Downsizing Homes – A Fable of Handling Grief

Loving couple looking at their dream house

Maria called the other day asking for us to meet. She and Jeff were thinking about selling their home and wanted my input. I was excited for the two as I have known them for years and have enjoyed spending time with them. But I also knew that they loved their home. This was not just a house; this was their home, lovingly constructed from their dreams and hard work.

But now they needed to sell it.

“The kids have graduated from college and we are looking towards retirement. We love this house, but we need to reduce our monthly payments and find a house that is a lower maintenance.” I continued to listen as they took turns sharing their goals for downsizing their living arrangements in order to meet their financial objectives, and to free up some time and resources to afford them the opportunity to travel.

I shared with Maria and Jeff about the recent housing market activity to help them see the market value of their home, which showed they should realize some very significant financial returns. They were both excited about the amount they should earn from the sale of their home.

“But what about our next house?” It was Jeff asking as the realization struck him that he would be saying good-bye to the nest he and Maria had built. “What kind of home can we get with our new budget?”

“Well, based upon what you’ve shared about your financial goals, your maximum desired payment and loan payoff timeframe, and knowing that you want to stay within a couple of miles of here, we will be looking at homes that are about 1,000 to 1,500 square feet smaller than this home.”

The silence was palpable as Jeff and Maria looked each other in the eyes. I could see the unspoken questions flying between the two of them: Are we making the right choice? Do we have to give up this home? Is it really worth it?. The realization that they were saying good-bye forever to the very embodiment of their last 15 years of family memories was quickly becoming very real. They were saying good-bye to the pool where they taught their kids to swim…and where in an adventurous moment they snuck out late one night to skinny dip beneath the stars. Selling the home meant leaving the small garden where their daughter, Savannah, grew her first watermelon. And it meant leaving the built-in grill and bar where the family told stories and laughed as they ate enough hamburgers and hot dogs to feed any major league ballpark.

When I sensed the moment was right, I broke the silence. “I can see that there are some significant emotions that you are feeling right now as you’re thinking about moving on to a new chapter in your life. What you are experiencing is perfectly normal, particularly when you are giving something up. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean that the emptiness you are feeling is not important, even with the purchase of your new home.” Jeff and Maria looked at me as I went on. “You are experiencing one of the three foundational elements of grief, which is loss.¹ You are recognizing that the memories of the fun, exciting, and even the challenging and sad moments you’ve shared in this house will fade. You won’t have the physical reminder of the kids’ initials carved in the concrete by the back patio or the spot on the carpet where Savannah spilled her nail polish.” I was describing what noted psychologist Brené Brown shares as the “loss of normality, the loss of what could be, and the loss of what we thought we knew,” which means that anytime we lose something, the things that are normal to us are going to change, and it’s deeply uncomfortable.

In addition to loss, Maria and Jeff would experience the second element, which is longing. Brown defines longing as the “involuntary yearning for wholeness” that results from the void of the loss. Jeff and Maria may feel inclined in the future to drive by the home and park across the street, remembering family gatherings or private moments. They may feel an almost inescapable draw to turn down the street “just for old time’s sake.” This, too, is normal and okay.

The third element of grief is feeling lost. All of Jeff and Maria’s routines are about to be permanently upset. The drawer where the silverware is kept is about to change, the cups will be stored in a different place, and the natural walking patterns throughout the home will become new as they move into their new home. For a while, they will feel unsettled. The routines of putting away dishes, doing laundry, and even showering in the morning will be different, and unnatural, and uncomfortable.

Despite these difficult emotions and feelings, there are two activities that can assist in easing the emotional transition between homes.

The first is to identify the positive aspects that the new lifestyle affords. Jeff and Maria should remind each other how important their financial goals are and what it means to them–psychologists refer to this as meaning-making. It will allow Maria to retire when she wants to and Jeff a couple of years later. Their lower house payment will not be a burden on their retirement income. The improved savings will allow them to visit Savannah, who moved to Denver with her new job, more often and their positive financial changes would allow them to go skiing while they are in the area. Because the new home is smaller, it will take less time to clean and maintain, which is a welcome relief from the attention their 15-year old home required. Focusing on the new home is not a distraction; it gives meaning to the sale of the old home and realigns the individual’s environment to establish a new normal, one that is in line with Jeff and Maria’s long-term goals.²

The second activity is to talk about any feelings associated with selling the home and buying a new one. Jeff and Maria should describe the things they did in the old home that they will miss. They might consider writing down some of the memories the old home stirs up, and share with each other some of the things they wish they could have done. Discussing their feelings as well as writing them down helps to sort out the emotions of the loss and to learn where the real source of emptiness lies. This out-loud exhortation of feelings provides a healthy coping strategy for self-discovering their genuine emotions. And with the emotions identified, the healing can begin.

After a little over two weeks on the market, we found a buyer for Jeff and Maria’s home and found them a nice home about a mile away that meets all their needs, and even a few extra wants. Their homes closed escrow with little fanfare and they moved into their new home. Although they still reminisce about their old home, Jeff and Marie are happily settled into their new home, with their new routines and their new normal. Of course, they jokingly still remind me of how I “made” them sell their beautiful old home, as they regale me with a memory of that time Jeff was able to fit 32 burgers on their grill during their famous block party. But they are ecstatic that they are reaching their retirement goals in a financially comfortable position.

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Alex Casteel, PhD, is a research psychologist and owner of Casteel Real Estate Professionals.

 

  1. Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong: The reckoning. The rumble. The revolution. New York, NY: Penguin.
  2. Capretto, P. (2015). Empathy and silence in pastoral care for traumatic grief and loss. Journal of Religion & Health54(1), 339-357. doi:10.1007/s10943-014-9904-5