When Home Changes
On feeling “homeless” after loss
Anyone who has ever lost anyone knows what homelessness feels like.
And I’m not talking about living on the streets. I’m not talking about being without the structure of a home.
I’m talking about being without the feeling of home… a feeling that’s consistent and safe and secure and always there… a feeling of having somewhere to go back to.
When you experience loss, especially the loss of a family member or friend that was part of home for you, that feeling of home disappears overnight.
You are suddenly without a home.
Home is a lot of things for us.
It’s a place. It’s a collection of people. It even acts as a reference point for our lives — on our mental timeline and geographically.
So it’s really, really hard when we’re suddenly forced to reframe not just the physical aspects of our home — who’s dead and who’s not and what the inside and the outside of the structure of home look like and if we or our relatives sell the home and move somewhere else— but the emotional aspects of our home as well. The feeling.
And somehow no matter how many more people we cram through the front door and no matter how hard we try to superglue every piece of furniture in place, we cannot recreate or recapture our feeling of home.
We can’t bring our old feelings back.
I came home from college about two or three months after my mom died. It was still winter and I remember walking from the garage into the house and literally losing my breath.
I could hear my mom’s voice in my head, a soft but horrified, “What happened?” Everything was in disarray. There were piles of papers and magazines and newspapers all over the tables and counters. Towels and sheets were strung up over the windows. Nothing had been dusted in a while. So much hit me at once. My mom was gone. My house was different. My dad was not my mom. My mom did all the cleaning and organizing for the house. I couldn’t even feel her any more. All the rooms seemed dark. When did we start subscribing to this magazine? Who put stuff in my room? How am I going to live with this? Ican’tbreatheIcan’tbreatheIcan’tbreathe SHE’S NOT HERE.
Walking into that house for the first time after she died was like grieving her all over again. And every room that I entered was a reminder that my mom’s physical presence was no longer a part of what the rest of my family kept calling “our house.”
It didn’t feel like home to me any more. And I couldn’t bring any of those old home feelings back.
Losing my feelings of home was another part of grief that I didn’t expect. And it was heartbreaking.
On an Instagram post I talked about each trip home being a combination of greetings and goodbyes.
When you return home again after you’ve lost someone, you have to say hello to all of the things that have risen up in place of what used to be there. And you have to say goodbye to everything that you’ve lost and are continuing to lose.
There is absolutely no way that everything that is a part of home now can replace who you lost. But in grief you don’t really have a choice about life going on. It just does.
People have babies and adopt pets and get boyfriends and girlfriends and switch jobs and get haircuts and buy new furniture. New pictures go on the wall. New smells float through the house. New events and memories are made.
Going home, you say hello to all of that. Whether you want to or not.
And also with grief, you don’t say goodbye just once. You say goodbye over and over and over again. The first time I came home again after my mom died, I said goodbye to my mom again, but I also said goodbye to her way of organization and the way my room looked before she died. In saying goodbye, you say goodbye someone’s voice, their mannerisms, their stuff, their cars, their clothes, their touch, their habits, their foods in the kitchen. Their handwriting doesn’t show up on Post-it notes anymore. Their friends don’t come around as often. The flowers they planted aren’t coming back next year.
Going home, you say goodbye to all of that. Whether you want to or not.
Each time you visit home, you acknowledge or say hello to what’s new — the things that have changed. And you say acknowledge or say goodbye to the things that aren’t there anymore — what seems to have disappeared from home.
And inevitably your feelings of home and your feelings towards home become something else. They change. That’s how grief works.
Our homes — our physical spaces — and our feelings of home can change in the blink of any eye, Grief Growers. Death can trigger feelings of homelessness, but so can a divorce or a breakup, an instance or worsening of abuse or assault, a diagnosis that brings with it literal modifications to our homes and spaces. So many things can make home feel not like home anymore.
If you’re in it right now, my hearts, I’m sorry. We don’t expect to lose our feelings of home in grief but when we do that’s just one more thing we have to add to the pile of things to mourn — things that we’ll never get back. It hurts and I’m sorry. It sucks.
If you’re coming out of it right now; if your home is restabilizing into a new iteration of home — with additions and subtractions and unexpected modifications — and you’re starting to be okay with it, I’m really proud of you. You’ve said hello and goodbye to a lot of things over time and with the work of your awareness and that takes courage and lots of emotional heavy lifting. You’re doing it.
And if you’re staring loss in the face; if that feeling of homelessness hasn’t set in yet but you know it’s going to, (you’ve got a death coming or a divorce pending or another anticipatory loss on the horizon) go ahead and add the home feeling to the list of things you’re going to lose. Keep in mind this isn’t a gimmick to get you to start grieving before you’re ready. It’s just an awareness thing. That way when the home feeling is gone, you won’t be struck with such shock or overwhelm. It’ll be instead a reluctant/angry/tragic/familiar, “Ah yes. There it is. Home is gone.” I see you. This is hard.