Like something has been taken. Like life is not in your control.
The first time I felt gut-wrenching homesickness was in Guatemala. Desperate for change, physically, financially, spiritually, and emotionally we had signed up to be international teachers and get. out. of. Texas. That was when I realized that while I might logically choose to be somewhere, emotionally things were never so clear cut.
Every country has its challenges: high, shard-covered walls and lack of safety in Guatemala, the rippling undercurrent of religious tension and boxed-in “safety” of Abu Dhabi, the corruption and drug trafficking of Mexico, or the completely opposite cultural norms of Cambodia, it doesn’t matter where. I thought homesickness was a thing that would mature … that I could grow out of. But instead it morphed and found ways of picking different cultural pieces to spark to life that now-familiar feeling. Instead of getting better at change each time, I found I was leaving more of my heart behind me with each new country and struggling more to adapt to the new one. I didn’t get a name for this feeling until recently: cumulative grief. Funny that I had attributed it to grief unknowingly.
Cumulative grief is compounded losses that have not been resolved.
When we got married, I was just as gung-ho for adventure and travel as my husband. Then we had kids, and they didn’t really know their family, our family kept getting older and life felt like a time bomb, ready any moment to take away another person. Each adjustment to a new country was lost with the consecutive move. Each friendship, each directions-to-the-store memorization, each friend of my children, got left behind. We need a sense of normalcy, of natural grieving and letting go, before moving on to the next new thing as human beings.
It doesn’t feel logical to us that we would grieve something so trivial as having access to a drive through restaurant, or hey, any good take-out food for coping with sickness or postpartum meal times. Our brain does not distinguish between real and trivial grief, however. The children of prisoners I help in my work are just as worthy of grieving over as not having pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving; the brain perceives them the same.
Properly dealing with small and large losses, instead of pushing them to the side, has helped me cope better with homesickness. Taking time to grieve loss helped put life into perspective: instead of piling more frustration on the mountain of previous moves, it became more proportional to what was actually happening in reality.
Here are some ways I have coped with homesickness in a new country:
- One of the biggest healing things that happened was a Khmer English-speaking neighbor who moved in across the street. The world of Khmer was no more seen through a smeared glass, but opened up and explained in a way that helped me appreciate it. I had to be in a place to accept that help, and once I was able, God sent someone who could explain and He opened my eyes to the people and things to appreciate around me.
- Another thing that has helped cope with homesickness has been taking a little bit of time to enjoy comforts from home. When we moved here expecting our fourth baby, we were stretching every penny. Now that we have paid for that and we live in an affordable country, we try to take once a week to enjoy something: a nice restaurant, shopping in an actual store instead of the dirty street market, a café or time with friends.
- Keeping a timeline in mind has helped me stay sane. If I know my current reality is not forever, I can take the time I am there to enjoy it.
- In a similar vein, if I know that something more “comfortable” is possible, I don’t feel so trapped. For me, knowing that I could go live somewhere where I speak the language and am familiar with the culture gives me mental breathing room.
- Finally, asking God how He wants to use my current reality to teach me and make me more like him helps me keep my eyes on the bigger perspective of transformation rather than temporary discomfort.
Homesickness is always going to be a part of our mortal life. In a spiritual sense we know this is because we were created for a different world. How we let God use our homesickness to change us, and also find ways to stay sane is the balance we must go through. We were created for relationship, so it is natural to miss the ones we leave behind. However, instead of pushing those things aside, we should properly grieve them, and then move on into the new relationships that will open up when we are ready.
What are you missing the most, whether significant or “trivial”? How do you cope with small losses?