Emotional landmines

The stress of moving can emphasize loss

By Stacy Downs

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Cydney Millstein knew moving would entail the stressful, tedious process everyone encounters: Packing a houseful of stuff into boxes, schlepping them from Point A to Point B, unpacking.

But Millstein, an architectural historian in Kansas City, Mo., didn't foresee the emotional landmines buried in the lifetime of belongings she had to sift through. She found her late mother's reading glasses, remembering how she wore them perched on the end of her nose as she played mah jong.


And she came across the belongings of her husband, John Gutowski, a photographer and faculty member at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who died about three years ago after surgery for brain cancer. Millstein re-read his journals and numerous sympathy cards. She cried a lot.

It felt too hard to press on.

"I was grieving all over again," she says. "I knew moving would be hard but not like this."

Emotional roadblocks often blindside people as they're moving, says Harriet Barrish, a Leawood, Kan.-based psychologist. It's a process that will stir up anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, fear.

"There's a lot of emphasis on losses when you move," Barrish says.

To 30-year-old Kim Cook, moving felt like the loss of her lifestyle. She feared coming to Kansas City, although a great job awaited her at Hallmark.

For teens, that loss can mean friends. For empty nesters, their active role as parents. For seniors, their independence. For professionals relocating, their network of friends. For those who lost a loved one, their shared life.

People should focus on the positive outcome of the move, Barrish says, but should expect difficult times. Often possessions or "time capsules" dredge up experiences and awaken memories.


"As much as we don't think we get attached to things, we do," Barrish says. "Leaving those memories behind becomes a huge part of the loss."

Cook came up with a plan: She sought and joined a mailing list of events for African-American professionals in Kansas City. She signed up for a photography class. She began visiting a church. She gave all her contact information to co-workers so someone in town could keep tabs on her. And she keeps in touch with her friends from out of town.

"It's becoming a good thing," Cook says.

Bernard Wilson, an independent insurance agent and widower, was daunted by the task of packing up his home of 25 years. The five-bedroom, three-car-garage ranch house in Independence had a pool where he and his wife once swam with their four kids. His wife, Patricia, died two years ago, and his kids are adults and out of the house.

Wilson's goal was to simplify his life by moving to Lake Tapawingo near Blue Springs, Mo., where he could keep a boat and fish. But his house was so full of stuff. "It was so confusing," he says. "I didn't know what to sell or what to keep. I also didn't know if I had made the right decision to move to the lake."

Slowly he pared down by having a yard sale and selling his furniture at a consignment store. He kept all the clocks he has collected and the pictures his kids had given him. So far, life at the lake is going well.

But moves like Wilson's can bring their own sort of emotional problems, says Debbie Taylor, owner of Revival Home Furnishings in Overland Park, Kan. She helps people sort through their extra furniture and sees a lot of anger in empty nesters whose children don't want their furniture.

She advises customers to keep at least one representative piece of furniture instead of getting rid of everything. And they shouldn't rely on their adult children with homes and lives of their own to take all the extra pieces.


"A lot of times people have hung onto the baby bed and their kids, who are at the age to raise kids, don't want it. So sometimes that's the piece I tell them to hang onto."

What To Read Next
Get Local