‘Packing up the family home was like stepping away from my comfort blanket’

Many vendors are delighted when their much-loved home is bought by a young family who they hope will create as many happy memories there as they did. And buyers appreciate a home with a family history, too. “Often people are delighted to find notes left there by children or family height charts pencilled on the wall when they come to re-decorate.”

Natalie Costa, a children’s confidence coach who has lived in the UK for the past 16 years, recently missed out on the chance to say goodbye to her family home in South Africa. “I was born in that house,” she says. “The last time I’d been back was about six years ago, but my mum called last year to say she was selling. I was in two minds about flying back, but complications due to the Covid situation and work made it incredibly difficult. I felt so sad that I couldn’t say goodbye properly.

“My mum sent me and my sister, who also lives in the UK, photos of things asking if we wanted them. She would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with them.’

“We all got very emotional. I felt incredibly sad. I kept thinking of my childhood: building tents in the garden and jumping in the pool. The windows were always open – I can clearly remember the smell of jasmine in the garden.”

Karyn Adams, 52, is currently at the sharp end of trying to pack away and dispose of 50 years of family life following the death of her mother at the end of last year. Her parents had bought the large 1930s house near Richmond Park when her younger brother was a baby. Karyn had moved back in and cared for her mother during her final years.

“I am a bit of an emotional basket case at the moment,” she admits.

“There are two schools of thought. One is that your memories are all locked up in your mind, so why do you need stuff to remind you? But my memory is rubbish: I need material things to prompt it. I have kept a lot of my mum’s scarves because they still smell like her. My sister has ended up keeping an old wedding photo of a couple even though neither of us know who they are. But if it was down to my youngest brother he would be happy to put everything in the skip. There has to be a happy medium.

“It took me a long time to put the house up for sale. It made me feel sick, especially at the thought of someone else living in our home. But over the past six months my son has gone to university and I have been rattling around. I have kind of liked it, but it has not felt like the same old house, which used to be like Piccadilly Circus. It is becoming four walls as we have stripped the furniture away. Sometimes it makes my stomach churn. I know it will be heart-wrenching when we leave. I don’t know what I am taking with me yet, but it will be very little.”

Janine McDonald has made a business out of helping people declutter their homes. “It can be difficult to work out what has to go and it can help to have someone with you who isn’t linked to those memories,” she explains. “For instance, do you need to keep the massive dinner service at the back of the cupboard that was a wedding gift to your parents? Could you turn a cup and saucer into a bird feeder and see it every day when you look out of the window? Could you store photos of children’s birthday cards and school work digitally?

“In my experience with divorce, when men leave the family home they are more likely to set up a new home taking hardly anything with them. Women are more likely to be left with everyone’s possessions and it can be overwhelming and hard to move on. Leaving the family home can be like another form of grieving.”

Bhavna Radia is a former family solicitor who now runs Divorce Right, a service intended to take the hostility out of marital splits. Time and again she sees the challenges of moving on among her clients. She also struggled with a huge sense of loss herself when she and her husband sold their “dream family home” when they divorced. “We had been there for 10 years,” she says. “It was perfect.”

While her new home ticks all the boxes for her children – three girls now aged 20, 16 and 11 – she admits she doesn’t feel the same connection. “It feels like a stepping stone. There was something magical about the other one; we still drive past it. I know my ex-husband still loves that house, too. But my new house has helped us move on with our lives.”

I can’t say my heart lurches every time I drive past my old home; maybe it’s because my parents are happy in their new life. However, four years later we are still searching boxes in their new garage to fathom out if certain possessions ever made the 100-mile journey from the south London suburbs or ended up at the local dump. I’m not sure it really matters anymore. You remember what’s important.

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