Homesick for ???
March 4, 2022 9:15 PM   Subscribe

Why do I get so sad and vaklempt for former homes and other places?

I have moved to a new place, and Everything is Great About It. [of course it's not perfect, but objectively, just about all is well and many things I complained about in the old town are objectively better.] On a day to day basis, I marvel about how lucky we are to have been able to make this move.

But I periodically have deep, longing, wistful, weeping sadness for our old home. It's almost homesick, but not quite. I could be ok with not being there right now, but what keeps coming to mind as so upsetting is that, it just seems unthinkable and awful to me that I will never again be able to set foot in the place that I once considered the dominion of no one but my husband and me. ***How*** can this be, that I can never go back? Mulling on it leaves me weepingly upset for hours.

And this happened with our home before that one, when we just moved across town. Seeing my old exit from the highway on my daily commute could give me melancholy. And sometimes if I think about my grandmother's old home that was sold, I feel similarly. Luckily, my childhood home is still in the family and I can return there on occasion, or I'm sure that would be another one on the stack.

The degree of feeling seems to come and go in waves; I'm always a little bit sad about the old places, but mostly it's a flittering feeling. Right now, for the past few weeks, for unknown reasons, I am in deep throes of grief over the place we left nine months ago...even though I wouldn't move back if someone paid me. I feel like if I had some perspective, it might help to pull back from whatever it is, and also help to understand why it comes and goes...
posted by Tandem Affinity to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Proust says that we grieve over falling out of love with someone because it means the death of the person who was in love with that other. Perhaps your home is similarly central to your sense of identity.
posted by praemunire at 9:52 PM on March 4, 2022 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Mulling on it leaves me weepingly upset for hours.

In your shoes, the task I would be setting myself would not be about inquiring into the strength of my emotional ties to former homes, but about learning how to break rumination loops.

Rumination is insidious. It tries to convince us that what we actually need is a specific reason for any distress we're feeling, and takes us down an endless rabbit hole of searching for such reasons, but every time we find what feels like one, all it does is strengthen a rationalization for continuing to feel miserable that we absolutely do not need. All that any such rationalization can ever do is increase the frequency and depth of misery.

It's perfectly normal for a human being to experience a pang of loss for whatever used to be familiar after any big change that takes that away, even if it's a change for the better. This is just how human beings function. We are creatures of habit, and having our habits forcibly disrupted is distressing.

Recognizing a pang of loss for what it is, and just sitting with it until it passes without trying to analyze it, is almost always much healthier than ruminating on it. Because once rumination sets in, those pangs of loss get thoroughly amplified by completely useless and non-actionable Just So stories like "I will never again be able to set foot in the place that I once considered the dominion of no one but my husband and me". Much of the time those thoughts are not even true. Give the new place ten years to get established as the dominion of no one but your husband and you, and you will be setting foot in just such a place on the regular.

If you get the rumination under control, all you will get is the occasional pang as you drive past that highway exit, just like the ones I get when remembering the home I spent the first thirty years of my life in and sold after my parents died. I haven't been back there since selling it because I don't think I could bear to see what the new owners have done to it and I know that I do not need more rumination fuel than I already have.
posted by flabdablet at 10:06 PM on March 4, 2022 [14 favorites]

Not only is it the end of a chapter in your life, a chapter that was likely comfortable or at least familiar, and we love familiarity - even shitty familiarity.

But it's also a sort of intimacy. I have cried like devastation at every place I've moved out of, every car I've had and sold. I sometimes cry leaving my vacation accommodations. I'm just sentimental and easily attach to things. I've even cried moving friends out of a place where we enjoyed visiting and spending time with them.

Nostalgia is real, and it's sort of a safe space for feelings because it isn't a place/person you can be again. I think it's actually healthy as long as it's not affecting your ability to function in the day to day, it's just a really odd muscle that benefits from being flexed occasionally.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:12 PM on March 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

Nine months isn't really that far out for a major change. It sounds like you are someone who becomes deeply attached to your homes. I'm also that way, and moving can feel like I've obliterated some part of my history. When I left my ex partner, I also left our shared home, where we had lived for many, many years, and it was hard. I spent months thinking I should just walk back over there (impossible, as I had moved over 50 miles away). I felt that I could just walk in the door to all the familiar smells, my green jacket hanging on the doorknob, just walk right back into my old life and crawl back into my bed.

There is something irrevocable about it that is unlike most things, apart from death. Even a breakup or a divorce leaves the potential of reconciliation, friendship. But the home itself, the container for you, is almost certainly gone.

It seems like our homes should either remain only for us, forever, or fold up into the earth when we leave them.

I would guess this one is worse because it's also about your life with your husband, and an era there that has ended. It's also probably a little worse because the pandemic has taken so much from everyone and, well, everything is just worse.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:18 PM on March 4, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I often find myself thinking about the end of Wharton's Age of Innocence, and the following in particular:

It was the room in which most of the real things of his life had happened. There his wife, nearly twenty-six years ago, had broken to him, with a blushing circumlocution that would have caused the young women of the new generation to smile, the news that she was to have a child; and there their eldest boy, Dallas, too delicate to be taken to church in midwinter, had been christened by their old friend the Bishop of New York, the ample magnificent irreplaceable Bishop, so long the pride and ornament of his diocese. There Dallas had first staggered across the floor shouting "Dad," while May and the nurse laughed behind the door; there their second child, Mary (who was so like her mother), had announced her engagement to the dullest and most reliable of Reggie Chivers's many sons; and there Archer had kissed her through her wedding veil before they went down to the motor which was to carry them to Grace Church—for in a world where all else had reeled on its foundations the "Grace Church wedding" remained an unchanged institution.

We mostly don't stay in one place for that long these days, but we pack just as much life into our rooms regardless.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:32 PM on March 4, 2022 [8 favorites]

I like the lens that grief is love misplaced, and past homes and haunts (and people) are still things (and people) we love and remember loving them at the time.
posted by k3ninho at 2:14 AM on March 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

As a different perspective: I notice these sorts of emotions run rampant when I’m depressed and under-medicated.
posted by osmond_nash at 4:59 AM on March 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

For me, a lot of this is mortality, mine and those close to me. Definitely that sentiment from Proust that praemunire quoted, but also people who were around when you lived in that house, things you were involved in.

I also can't put my finger on the source of this thought at this moment, but even a period that was quite fraught in the past becomes idyllic when you've put a bookend on it, because you are now viewing it without the anxieties you may have had at the time.
posted by BibiRose at 5:02 AM on March 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: We sometimes capitalize the concept Home. Like other words we capitalize - Motherhood, Love, God, Truth, Beauty etc. Home is capitalized because it is a concept that triggers a deep emotional response, so deep as to be irrational. We are all somehow hardwired to understand the concept Home. The hard wiring is cross species. A huge number of species have a den or nest or territory they consider their own. Part of why we have this is because animals and people who lose their territory are usually in deep trouble - trapping and releasing nuisance vermin often results in the creature we try to save dying when it is released in unfamiliar territory. There is such a thing as home ice advantage in the animal world, and in war and in hockey. Home is important.

Humans, and other species that became peripatetic gatherers through evolution have the strongest memories. Elephants can remember the location of an orchard that the wild herd devastated fifteen years earlier and return to eat the fruit and greenery just when it has all grown back to be lush and productive again. They even return after waiting the correct length of time required for it to regrow. One result of this is that humans can use the concept of a memory palace as a mnemonic. Think of a place you know intimately well and ascribe each location to something on a list you are trying to remember and then in your imagination survey the place to recall the list. This trick would not work if familiar places did not run deep, deep in our memories.

Nostalgia is a word that entered our vocabularies in 1688 from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain as a medical term. The disease was described as being similar to paranoia, except the patient feels longing, and similar to depression (which was called melancholy back then) except that it was specific to past places and times. Like the Green Sickness, we still suffer badly from this pain, but it is no longer considered a disease or even a symptom of one.

All this is to say that what you are experiencing is well documented, has biological underpinnings, and is acknowledged to potentially be devastating. I still feel distress when I remember my older sister, at the foster home, so traumatized that she had lost her ability to speak, able to produce only three words when my father visited us: "Take me home."

I'm going to suggest that when a pang of homesickness hits you, you take a deep breath, breath slowly and examine the feeling for exactly what triggered it and what you are missing. It may be that you want familiarity, which is a sign that you are overwhelmed by too much change. It may be that you want security, which is sign that you don't feel safe. It may be that you are missing the people that were there, and the feeling of belonging and being loved, or it may be that you are missing a time when you felt hope and are struggling to feel hope now.

Then take some steps to fill that need in you. If you miss the familiarity, immerse yourself in the comforts you used to know, and the rituals of comfort you used to perform, watch reruns of the shows you used to watch, drink tea from the mug you used to use and take a break for a few hours from the new and difficult and novel things in your life. Similarly if you are not feeling safe, think of what you used to do that made you feel safe, and do those things. If the nostalgia is triggered by loneliness, try to connect with people who will support you.

Make sure you take time to remember the bad stuff that was there. There WAS bad stuff. The past may have arguably been better, but it was not a golden age of bliss. You cried, raged, struggled, were bored, were anxious about the future and went through bad experiences then and there too. One very important thing to keep in mind is that the past feels safer because we now know what is going to happen. But in the past we were anxious about the future and struggled to do things and worried about failure. We may even have been terrified then. "What if I can't find a job when I leave school?" In the current era we can easily forget the stuff that troubled us. You may have spend weeks worrying about your performance at work, or if you should break up with someone and things like that, but from the current vantage those things are resolved. However sometimes some event was so traumatic we want to go visit our past in order to undo it. Truth is if you did go back to the past you'd simply understand better why you couldn't prevent the trauma.

There are also neurological reasons for unexpectedly remembering the past. You are still pruning synapses and rewriting areas of the brain with new memories. When you do this you can unexpectedly open neurological pathways that had been covered over. Usually the longer the time that has passed the harder it gets to access memories, and each time you recall something you turn it into a memory of a memory so that the original memory is overwritten. This is why when you go back to an old familiar place you can be disconcerted by how badly you remembered it. The clock tower may be on the wrong side of the square, or appear to have been newly constructed despite being the most salient feature of the oldest building on the block and clearly isn't a reconstruction.

When you are old you get to be a specialist in long term memories. Any young person can remember random daily stuff, like where they put the TV remote and whether they bought macaroni or not. But only an older person can remember what happened thirty, fifty or sixty years ago. Your brain is designed to make it possible for you to recover that stuff so that you can access information the younger members of your tribe might need. The older you get the more this is so. Wise old elders know what we did during the previous time when gas prices hit a ridiculous high, or what it meant when the baby was making a funny barking sound, and can recall that 1950's author who already said what this TikTok video is trying to say, but who articulated it much more clearly. The process of become a wise old elder begins when you go to grade one and have an inexperienced cohort start kindergarten behind you. If you fade into dementia the the effect is much more visible as the only memories you retain become the very oldest ones. When you die you will potentially go back to the oldest memory of all and at that moment make the same sound as you made at the moment of your birth, the ancient urgent cry for your mother.

So don't think that what you are experiencing is weird, or unusual or unnatural. Work with your memories, either to give you the bliss of reliving past joys, or as a key to figuring out what you need now. Keep in mind that a memory hitting at a time of physiological distress will feel like a distressing memory. If a memory hits when you are over due for supper and never even had lunch, the background feeling of unbearable hunger will colour the memory with a feeling of need. If you are sick memories can be like fever dreams. Tend to you're current needs so that the woe and loss can be turned into a grateful memory of the good things.

Finally, the last week or so has been a roller coaster of deep feelings for all of us; so have the last three years; the entire last six years have also been frankly traumatizing. Your memory pain could very much be being triggered by an overload of current reality. It's no wonder if you just want to go back to the place where none of this was happening and dive into bed and burrow under the covers. You're not alone if you are feeling that the world is getting increasingly overwhelming.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:18 AM on March 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

The homes I moved from where always in different cities since my dad was a traveling construction guy when I was a kid. So I lived in 5 different homes by the time I was 5 years old.

Regularly when I would travel with my parents and if we were visiting relatives or passing through, we would go back and check on our past homes. I do that too with my various residences around the area -old apartments, rent houses, etc.

I don't get waves of sadness about it, but I do want to know how my home is doing as though it was an old friend or member of the family.

So I say the wistful-ness about your past homes is completely normal. I even feel whistful about the apartment with the trail whistle - I really hated that place when I lived there but still want to know it's ok.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:59 PM on March 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

I haven't felt that way about every home I've lived in, but have dealt with pretty deep grieving for a home I left that I had put a lot of myself into--in particular, completely redoing the front landscape to turn a barren expanse into a natural habitat with mostly native plants. And in a city I had developed strong ties to. I left for solid family and career reasons and the cross-country move made sense, hard as it was. The first couple of times I was back in that city and drove past the house I burst into tears.

I've finally reached closure on the house, 20+ years later, but I'm afraid the mechanism will be hard to replicate. First off, late last year my whole immediate family reunited back in the city for the first time since the move, and at one point we drove by the house together. It hadn't changed much, was obviously cared for, and the front habitat was thriving. Second, via an amazing coincidence last month, at a time when my wife and I were seriously considering trying to buy a small place back there as second home and maybe post-retirement full-time home, the old house showed up for sale on Zillow at a price within our reach. I had daydreamed about that more than once; now it was a reality. We had a buyer's agent out there, and he offered to do a walk-through video to share with us. Everything was very close to how we'd left things, apart from a back yard that hadn't been tended well (but easily remedied). In thinking it over long and hard, I realized two things: first, that part of my daydream-wish to move back was clearly a wish to return to a younger self that didn't have to confront mortality as often as I do now, but buying the house wouldn't turn that clock back; and second, because I had cared and still care deeply about the place, I didn't want to own it as a vacant home prone to break-ins or deterioration, or as an absentee landlord. I wanted it to have a full-time owner who was glad to be there and would hopefully become as attached to it as I had been and as I'm sure other owners before and after have been as well.

So having the real-world opportunity to go back, and consciously choosing not to, was liberating. And not something that's easy to make happen! Others above have suggested some strategies for coping that don't depend on extraordinary chance. But I do think that one way or another, getting to a place where you can deeply accept that you've made a choice you can live with is important in getting over the grief.
posted by Creosote at 4:15 PM on March 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughts and taking the time to write these answers. Every answer was food for thought and contributed to gaining some perspective to take me from feeling quite alone and bereft, to feeling like I can work through this. Thank you all again so much for sharing.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:00 PM on March 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Your description reminds me of the Portuguese word saudade, "an emotional state of conspicuous melancholic or profoundly nostalgic longing for something or someone that one cares for, loves, not necessarily real. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never be had again or attained. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events, often illusive that once are thought to have somehow brought excitement, pleasure, or well-being, but now trigger the senses in a way one experience pain of separation from the perceived joyous sensations."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 12:36 PM on November 1, 2022

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