House of Grief

Earlier this year I visited the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.  Built by Sarah Winchester (1839-1922), the widow of William Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, it’s famous for its staircases that lead nowhere and windows that look out onto brick walls just inches away. This house is an unwieldy affair.  Any attempt to navigate it without a guide and you’re sure to get lost in its endless tangle of rooms and hallways that don’t align in any logical way.  They just go on, and on

                                                       …and on, and on

                                                            ….and on, and on, and on!

Some rooms are duplicates, like the two kitchens.  Others seem to have no purpose at all.  There are spaces that are dark and close, while others are light and airy.  The house has some of the most innovative and modern conveniences of the early 20th Century, alongside relics of days long gone.

Somewhere near what might be considered the center of the house is a room dedicated to holding regular seances – a room in which Sarah tried to contact her lost loved ones.

A large section of the house – the original structure – was severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake.  Rather than repair, or even tear it down, this area was simply ignored, while more livable space was added.

By contrast, though the inside is a maze of confusion, the outside is neatly manicured, orderly, and inviting. It’s a lovely garden with fountains.

What prompted Sarah to build such an unconventional house?  Theories abound, including one about her having consulted a psychic and learning that she was being haunted by the spirits of those who had lost their lives because of a Winchester rifle.  The idea seemed to be that Sarah should make illogical additions to her house to confound the spirits.

But there’s more to her story than that.

In the year that she turned 42, Sarah lost her mother, her father-in-law, and her husband of 19 years.  This was in addition to having lost her one-month-old daughter 15 years earlier.  I don’t know enough about Sarah Winchester to assess her mental or emotional health, but I can say that given the number of losses in her life, she was surely no stranger to grief.

There’s a name for the experience of sustaining multiple losses in rapid succession – it’s called “stacked grief.”  One major loss is tough enough to endure, but loss after loss after loss can be nearly impossible.

After my tour it occurred to me that if I were going to create a three-dimensional model of the experience of grief, it would be Sarah’s house.  As I moved from one interior space to another, hearing more of her story, I became mindful, not only of my own experiences of the loss of loved ones, but of the people I’ve accompanied and supported through the darkest days of their bereavement.

Grief can be like Sarah’s house – beautifully landscaped on the outside, but a confusing jumble on the inside. You feel like you’re in a place where you never quite know what awaits around the corner in the next room.  Perhaps you encounter a memento that triggers sadness, and then something else that brings a smile and a moment of relief from the anguish, followed by something that either dampens or lifts spirits, or both.

I once heard someone say, “Grief is love seeking its home.” That sums up this house for me.  I’ve never been in any place quite like it and I continue to wonder and smile as I think about it.

But mostly, I hope that Sarah Winchester ultimately found a measure of peace.