Chronic Dry Eye and Grief: The Challenge of Cleaning Up

When I lost my mom last September, I had several thoughts about how it could affect my chronic dry eye. Perhaps I would want to cry but there would be no tears. Maybe I would have to deal with a lot of paperwork that would strain my eyes. One thing that didn’t immediately come to mind is that entering my late mom’s house poses several health risks for me.

It’s a tricky issue to talk about. The nicest way I can describe the home is unkempt and neglected. The worst details are hard to share and even harder on my eyes.

My husband and I have taken on almost all of the work of cleaning out my mom’s home. Over 4 Saturdays, we tackled the worst of the mess in the house even as I struggled to keep my eyes open.

Not taking precautions

My mom smoked in this house for 10 years, leaving behind residue and a strong odor. The smell of the house was a physical shock each time I stepped through the entryway. I was worried about thirdhand smoke exposure for several reasons, including the issue that cigarette smoke is a known flare trigger for my lupus.

On our first visit, we prioritized removing all the ashtrays and setting up air purifiers. My husband opened windows and started running fans. Although this helped with ventilation, the increased airflow was an additional burden for my eyes. I found myself squinting when I was near the fans because it hurt too much to have my eyes open.

I had a mask and some goggle-like glasses, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear them. I had not stepped inside my mom’s home in years, but it wasn’t like I was going into a foreign place to clean – I was dealing with what was left of my mom’s life.

I was grieving the loss of my last remaining parent and, even though it wasn’t the best choice for my health, I just couldn’t handle putting those things on my face as I filtered through items. This is very out of character for me, since I typically follow all the rules and take every precaution that I can for my health. Of course, cleaning out my parent's home was an unprecedented situation that brought a lot of stress into each decision.

Dust, mold, pet hair, and more

Smoke was not the only issue we encountered. The house had not been regularly cleaned in almost a decade. There were multiple layers of dust in some areas and mold in some spots. There were waste products from insects and cats in places.

In some areas, items had been piled up and left untouched for a long time. When I would pick something up from a pile to start sorting I would watch dust practically explode into the air. I would turn my head and close my eyes for a moment, waiting for it to settle down. This was, of course, not as good as if I had been wearing protective eye gear. I could feel the grit settling into my eyes as the hours passed and I struggled to blink from the irritation, which was only worsened by my dryness.

But I wasn’t just stirring up dust, I was also stirring up memories. I needed to be as physically present as possible to process my grief. Because of my complicated relationship with my mom and some unfortunate circumstances surrounding her death, I felt that going through her home was the only route for processing some aspects of my grief. So while I knew I was creating issues for my dry eyes, I was too entrenched in what my heart was going through to change my behavior.

I took a lot of breaks outside, resting on the front porch or back deck to get fresh air. Fortunately, we had good weather each time we needed to go down (we would not have worked there without good weather). Unfortunately, pollen was starting to settle in during our last 2 visits, which meant that going outside was not necessarily a great break for my eyes.

Eye aids accessibility

I didn’t want to bring anything I owned inside the house, such as my purse, because I didn’t think I’d be able to get the odor out of it afterward. But my purse is where I kept my eye drops and protective eye gear. There were several times that I stopped what I was doing and went out to the car to use my eye drops, but it wasn’t enough.

If I could do it again, I’d set aside one bottle of eye drops to bring inside the house to be used while I was there. I could have thrown them out when we were down, and I would have benefited from using them more if they had been closer and more accessible.

I also wished I had brought eye goggles into the house. Some of the items I sorted were more sentimental than others and I would have been willing to wear goggles part of the time. There were items I simply didn’t care about as much, but I didn’t want to stop and lose momentum. I wouldn’t have had to stop if I had simply left the goggles on the counter - ready for whenever I wanted them.

Have you had to work in a dirty space with chronic dry eye? What did you do – right or wrong – for your eye health?

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