PLACES IN THE HEART : For some, letting go of a home--and its memories and security--is a turning point that can bring grief, denial and anger

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Doreen Benton, an Irvine real estate broker, likes to tell a story about a former client.

After the elderly woman sold her home of 25 years, she drove by it every day. When this had gone on for months, her husband finally persuaded her to cut her visits to once a week.

"Until her dying day, I don't think that woman ever got over selling that home," Benton said.

Yes, breaking up with a much loved house is hard to do. It can bring sadness because friends--and memories--are left behind.

Or the move may be a turning point in your life. For the newly divorced or widowed or for an empty-nester seeking more modest quarters, the sale marks a milestone, said clinical social worker Kip Flock.

It may mean an end to a way of life--even of an identity--and the beginning of a new one, added Flock, who until recently was the clinical director of the John Bradshaw Center, which has relocated from Los Angeles to Houston.

For others, a move to smaller digs may signal the painful end of a comfortable lifestyle. "There's anger, grief and denial," Flock said.

"And even if you're leaving for a bigger and better house," he continued, "you may be giving up a network of family and friends, and there's much grieving to be done."

The stages of grief over the loss of a much loved home and all that went with it are the same as for other major losses--denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance--explained Dr. Tom Louts. He is director of Passages, a program at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach that provides medical and psychiatric care for older patients.

Especially for the incapacitated elderly, the loss of a home "is way up there," Louts said. "There's no going back if they lose a home because they can't take care of themselves. They are losing freedom and independence they will never have again.

"It's traumatic," he said, adding, "I've had older people say to me, 'I don't want to go on living if I lose my house.' "

Dr. Roderic Gorney of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute said the home shelters us not only from the elements but also from the turbulent world outside.

"So when we sell our home," Gorney said, "that threatens our sense of safety."

Moreover, leaving a home forces us to re-evaluate the time we spent in it. That is not easy as we contemplate missed opportunities, misunderstandings, disappointments, regrets, times of sadness--the normal bumps and detours in the rocky road of life.

"You're not just leaving behind a home," said Sharon Hasegawa, a department store executive who sold her house in the Northern California community of Lafayette to move here, "you're leaving behind a life."

"The home is just a place for living. It means security and warmth and all of that," said the Manhattan Beach resident, "but it's really more about the people and the community. It's the family and friends and the relationships you are leaving behind."

But Ramona Summers could take at least one small comfort in the sale of her modest two-bedroom home in Lakewood.

"There are some things you don't sell and that's the memories," said the 60-year-old clerk, who has retired from the local school district.

"A house is a huge vat of memories," added Kerry Morse, a writer who sold a favorite two-bedroom country Cape Cod-style home in Irvine. His sons grew up there, and a Christmas tree he planted there is now 15 feet tall.

He said that it was an ordinary tract home but that it was filled with memories. "I saw my son Brian growing up there the way I saw myself grow up," Morse said.

Eventually needing more space, the family bought another home just a mile away. But their cat kept returning to the old place, which stood empty for six months. He finally took up permanent residence there. When Morse returned regularly to feed the tabby, he lingered, wandering through the empty rooms.

As Morse tarried, the words of a favorite folk song floated through his mind: "This place I knew it well, every sound and every smell."

Now that the home has been sold, he does not even drive by. Nor does his son Brian bike by it even though he could. The vat of memories is best left unstirred, Morse said.

Lisa Hutchins, part of a mother-daughter real estate team in West Los Angeles, also remembered returning as a teen-ager to an old home after it had been sold, to baby-sit.

"But you feel like a part of you is lost. Now the house belongs to someone else," she said of the Hancock Park property. "I felt a little bit like a stranger. It was no longer my home."

Still, a loved home is hard to give up. Ron Goldman has a thriving architectural practice in Malibu. He talks fondly of his former beach house there, an "experiment in sculptural design and natural light."

When his wife wanted to move to "the city" (Santa Monica), he put it on the rental market, unable to stand the thought of selling the property. At an open house to rent the home he had a cash offer that was 10% more than he thought the place was worth. Goldman still wouldn't sell.

The architect said that during the year it was rented he even had fantasies of moving back in but he eventually sold the home.

Goldman added that, even more than the house, it was the magic of the Malibu site that held him there. "It's the strength of the mountains, the primal quality of the ocean and the unbelievable character of the light there," he said. "It's a natural landscape that's not yet spoiled by man."

If it is possible, his wife of 33 years, Barbara, grows even more attached to houses.

"She would be just as happy to live in the same one she was born in," Goldman said. "A home becomes like an old slipper or shoe for her. She would like to hang on to the comfort of a den, of a reading chair, of a library she knows and loves."

So Barbara Goldman has been remarkably flexible, having seen six houses come and go, including two remodels and four that Ron designed and built.

She said each house marked a stage in her life and that when she left them, they signaled the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.

"Each time I had to allow for feelings of sadness and some regret," Barbara said, "and had to be open to the possibilities of something new."

Brokers understand the reluctance of many people to put their homes on the market. Some prospective clients call and dance around the subject of selling their houses. And when brokers finally find a willing buyer and get them down to the nitty-gritty of closing, packing up and moving out, the tears come.

"Particularly older clients," said Gary Parsons, a broker with ERA in Lakewood. "Sometimes you want to give them a hug, but that wouldn't sit well in today's climate. So I end up holding their hand."

Parsons is sympathetic with the ambivalent seller. One father hated to give up a door that had notches showing the growth of his children, year by year. So the broker suggested he take the door with him. "After all it was a large part of his life," Parsons said.

However, if selling is difficult, packing up and moving out can also be painful. To spare the emotional toll, one broker suggested using professional movers.

But, Constance Ahrons said, they work too quickly. The professor of sociology at USC likes to pack herself, sorting through her possessions and her memories. She sees the boxes around her for a month and begins to let go of the house. It takes time, she said.

She said that when packing, homeowners discover possessions they did not know they had--such as old letters, books and the bric-a-brac and paraphernalia of living. Seeing these items triggers personal issues and memories that had lain undisturbed for years.

"Part of what packing is about," Ahrons said, "is deciding what old baggage, both literal and figurative, to discard."

She said that divorcing couples fighting over a house often refuse to give up that old baggage. It is not as simple as selling the home and splitting the proceeds.

There are emotional considerations as well. One of the parties may not give up the home because of what it represents--memories, the hope of reconciliation, the "dream of the way we were going to live in that house," said Ahrons, the author of "The Good Divorce."

Once the house is sold, Ahrons said, the dreams are dashed. "It's really over."

And when the cartons are packed and loaded on the truck, many homeowners, like Bill Wojeiak, walk through their empty houses, saying goodby to each room.

When he got a position with Chevron in La Habra, he reluctantly moved from New Jersey to Southern California. He had bought his former house when he got married. The couple scoured the Garden State for just the right home and ended up buying one three doors from his father.

Not an extraordinary structure, it was your basic boxy, three-bedroom bi-level that is so common on the East Coast. "But it was the same style of house I had grown up in," said Wojeiak. "That's why I bought it.

He was so content there that he turned down five promotions that would have required him to move. However, circumstances finally forced him to sell the much loved home and at 7 a.m. on moving day a 50-foot van pulled up at the door.

"My stomach was turning," Wojeiak said. "I knew this was it. A driver and four men came in and packed up everything. At that moment I was no longer in control of my life."

When the move was complete, Wojeiak took out his video camera and filmed the van as it pulled away from his home and rumbled down the street into the distance.

Had he made a mistake? he fretted. He was breaking warm, loving ties with his recently widowed father. Before he left his old home in New Jersey he remembered taking one last look around.

"I was very happy there," he thought. "Nice things happened in that house. I hoped the young couple who bought the place would be happy there too."

Henning is a Long Beach free - lance writer.

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