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 12am 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-knack’s were precious, her attire was elegant, and she always wore her hair in 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, stock piled 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 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.

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  • 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. Many of you probably saw this touching father/daughter photo shoot and here is an example of a lifestyle photo shoot on a family’s last morning in their home (credit to photographer Suzanne Gipson).
  • 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.

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  • 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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March 28, 2017

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…

    http://pardihistory.com/1503-cedar-after-larry/

  4. 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.

  5. 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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