The help desk: 'My mother has sold my childhood home and I feel desperately sad. What's wrong with me?'
'In mourning its loss, you are mourning your parents' marriage and your father'
Q. At the end of last year, my mother sold her house, which I grew up in, and in a few weeks she will move out to live nearer to my sister and her family. I'm in my thirties and haven't lived in the house for years, though all of us still visit there lots, but I feel desperately sad and can't stop thinking about it.
It's a large place, too big for her now she's on her own. My father moved out when I was a teenager, and died 10 years ago. My youngest brother moved out five or six years ago. Obviously, I don't expect her to keep it. I just wonder how I'm going to bear it, especially as I'll need to help her pack everything up. My husband is actually losing his mother, who has terminal cancer, so I feel ashamed to mind this so much and don't really dare show anyone how much it hurts me. What is wrong with me?
A. 'I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes – until I met a man who had no feet." That's an old Jewish proverb, and if it were really true, you'd be so glad it's not your mother who's dying that you'd cheerfully get going with the tea chests. But there is no hierarchy of distress. Things simply hurt as much as they hurt.
A home that has been in the family for years, with its layers of history and its beloved creaks and flaws, is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it seems like an old and cronky family member itself. In mourning its loss, you are mourning your lost childhood, your parents' marriage, your father.
This is not just bricks and mortar; it is heavy with metaphor. And your feelings are perhaps more painful, paradoxically, because they are less complicated than what lurks beneath. This is the accessible part of your grief, the part you dare confront, and hence the part you feel most keenly.
It's the reason why, sometimes, when a person's pet dies, they can't leave the house for days, but when they lose a parent, they find themselves caning gin and carousing with their sympathy callers far into the night. It is why grown men will sob through Bambi but think that invading Iraq was a top plan. We let our guard down only when our poor psyches sense that it is safe to do so.
Some people flit from house to house without a backward look. But for many, there is one house that is the keeper of memories, where we recall ourselves as we most wanted to be. When our old family home was sold, after nearly 50 years, I was philosophical. But more than 15 years after leaving, I can't even drive past the house where I spent my twenties and where my first child was born.
So don't be ashamed. Pass on the packing, if you can, to someone more able to cope – perhaps offer to make yourself useful at the other end. But cry your eyes out and say a proper goodbye – to your childhood, your father, your intact family and your youthful self – and maybe start putting down those layers on a home of your own.
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