into a book.

What a heartbreaking story. I am so sorry this happened to your Aunt Hazel. See Diogenes Syndrome for information about this condition, usually in older people.

sorry, you had to go thru this.
isolation is a killer.
we all need our friends, with family all over and far away.

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