Eulogizing a Home: How to Say Goodbye to a Place With Memories

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In some homes, the soul of the space has been lovingly crafted over time. The memories we make there, bit by bit, laugh by laugh, with some heartache thrown in for good measure, make it seem inconceivable to ever abandon the house itself. We say that it’s the memories and people that make a home, not the things in it or the structure itself, yet when we’re forced to leave a treasured home behind, it doesn’t merely tug at the heartstrings — it damn near severs them.

I’ve left old apartments behind before, and while I was sad to leave certain aspects (this balcony was the best!) or bemused with some observations (it looks so much bigger in here without my furniture), I never anticipated the mourning that ensued when we began the process of selling my parents’ home in Arizona.

This was not the home I grew up in. In fact, there are two memorable homes that came before this sacred one in question. There’s the house where I spent ages 2-12 in Indiana, and the house we originally moved to in Arizona where we lived for seven years. Then, my Mom and Dad bought a lot up the street, and built their next house — the one rich with memories.

They picked out every nuance of this house together down to the light switches. Cantera stone was brought in from Mexico, vaulted ceilings were employed to showcase the cacti-speckled mountains seemingly within arm’s reach of the backyard, lighting throughout evoked a cheery feeling at daytime and a cozy vibe at night. This house was built for entertaining.

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I never truly “lived” in this home like my younger sister and brother did. Construction completed while I was in college, and throughout my four years just two hours away I’d never spent more than a month or two there at a time (summer breaks, etc.). I got hired to work for a newspaper in California and started two weeks after graduation. This was never, in a sense of living, my home.

But in the sense of soul, this was my home through and through. We LIVED in this house. Friends always felt welcome like it was their own home, and treated it as such. A whirlwind of moments from those 10 years would reveal late nights musing over a favorite song (“now listen closely to this part”), wine in hand; or Christmas mornings, when my Dad would play the same song every year as we gathered around the tree to open gifts (Johnny Mathis’ “Sleigh Ride”), the smell of Mom’s egg strata in the oven; or the New Year’s Day we all jumped in the hot tub in our pajamas.

The memories created there took on more profound meaning than ever before after my Dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. We clung to each other and to our constant — the house. I flew in from California frequently and the house didn’t let us down, it pulled us in and made us feel safe when we were so scared we couldn’t think straight. It reverberated the sound of Dad’s favorite Van Morrison songs. It wore the tread of visitors trickling in and out to spend time with us. It echoed the crying — it amplified the laughter. It kept bending and creasing, like a giant old sweatshirt, to be exactly what we needed when we didn’t even know what we needed.

And it continued to wrap us in its walls, even after Dad passed away in 2011. The memories were suddenly immortalized. Our home was unconditional and selfless. A steadfast confidant. A man in the storm.

So what is it that makes us mourn the loss of a structure? It’s not the great architecture, or the way the light pours in through the windows in the morning. It’s the loss of the vessel that held our memories. It’s almost as if leaving a home rich in such a lived-in history causes our memories to spill out everywhere, and we feel like we’ve spun out of orbit, scrambling to collect them.

As my Mom watched the movers load the last boxes onto the moving truck, I didn’t have to be there to guess that she felt her heart strings sever. I know that, like a death, she doesn’t know where to go from here. I know that her pain is overwhelming. We’ve all discovered now that it’s possible to grieve the passing of a home, too.

As I sat in my own home in California seeing the empty house through photos sent to me on my phone, I felt my heart breaking. It’s still breaking.

But we have to remember that we have lost the vessel, not the memories. We just have to build a new place to hold them. —Kelli

[Thanks to Grace for encouraging me to step out from my editing curtain to share this! And thanks to my friend Niyaz for reminding me that a house is just a vessel.] 

  1. Wendy says:

    I have just got done with yet another crying session on the deck of my new home over the loss of my old one. We close on our house of almost 25 years next week. A place where I have spent half my life. I kept wondering what is wrong with me, it’s just a house. I was so excited about our new home, finding a perfect place to retreat at the end of the day. Peace and quite country life. Only to realize I miss the dogs that walk by with their human owners. I miss the sounds of traffic and the street lights glaring into my windows. I miss the neighbors who have become treasured friends. We got married in this home, we had lost family members (including the furry ones) and we have laughed and cried and shared so much of ourselves into every inch, nook, and cranny. I thought it would be easy to walk away into my new dream home (that has turned into a money pit, however, arent’ they all) that somehow I thought would cradle me and comfort me like the one I’m leaving behind (in thinking back it took time to feel that way about the old house too … there is that dreaded time thing again). Maybe I’m not giving it a chance and maybe when the time comes to leave this place I’ll feel the same loss I’m feeling now for the old place. It is like losing a family member as someone mentioned in these very helpful posts and I never expected the grief I’m feeling in a million years. A huge learning curve for me that is for sure as my career as a real estate sales agent (32 years in the business) and you’d think I would have some knowledge of this. It will make me a better person I know, however, I can’t help but feel the pit in my stomach. We close on our old home this coming week. I have tried in so many ways to create anything, any way of going back… yet in my heart, I know there is no going back. Maybe, just maybe the house I’m in now needs me and we were guided to it. We’ll bring it back to life and I think that’s how I have to look at it to make my stay here, no matter how short or long, it will be a worthwhile adventure. Time does have a funny way of healing our wounds and crying is okay. It’s okay to be sad and scared and lonely and wonder if you did the right thing or not. I’m a huge proponent of things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences in life. So, roll up my sleeves and dig in… I only hope I can get through this last weekend as I’m finalizing the finishing touches on my old home. I feel I owe it to the home to leave it better than I found it. I want the new owners to feel the love and the spirit that we did. I know that a part of us will always be in that house and will be even long after we are gone from this world. Thank you House! I will treasure all the memories and I’ll blow you a kiss when I drive by and I’ll always love you~ XO

    1. Patty Overley says:

      Omg. ..Wendy, everything you said is exactly what I have been going through. I am in so much pain over selling our townhome. We bought a fixer upper older home…something we thought we always wanted. It is in a new city 2 hours from where our old home was. I cry every day. I don’t think I will ever get over this. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Klz says:

    How are you doing since leaving your beloved home? I am facing a similar decision.

  3. Klz says:

    Sorry i just realized you only just moved. I understand your grief. Take care.

  4. Sarahlouise says:

    I’m about to move with my Mum out of the family home (of 25+ years) tommorow and I am dreading it. Like you, my Dad also died of Cancer in 2009, and since then the house has become a shrine…..an extension of himself as every part of the house was painted and designed by him. I honestly feel scared to close my eyes because this is the last night in my home….the last I will ever see it and step foot in it….it almost seems wrong to sleep and dream away what little time I have left. I keep reminding myself that the move is a good thing….we will be free of the grief finally, forced to live in the present….but I know my Mum regreats the decision she has made…..how sickening it must feel to regreat a decision you cant take back…..anyway….thankyou for sharing your experience. I thought I was being realky ridiculous…..xx

    1. Beth C. says:

      My father recently passed away at 83 years of age due to natural causes. He and my mother lived in our family home over 50 years. They both came from poor backgrounds/depressionEra so this home meant so much to them in the way of security and stability. It wasn’t a large fancy home but it was well built and they cared for it diligently. It was such a place of comfort and peace for my brother and I growing up. We would also go there for the same in our adult years after marrying and buying homes of our own. They always had good food and comfortable bedding to refresh us. They enjoyed our visits and indulged us a bit with quiet rest/food each time we visited. My mother loved to decorate and rearrange the furniture in the home and made many crafts to fill it with love. My father proudly maintained the structure and had a real sense of pride in home ownership.
      My mother had Parkinson’s disease and my father cared for her for many years by himself in this house until she died. As she went down, so did the house and so did my dad. The house became a stressful, sad place where we watched my dad nearly lose his mind trying to care for such a sick patient all alone. He wouldn’t accept outside help and was simply overwhelmed with the task. He was valiant and faithful to her but greatly out weighed by her disease.
      During the last months of her life the house was infested with bed bugs. We had a few home health providers that visited many other homes that must have brought them in. This was devastating. Not only was it terribly upsetting to know my sweet hard working, super tidy parents were living in a bug infested house (despite numerous treatments by pest companies) but it was also a devastating death blow to the security this home once provided. After Moms death my brother and I couldn’t visit the home, couldn’t nap in the expensive luxury bedding my mother so carefully purchased, couldn’t sit on the comfortable couches and watch the evening news with Dad like we did for decades. It was a complete and sudden severing of a connection I’d known my entire life. My father died peacefully in this house 7 months after my Mom died. My Family cleaned the entire contents of the house out in the immediate 4 days following my fathers death. It was so painful to see a lifetime disassembled in less than a week. It was so saddening to feel afraid of bug contamination everytime I left the house that week having to strip my clothing to be washed before entering my friends home.
      It was a wonderful, loving and safe family home for 50 plus years and all of it was gone in just a few days time. Sure we all got momentous from the house but the comfort it provided died along with my parents. How I would have loved to have kept the house as it was for a year or so after their deaths to gradually let go but due to the infestation it had to be done abruptly and thoroughly.
      Who knew the house was be missed as much as my parents. It had been there so long it’s as if the three (mom, dad & house) where one entity. How saddened I am to know that the place of refuge I called home will never be again. How sad to lose both parents and such a sentimental home place in under 8 months. I grieve the lose of them all yet know that what they were prepared me for this day. It’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust…my life now seems more precious as a result. Thank you Mom and Dad and thank you #4 Robin Lane. You will all be dearly missed and remembered fondly.

  5. Jeff says:

    Thought it was just me…..about to leave the house we’ve lived in for 25 years and today I find myself – a 50 year old man who has cried maybe twice, three times in the last two decades – sobbing my heart out as the reality of the move has seemingly sunk in.

    It’s a beautiful sunny day, the place looks and feels as good as it always has and im sitting here trying to remind myself why on earth I thought moving house was a good idea.

    I love it here. I love this house and the life that’s been lead here, the love the hopes, laughter, tears, triumphs and disappointments. All of it…and ive spent the last 6 months lying to myself and others when saying that it was time to move on.

    I don’t want to move on. I want to stay here. I’ve finally realised it – but now its too late.

    Be careful what you wish for.

    1. Spatn says:

      This is where I am today. I wanted to move closer to my kids and grandkids, 3 hrs away. Always thought about making a move “someday”. I looked at a house near my kids and without counting the cost, put an offer on it and put my house up for sale. I got an offer on it the first week it was listed which shocked me. I had no idea it would sale so quickly! The closing on my house where I have lived for 30 yrs is in 2 weeks and I am physically sick about it. Like you, I love my house and my life here. My husband and I completely gutted it and remodeled it over the yrs. Now I have to find work in an area I know very little about. I just want to stay here and live out the rest of my days here. But it is too late for that. I don’t know if I’m going to make it!

      1. Caitlin Kelch says:

        You’ll make it and thrive! Change is hard, butI’m sure so many new rewards & adventures await you :)

        Caitlin

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I came across this as I was looking at the home I grew up in. From the time I was four until eighteen, I lived in the same house. I grew up there, lived there, died one hundred times there, learned about life there. I went to college and by the time I was supposed to come home for Christmas break, my mom had sold the home I grew up in. Didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it, didn’t get a chance to process it. I just plain, flat out drank my way through it. I grew up in the time of secrets; whatever was unpleasant was swept under the carpet and/or buried. I am now almost 60 years old and am still reeling from the things taken from me. Was it just a house? Nope. It was my life. Parents, please explain to your college-age children, if you plan on selling the house they grew up in, the whys and what-fors. With all the changes they are going through, they still need someplace to call HOME. No home after the one I speak of was MY home, they were my parents’ homes. I never had a home again until I bought my own. I never realized the impact this had on me until I started searching for info on that particular property. Wow. Blessings to all.

  7. Joan Elizabeth says:

    Thank you all for sharing the emotions you have experienced in saying good bye to a family home. It is comforting to know that the feelings of loss are acknowledged by others. I have been crying. It is sold and I as the guardian of it these last 7 months since my dad died, will be moving out in the next two weeks. The cats will have to go with me, the new owner lady is allergic. I have appreciated theses Halcyon days and being able to soak in the ambiance even if most of the rooms are empty. 49 years ago my parents bought this house and brought 8 children to live here. I feel it has become part of the family. I have an understanding and a sensitivity now to just how emotionally wrenching it can be letting it go to strangers. But at least I had a choice in who would take it over. It makes me proud when people tell me the house has good vibes. I know the light and the mature trees around it are powerful and I hope that the children who move in will feel comfort, joy, and love as I did. I had to ask my co worker in hospice to give me a special prayer that I could say several times a day to help me when I was so anxious and sad. And this is what she sent me: “God, thank you for being a faithful provider. Guide this process a I release my father’s home. Give me peace that you are watching over me and give me wisdom. Open and close doors according to your plans as I trust in You.”
    I needed to say this several times a day thinking I chose wrong for the house. So this helped and I continue to use it. Oh house what an Ode I can give of thee.

  8. Leslie says:

    My father died this year and we sold the home that he and my mother purchased when I was a baby, fifty years ago. When we sold it, we knew that the buyers would probably tear it down and rebuild. That’s what happens in their now-highly-desirable neighborhood. But knowing what would likely happen and actually seeing it happen are two different things. When I took a detour to drive by the house two weeks ago, I was stunned to see a dirt lot with a chain link fence around it. Every bit of the house, along with its landscape and hardscape, was gone. It was just a dirt lot. Since that moment, the waves of grief that I’ve been experiencing for the loss of this house have exceeded what I experienced when my dad died. I’m having flashbacks to moments in time and nostalgia jags. I wrote a letter to the house last night, and that seemed to help a little. Today, Googling “loss of house” and finding this column, helped a little, too. I’m realizing that attachment to a place can be as or even more intense as attachment to a person. I love the way the author named the pain :”It’s the loss of the vessel that held our memories.” I’m thinking of all the other vessels…the photo albums, the people who shared times there, and my own mind. Even without the house, the memories are safe (for now).

  9. Sharon says:

    I worked hard at a low paying job all my life and never had much, I was the old maid of the family. My both parents and I lived together and between all of us we scraped up enough money to buy us a little house n 1999. We were all very happy, comfortable and content. I worked very hard over time to earn extra income to renovate the place and had it made into my dream home. My mother died suddenly in 2007 which just left Dad and myself and we decided we would carry on just the two of us. Unfortunately my father started drinking heavily at the age of 80 and I had no control over what he did because my brother was taking him the alcohol when I was not home. It got bad enough that he almost burned the house down numerous times when I was at work and also he was stumbling around the streets in a drunken haze. I begged my brother to stop bringing the booze but he would not, he thought what he was doing was funny. I threatened to kick dad out if he didn’t stop drinking but unfortunately that backfired and the problem got worse. I knew I couldn’t make a go of it financially by myself and I was very close to having a nervous breakdown so I decided the only thing I could do was to sell the house…just to get away from the problem. The house sold and my brother ended up taking Dad (he drank himself to death within a year). My house sold to a co worker which I thought at the time was great, knowing that I was leaving it to people who would take good care or it. It turned out to be terrible mistake as they let it go down hill. I cant even go down the street even now. I had to walk away from a fantastic home, awesome neighbors, and all the happiness that owning my own place brought me…all because of a drunk. That was in 2010 and I still cry almost every day for my home. I try not to think about it but when I shut my eyes at night there I am in that house, with mom and dad in our happier times. Most times I dream that they want to sell the place from under me…which of course would never have happened. And I wake up crying my eyes out. Even today I am not one bit more over the loss than I was the day I left. I have moved on in my life, gotten married, started a new job ,have a new house but can not get over this. The emotional attachment is just not there to my new home. I have no family now, lost all my close friends when I moved so I am alone. All I do is cry and pray….can anyone offer me any advice? I know it was just a building but it was my world and nothing will ever take its place.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Sharon

      I am so sorry for your loss. There is much here to struggle with and I can understand why it would be difficult to move forward.

      Is your new spouse able to talk with you about these painful times and memories? I know it sounded like finances were tough before, but does your new job offer insurance? If so, I would highly recommend asking the insurance rep if there is an in-network counselor or therapist in your area you could see. Working through issues like this takes a long time and usually a lot of help. You shouldn’t be expected (neither should you expect yourself to be able) to work through all of this on your own. Someone with professional skills in dealing with family trauma and loss should help guide you through the best steps for you to process all you’ve been through.

      I’m so sorry again for all you’ve gone through in recent years,
      Grace

  10. Ang says:

    Five weeks ago my 83 year old mother, husband, one and a half year old son and I were forced out of my childhood home due to foreclosure. My mother was a victim of a predatory loan. My father built our home 43 years ago and died in it 38 years ago. My brother and I were raised in the home and since I remained there after getting married am particularly affected by what has happened. For six years we fought to stay in our home and were so hopeful all our efforts to do so were going to allow us to do just that. My mother, brother and I are devastated over the loss of our home that was built by my father who cared so much for his family. I am greatful my son is not old enough to really grasp what has happened. I have been struggling every day since the move. We have been fortunate to be taken in by family until we get back on our feet again but there truly is no place like home and we are grieving. People say it’s just a house but it’s so much more than that. It was a safe haven built lovingly by my father for his family. I am hopeful that in time things will get better for us but I know my thoughts will forever be with the house I grew up in that my wonderful father built with us in mind. Thank you so much, Daddy. I love you.

  11. Brie says:

    I found this blog today in my search for how to deal with a conflict in our family. We moved into our childhood home in 1971. It was built for us. All us kids had lived in different places, but the house in SoCal was a custom build at the end of a new development so we pretty much grew up there.

    Dad passed from cancer in 2010 and mom passed from cancer six months later. It was so hard to lose them both so fast. We did okay with dividing up the treasures and deciding what to donate. We began renting the house a couple of months after the final clean out and we set up a partnership to manage it for a few years. I never thought we would keep the house forever. It’s almost 50 years old and is small and while prices for other homes in the area are very high, we’ve never really done upgrades. Dad kept it in great shape.

    We now have conflict. My sister and I are ready to sell. My brother is not. He ties the house to mom and dad in such an emotional way that the thought of selling it to someone else is too much for him. Other people have lived there for years, but really letting go and selling it is another issue entirely.

    I understand his grief and losing the house will pain me, just not as much as him. I have other things of theirs I cherish. I have tons of pictures. I wear a locket which contains their images. But for my brother, losing the house is like losing them again.

    I don’t know how to help him. I love him and don’t want to traumatize him. He wanted to buy it just to keep but could not afford it and so now we will sell. I just fear the damage to the relationship if I cannot come up with the right words to say that I hear him and I acknowledge his grief, but it is time to move from the building and focus on the blessings…

  12. Lisa Racca says:

    I am a Realtor and I have always thought (not shared with many to not seem crazy) that homes have life to them. I can enter a home to show and tell it’s story. It’s quite easy actually. There is a feeling and the furnishings and pictures and upgrades or lack there of give off a story. Lives were lived there and they really speak to me. There are so many stories and memories this shelter holds of just a few or of many. I feel there is almost a soul about them and this feed has made me feel like I’m a little less crazy in these feelings.
    Today I had a seller hand me the keys to his family home of over 70 years. They all had been quite happy that we secured a buyer that actually wanted the house as is and didn’t plan on developing. As I was pulling my car out, he hurried towards my car and I on rolled the window. With tears streaming down his face, he said, “this is like losing a lover” He rambled on about other things. He didn’t want or need conversation from me, just needed to vent that this was so hard for him and a “passage of life”. He then, just walked away. I was left extremely moved and emotional. I searched Google tonight looking for some encouragement for him to send in a card. So glad I came across this forum. I know your words will help him. Thank you everyone and Edward thanks you too.

  13. Mary says:

    I felt a little crazy when I searched grieving loss of a house. Then I came to this forum and didn’t feel quite as crazy. I feel so sad to move from our beautiful home. All our kids are grown and we didn’t need as much space, plus the expensive, moved to a different area of town, and it’s breaking my heart! I feel so sad and cry when I hear or say Santa Clara Dr.

  14. I says:

    Hi all –

    I come from a toxic family situation, and due to a volcanic and abusive scene at Christmas, I have left my home of almost 17 years. I have secured a small apartment to inhabit before I change jobs in the fall, and I’m struggling more than I ever could have imagined. My family has been abusive and manipulative for years, but when certain members weren’t around, my house meant everything to me. It still is. I’ve only been out of it for a couple of weeks, and I wish I could return.

    The sad thing is, I very well could return. I wasn’t thrown out. But, a foul bout of unfair insults and untruths designed to shame me were spat for the thousandth time this Christmas…and for the first time in my very passive life, I stood up for myself and packed a bag right then and there. Going back to live would make my family feel proud, like they’ve managed to ‘scoop me back up’ again. Like they can treat me however, take advantage of me, and insult me…and I’ll come running back. I’m not willing to give them this satisfaction. Plus, this new job will require me to relocate, and it’s high time I lived on my own (beyond a college dorm).

    I cry often. I’d give anything to be in my room, to sit at my piano, and to smell the cherry wood. I miss the sense of sacredness in there. Even when my family’s abusive behaviors were at their worst, they never desecrated the sacredness of that house.

    I looked for an article like this by chance, and I’m really grateful I found this. I’m trying to embrace this new set of chapters and new year with hope, but the vulnerability is raw and real. I’m trying to treat my new apartment like a training camp for my new life/new job in September. I’ll be referring to this often. Thank you, Kelli! Sending warm wishes to all going through a home transition…it’s so awful!

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      I-

      I’m so sorry to hear what you’re dealing with. But standing up for yourself and being brave is a wonderful step- we’re all sending you lots of support from our team.

      Grace

  15. Will R. says:

    I’m going through the same thing now. My parents divorced two years ago and the house my brother and I grew up with is a few months away from being sold. I’m helping get rid of things and it seems impossible–everything little object is charged with meaning. Little things too, like an ugly dish towel… haha. I had no idea that this would hit me so hard. Maybe the house is the last symbol of my parent’s marriage. You think it’d be around forever. And when you have a family of your own, your parents would still be there and you can reminiscence with your own kids. A lot of sadness and anger but I suppose that’s just part of the process?

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