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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


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.

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