Returning Home

The Importance of Childhood and Place

What If Your Home Were Suddenly Gone?

More than just a place to live

Two weeks after a series of deadly tornadoes tore through several Southern states, many citizens are still struggling to put their lives back together. Most tragically, the death toll from the storms is now estimated at 354. Many more individuals suffered injuries, and the psychological suffering by those who experienced the trauma is likely to be widespread.

And then there are the monetary costs. Insurance companies estimate property damage between 3.7 and 5.5 billion dollars. Survivors of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and other disasters appropriately point out that the safety of their loved ones is far more important than any lost possessions. However, one possession may represent a more significant loss than others. That possession is one's home.

Thousands of people lost their homes in the recent storms. More than 900 homes were severely damaged in Mississippi. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where entire neighborhoods were destroyed, the American Red Cross estimates that up to 5000 homes may be gone.

The loss of a home is more than monetary.  Researchers find that most people develop a strong emotional attachment to their homes. For many individuals, the place they live is a part of their identity, a part of who they are. As a result, suddenly losing your home can be especially traumatic. People whose homes are destroyed often compare the experience to losing a loved one.

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However, for most people, home is more than the structure where they live. Our sense of home can also include the neighborhood, the parks, the stores, the schools and the people who make up the community. This observation explains why most people choose to rebuild rather than move away from the site of a disaster. Eight months ago, eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed in San Bruno, California, when gas pipelines exploded in a suburban neighborhood. Pacific Gas and Electric, the local utility company, gave homeowners the option to rebuild on the same lot or accept a buyout payment to relocate elsewhere. As of this date, 75 percent of those who have decided what they want to do have selected the rebuilding option. Displaced residents who have lived in their community a long time are the most likely to return after a disaster. This is probably because, as with other relationships, it takes time to establish a sense of connection with a place.

Interestingly, the loss people experience when a home is destroyed is not limited to current dwellings. I found in my research (www.returninghomebook.com) that adults often think of the home they grew up in as an important part of who they are. As a result, discovering that your childhood home no longer exists can be extremely upsetting. Several people I interviewed had this experience when they went to visit a former home. In each case, they described the discovery as a severe loss. As one woman said, "It was very sad, because you see a part of your life is gone. Now what you've called home is not home any more. (You are) kind of like a man without a country."

Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

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