Saying Goodbye to a Home and Grieving Places Past

My grandmother belonged in her home like a doll in her dollhouse. Each article of clothing, piece of furniture, and accessory seemed perfectly suited to her style and personality. I imagine her now, standing in her doorway at 12 am in a cotton nightgown, ushering my rumpled and crumpled family of eight inside after the long voyage between our home in Syracuse, New York to hers in Massachusetts.

She was not a traditional grandmother in any sense. Her knick-knacks were precious, her attire was elegant, and she always wore her hair in a youthful red bob. She was tough and smart and energetic and the guts and nerve contained in her petite 5’0 frame rivaled that of any 10 men.

My memories of my grandmother are made three dimensional by the details of her environment – the sound of the creaky back stairs, the smell of mothballs in her large linen closet, the hum of crickets drifting into her living room on summer nights while my sister and I listened to old records and my grandmother danced in the arms of an invisible beau, her nightly glass of sherry in hand.

Her house was like a living breathing thing with character and history. Scattered throughout, the secrets of her youth and the soap opera stories of those who came before her could be found in dark cellars, deep closets, and heavy oak drawers. Fascinating treasures told of a time when my grandmother was a knockout who wore sparkly dresses and fur coats to fancy parties; when the women of the house hosted dinner parties with fine china and good silver; and when adults, influenced by depression era proclivities, stockpiled commodities like matchbooks and sugar packets.

During visits to my grandmother’s house, I felt like I was a girl in one of my books like The Secret Garden who slept in a bedroom with a four-poster bed and whose only amusement was to wander the grounds and daydream. Sitting in the grass behind her house I would wonder who sat here a century ago and imagine the stone garage and little barn lining the yard’s perimeter were still the chauffer’s and the gardener’s domain.

Perhaps the sounds of my sisters doing cartwheels in the yard could be heard or perhaps my father drove his big van down the gravel driveway and, after stopping with a final crunch, emerged from the front seat with a cartwheelssix-pack of beer – these are the details I can’t recall. What I can remember is letting my romantic imagination run wild, whisked away on the wind it skipped and danced with the fireflies, as the gloaming’s quiet magic turned the sun from gold to red to dim.

I remarked very recently that we are never so kind as we are to people, places, and things that are gone and maybe when it comes to my grandmother’s house this is so. The last time I visited was just before it was sold and prior to then, I hadn’t been back for years. By the time I returned it was empty and all my grandmother’s belongings had been boxed up and stored away.

Standing in the hallway looking into bare rooms I thought
the house looked sad and frail – as though the cancer that took my grandmother had weakened its structure as well. I had hoped returning would help me remember my grandmother and the childhood days I spent there, but I was too late. My hopes of seeing the house one last time and preserving it pleasantly in my memory were gone.

People give up homes for various reasons. Sometimes the circumstances are in their control (such as making the choice to sell a house and move to a new one) and sometimes they aren’t (like in the case of a foreclosure, house fire, natural disaster, or death of the primary resident). Leaving a home can be very sad and emotional regardless of the reason.

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself grieving the loss of my grandmother’s house – both the physical place as well as the people and feelings associated with it – and I’ve often wondered what I could have done to find more meaningful closure. So, together with the help of our readers, here are suggestions for saying goodbye to a home and grieving places past.

Saying Goodbye to a Home:

  • Visit: If the place is not your primary residence, find an opportunity to visit one last time. Be prepared though, there’s a chance it will seem altered and different. Reader Tracy reflects, “…the home which once held lots of laughter, fun, insight, love, comfort & great memories of times well spent together….now was just a structure, a house.”
  • Document: Take photographs of different rooms and significant places.
  • Say a ceremonial goodbye: Kimberly, one of our readers, offers her experience, “Before we moved we shared, as a family, our favorite memories we had in the home. We then blessed and released the home to the new owners wishing for them all the good times & great memories we had.”
  • Have a photo shoot: Hire a photographer and have one last family photo shoot. For example, check out this touching father/daughter photo shoot.
  • Spend Time: Spend purposeful and meaningful time in the home. Reader Dawn suggests, “…taking time in each room and letting the memories come. Also placing your hands on the walls, doors, windows or special areas for as long as feels right.”
  • Leave your mark: Carve your initials in a tree, write a message in a door jam, make handprints in cement, or bury a time capsule in the backyard.
  • Care for it: Reader Susan shares her experience with a house she didn’t particularly love, “…when I knew that I’d be selling and moving from the place. I felt a sense of responsibility to actively love the home, by making it more lovely — painting, caring for the things that needed fixing so that the place would be infused with my blessing, and consequently, bless the new owners. I literally prayed that the family who bought the home would have years of happiness and peace there. I felt better about leaving the home, with my blessing, maybe because I had dealt with my conflicted feelings about the place. I felt free to love a new home then, with little looking back or regrets.”
  • Take something with you: Unearth a plant or tree to replant at your new location, take a brick out of the front pathway, unscrew a doorknob – go ahead and cause some destruction.

Grieving Places from the Past:

  • Visit: As awkward as knocking on a stranger’s door and asking to walk around their home may seem, revisiting a place that’s been sold to new owners can be kind of cool. The current inhabitants may get a kick out of hearing old stories about their home and it may make you feel better to know the house is being cared for an appreciated (if this is indeed the case). If the home is no longer standing, you can always revisit the lot – this has the potential to be kind of a bummer but maybe worth the visit nonetheless.
  • Reminisce: Talk about memories you had in the home, both with those who you shared the memories with and those you didn’t (maybe your kids or friends).
  • Create a Heritage Album: Document details of your past home(s) as a part of your family history. Here’s a book about crafting your own heritage album.
  • Collect photos and scrapbook: If your not quite ready to document your family history but want to remember the home, collect photos and create a few scrapbook pages. This is a good activity to do with kids.
  • Research the house: Here’s a guide detailing resources for researching architectural and historical facts about a house.
  • Create: Write a poem, essay, or song. Draw or paint a picture.

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April 25, 2019

19 responses on "Saying Goodbye to a Home and Grieving Places Past"

  1. Every summer we went to the cottage on Lake of Bays. It was my moms sisters cottage but they had built a small one room cottage on the property. We went every weekend and for two weeks in the summer when my dad had his vacation. I had other uncles and aunts that had cottages very close by so all summer I was with family. I loved this cottage so much from the time I was a little baby all through the troubled teen years it was a refuge for me. I brought my own kids there too and showed them all the things I had done. I never thought that as my aunt and uncle that owned the cottage, would become to old to keep going the 2/12 hours from Toronto. It was the cottage it just was. So it came as a shock to hear that they were selling the land and cottages!!! Somehow as an adult I should have seen it coming by this time my aunt and uncle were in a retirement home! I grieve this place so much, I miss it in the way, I miss my mom and dad ,I guess it’s all mixed together. Hard to think of one without the other. My dad was a different person there as my mom was. I look at pictures and as much as I love the memories they hurt too! My kids won’t get to grow up there as I did.

  2. Just sold the home my grandfather built on 34 acres. The most beautiful place I’ve ever known. I bought the home 13 year ago. After a painful divorce I stuck it out with my two children for ten years. My grandfather recently died at 100. He was one of those powerful forces that you never forget. He was father figure and one of my most favorite people in the world. He created this paradise for our family to visit year after year and I being the sentimental one bought it when he needed to downsize for my grandmother It’s about 20 minutes from my job which isn’t far but driving back and forth sometimes twice a day is tough. I thought by now I’d be remarried and sharing it with someone. The house had a hold on me. Don’t know how to describe it. My grandfather’s memory is everywhere. I closed on the house yesterday and he died two months ago. Two big losses in a short time. For me, my family history and identity are wrapped up in that beautiful place. At 50 it’s the only home I’ve known (I moved a lot as a child) and now I feel homeless (renting until I can find a house). Somehow turning 50 has become a critical point. I’ve watched my grandfather die and I know the brevity of life. What do I want the next 20-30 years if I am that fortunate. Is it the house and the property. Are there other adventures to had. The house takes all my resources. There are no trips, yoga classes or extra fun things I can afford. The house consumed me and the future work seemed overwhelming. I sold it with the intent to make more room for me but how is that possible when I just felt like I lost myself. Yesterday was so painful. Feel very alone.

    • Hi Tiina,
      I see you and I feel for you. I also turned 50 this year and am now selling my home of 23 years. It is the only home I’ve been in my adult life, bought with my ex-husband (kept the house and the debt in the divorce…turns out that was not a good financial move). It was built in 1870 and I’ve lovingly renovated it. However, a few job changes require I sell now and face life anew, with no permanent home. I also feel lost.
      I am sorry for the loss of your family home and your grandfather. Hold tight to the memories that serve you well with us for our support and love. Take this opportunity to do new things for yourself. I also feel my house took all my resources and time. We will feel the loss for sure, but must remember to explore new freedoms in order to fully realize what we can gain through this transition. You sharing your story helped me, so thank you.

  3. I’m just now seeing this article. I lost both of my parents in 2017, 6 weeks apart. I was their caregiver and I lived there in the apartment upstairs, in the house I grew up in. The house my grandfather built. We had to sell it this past year and it not only almost rendered me homeless but it was the last straw for me in a series of big losses. I had a nervous breakdown and I will never get over losing that home, never. I can’t even go back on that street to visit a relative, I can’t be that close to the house or look at it. I can never go and visit there, it’ll send me over the edge. I haven’t been doing well in every way since leaving my home so it was the straw that broke my back as far as I’m concerned. We tried everything for me to keep that house but it wasn’t possible.

    • Lisa, I am sorry for the loss of your parents and the home your grandfather built. It is a lot to handle and I understand you feel the losses so deeply. Proud of you for carrying on and sharing your story. Thank you. Blessings,

  4. My husband died in October. Just as he was about to retire. We had built our dream home and acreage together from the ground up over the past 28 years. There were still projects he wanted to do when he retired. But this place is too big for me to handle by myself It’s a bit remote and the winters can be isolating. I decided even before he was gone that I would have to leave it. I love it enough not to want it to be neglected. Not that there is any guarantee that new owners will keep it up. So now I have a month left before I say goodbye. It’s all happening so fast. Selling off his things. The tools he used to build this place. The sporting goods he enjoyed. The car he cherished Erasing him piece by piece. I will spread some of his ashes here and try to share w new owners our story. Our names are stamped in the concrete . Looking at houses to move to is hard. None of them will ever be our home. Too busy and scared to let myself feel all there is too feel. Like his illness, It will hit me afterwards. Another big grief on its way.

    • Eldavia,
      I am sorry for the loss of your husband. I hope that you are settling into a new place. It’s such a loss to lose a loved one, and the physical things and places we shared with our loved ones do hold such meaning. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you all the best.

  5. While I agree about visiting old houses, be careful about it. My childhood home was completely gutted and practically rebuilt. My dad went to visit it and regretted it. He said he would have preferred to picture it the way it was.

  6. We had a lovely home . A beautiful huge garden at the back. A biggish garden at the front. An ex council home, we had to do it uIp. It included putting in a bathroom. I loved every inch of it. Each plant was planted. Each wall painted/renovated or re done in some way. We left because of lots of reasons including health, but mainly due to community issues which became difficult for my husband to cope with. It was the first house I ever felt a part of. I miss it so much. It isn’t worth leaving a house you love if you can help it. I didn’t expect to grieve for a home, like I am now.

  7. I realized that losing my home to bank fraud back in 2011 has really messed with my ability to feel safe. Everything about saving for 10 years and losing it to unethical business practices has led me to be to scared to ever love a home again. I realized I still hate Chase bank as I read your article. I hate the legal system for giving them a slap on the wrist and allowing such pitiful compensation to happen that I and 1000’s of others didn’t even get half of my down payment back. How do you heal when you can’t have a place of your own or that anyone can and will take it at any time? That loss wiped me out so completely that I am too tired and too old to rebuild, so I just rent until I die. I even used my small retirement savings to try to save my house. Sometimes I wonder if living in my car would feel safer because at least I own that. I grieve my home.

  8. My parents left one of the houses out family lived in for some years. Though it wasn’t where I spent my childhood, I’ve been badly grieving the loss of this house. The circumstances are not ideal. My parents moved to a different state and left the old house for sale. Irresponsibly my father is choosing to let the house foreclose and myself and my siblings arent able to buy the home. Additionally I live across the country and am not able to visit the house before it is confiscated by the bank. AND there is a basement filled with remnants of the past.

  9. Wow, this makes me so sad. My stepfather chose to sell the home that I spent most of my most important years in and I’m still grieving the loss, especially since the new owners (who have only lived there for a year) have now decided to sell it again. When I recently saw “Pending Sale” on a website showing my home, I wanted to cry.

    I miss so many things about it, although I was unhappy when I actually lived in it, due to my stepfather’s abuse.
    But it was still a beautiful home with a lot of charm. I miss looking up at the stars in the night sky with my mother; I miss the old-fashioned beauty of the house itself. I feel like once again, something special has been taken away from me and I’ll never be able to replace it.

    I’ve seen a lot of the same tips about taking pictures, items, etc. to preserve memories…but what can you do if you are unable to do that?
    My former home is in a gated community and I’m not sure I will be able to ever see it again, let alone do any of those things.
    I wasn’t able to do it before the home was sold in 2014 either. I already suffer from depression and this is just another blow.

  10. My father passed away in October 2014 and I have spent the past year cleaning out his home, which was also his parents home…its been in our family for over 80 years. It was not possible to keep the home as there are other family members involved. It was cathartic in a way, but also very painful. Finding long hidden treasures of my grandmothers, seeing the pencil notches on the wall, marking the heights of the children and grandchildren, recalling the stretchy cheese sandwiches and lemon lettuce my grandmother would make for my cousin and I each summer we visited. Letters that have been filed away for decades, old technology that kept the front rom in a time warp of sorts. My dad changed very little in his parents farm house…

    I just signed the papers this past week to sell the home, and while I have a sense of relief that it’s done, I will forever be sad that we were unable to keep the old, 1920s farmhouse that was a huge part of not only my childhood, but many many others who spent time at The Pardi’s… My husband took many photographs over the past year of the home and just recently shared them with me.

    No matter how far I may travel from Boulder Colorado, there will always be a part of my heart at 1503 Cedar Avenue…

  11. I have a torn heart. I have a wee place of my own now for a year and through difficult circumstances, losing my dad, the horrid actions of his partner throwing away/giving away his belongings without asking or consideration of me or my family… I am now in the position of owning his house. I love it, he worked so hard to have this nice home and we shared many good memories, as well in the latter months some bad ones that had to do with her, not my dad. So it is empty, hollow now, a house without a soul. Everywhere I look in this cavernous house I see & hear my dad. It hurts to know he won’t come back to it or to me. I need to make a decision as I can’t keep both. I wonder if I furnish it, put in my personal things along with the few of his that I do have I will feel better about it? Maybe I will find some peace and feel connected instead of so disconnected? A move is required, so is a lifestyle change as it is more in the suburbs with nature than the busy city? Think I’m having a mid life crisis!

    • Hi Tracy,

      I know you wrote your comment months ago but I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for the loss of your father.
      I think you should do what feels right to you, if you haven’t made the decision already.
      Only you can determine what will make you feel better. Your idea about moving into the old house and decorating it sounds great! I wish I could do the same with my former home, so you are lucky in that sense.

      And I can relate to the bit about disliking your dad’s partner, because I feel that way about my mother’s husband.
      He is not a nice person and I believe he will do the same thing with my mom’s things someday if she dies before he does. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. It is never easy when our parents choose selfish partners, but it happens.

      One more thought…although your dad is no longer with you, he really is all around you. His spirit is still there and I’m sure he would want you to be happy no matter what.

      • Ah Melinda, thank you for the lovely message. I stumbled across this article once again and have read the most recent comments and found my own words and yours. I am slowly redecorating, though a weird sense of guilt comes over me, as though I shouldn’t be, it is hard to describe, guilt I guess?……If you happen to stumble on the article again, I can only encourage you to talk to your mom about what is precious to you, how you want to remember her etc before her husband takes control. I wish I had, but it so difficult to bring up such a sensitive topic especially about possessions as it seems so materialistic, but sometimes, it really is the little things that matter the most, that are insignificant to someone else that we treasure most.

  12. I am definitely going through this right now. I inherited my dad and step mother’s home. They lived there for a significant amount of time and put a lot of hard work and effort into it. I never lived there with them and I don’t feel that sort of attachment to the house. My half- siblings grew up there and it was in their mother’s family passed down from their grandmother. So there is history there. Complicated to explain as to how it was left to me, and even more complicated comes the emotions of settling an estate. The house was not the same without my dad or step mom being there. I felt wrong being there without them. I am grieving the loss of them which I feel I am at peace with as much as I can be. I am having a harder time letting go of their belongings which feels like letting them go piece by piece. It’s overwhelming. I am pretty much on my own with this as my family has fallen apart since they day they died. The home is not geographically close to me, being an hour and a half away. I will be moving across the country in a month. I have given family members who have still been in contact with me items they have wanted and I think having an auction is the next step once I remove the items I want. It would be too painful for me to see each item go one by one. It’s time to move forward, and thank goodness I’ve been able to do it on my own time frame. I am thankful they left the home to me, but it does not suit my needs at this point in my life. I’ve spent a lot of time there and it has been peaceful and painful at the same time. It’s a completely different vibe from when they lived there. Every time I go there I feel like I keep picking at a scab it has taken longer to heal.

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