I watched the back of the van disappear into a cloud of winter’s leftover dust, carrying away my fiance and his extended family back to Austria where he was working, and burst into tears, the kind with great gasping sobs.
I had been living for a few months in Slovakia. Winter is not Bratislava’s finest season, grey skies, grey streets, grey buildings. I was teaching English at different companies, and so had limited contact with other people on a regular basis other than my students, to many of whom this timid inexperienced girl was not nearly exciting as the gregarious loud fun experienced man I had taken over classes from. After the disaster of my first living arrangements, I was living with a kind but largely absent woman.
In short I was lonely, hated the city, and felt incompetent at my job. Oh, and didn’t yet speak the language of the land. I missed my mountains, being able to ask for a product at the store without acting it out, and my family.
The thing about homesickness is that, in most cases, it is our own choices that have brought us to that point. We’ve moved away to another country or a.cross country, away from the life and people we know. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so permanent when making those choices, or we’re caught up in the excitement of the moment.
And then, with a piercing ache, we miss the places and people of ‘home,’ even when it’s no longer where we live.
Sometimes you hate where you are and want to go back. But sometimes you can love one home and still miss the other.
The holidays can be particularly hard. Families and friends come to together to celebrate and carry out traditions, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Summer holidays bring to mind vacations, travelling to visit family.
Like all painful emotions, homesickness comes and goes. The ebb and flow can be related to how life is going at the moment and sometimes it just seems random.
Homesickness is the same as “heartsick for what is not”. I’m sure some language has a single word for that. Perhaps you haven’t moved far away but you are sorrowfully nostalgic for a certain time of life or a beloved person who has died, a time or a place or a person that is no more. Or perhaps you wish your life was different than it is but are unable to change the circumstances.
There are, of course, more factors at play than I could refer to in a pithy list, but if you are feeling homesick or heartsick, these are a few practices I’ve found that help.
1. Find the beauty
What did I do that winter afternoon of sobs, now 14 years ago? My mother’s cure for most ills is a hot bath or a long walk; I went for a walk. I was between cameras at the time, but somehow along the way I started looking around as if I had one, narrowing in on small beautiful details. I think I even held my hands up, looking through the frame of two thumbs and forefingers. And it calmed me down.
It’s part of the reason I enjoy photography. Even when everything else seems ugly and horrible, if you hone in on the small things you can find something of beauty. (By the way, all the photos on this post were taken with a phone, so no fancy cameras needed!)
Perhaps you can find beauty where you are: morning light, a child’s gift of flowers tied with plastic twine, frost on leaves.
Perhaps you’ll have to make the beauty. The smell of cookies baking. The sound of soothing music or danceable tunes. Relishing the taste of said cookies. A kind word to another, especially those living in the same house.
The problem is, the worse you feel the harder it is to find the beauty. But it’s there, waiting for you to notice.
2. Write your gratitudes
They say that being grateful makes people happier. For me, being grateful goes together with finding the beauty.
It can be easy to rattle off a list of things we ought to be grateful for but that don’t seem to make us feel much better, or excite any particular feeling of gratitude. In general those who go without are the ones truly grateful for the necessities – a roof over my head, enough food to eat, a safe environment to live in. To find something to be grateful for, instead focus on the little things.
I remember once being in an absolute foul mood and finally in frustration going outside with the kids because being outside with cranky kids is infinitely preferable to being inside with cranky kids (whether their crankiness was objective crankiness or my crankiness is another matter). I was standing as they played, grumbling at the grim world I found myself in, when I remembered that I had not been writing down gratitudes recently.
Against strong disinclination (you know when you are grumpy and you just want to stay grumpy?), I started to look for something to be grateful for. A spruce tree was next to me so I crushed some needles between my fingers and took a deep breath of the fragrant scent of forest, of hikes in the mountains, of spruce tea boiling over an open fire. And suddenly I could see all the other moments of beauty – the trickle of the small spring, the greeness of the grass, the warmth of the sun. And didn’t I have just the cutest kids ever?
They also say that writing gratitudes make you experience it twice, so write away. I have a small notebook where I jot them down, note form. I’m afraid it isn’t a habit yet, it comes and goes but I know I feel much better when I do. If you are a Christian, I highly recommend the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.
3. Other people
If you have moved to a new place and don’t know many people, this tip will read “go meet people.” If you are overwhelmed with the number of people you are around, this tip will read “take some quiet time.”
Even introverts need to be around other people and extroverts need some alone time, though it may feel uncomfortable at first.
Besides needing connections with other people, getting to know others helps us to focus on others and stop navelgazing at how awful we feel.
Personally, I find myself in the camp of often finding it awkward to meet new people. And, if you are an expat, very often the norms of how people meet in your new country are different than your original country.
When my oldest was a few months old, we moved to a new town, Svätý Jur. With still quite limited Slovak, I knew nobody other than our neighbour/landlords for a month or two. No computer, no internet, no car, a husband mostly at work and graduate school. Not coincidentally, it is also the only time I studied Slovak with any consistency. I went for a lot of walks with baby on my back.
I heard that there was a mother’s centre so I went to check it out. In a fairly small room, the other mothers chatted and kids played while we sat in the corner, feeling even more alone and awkward. Towards the end one of the mothers (thank you Monika!) asked what my name was. When I replied “Naomi”, she said, “That’s not a Slovak name.” The next week I did not want to go. It would have been so much more comfortable just to stay home and not venture into the awkward world of meeting people Slovak style, as Slovaks are mostly quite reserved with strangers. But I knew it was good for me to go, and I made myself. In the end, I made very good friends there, the other women were very kind and friendly and open and I was sorry to move away.
So, go out and meet people. In my current town I met many people by joining a local choir. Join a club, volunteer, take a class, go to church, workout at a gym.
4. Get off social media
I know, you miss people from home and so you scroll through your feed to see what they are up to. The problem is is that 99% of the time everyone only posts the good things. You see photos of all the fun events you could be at, and feel even more sorry for yourself.
To connect with people you miss, pick up the phone and call. It’s only in conversation that friends will reveal the struggles they may be having or be able to have sympathy for yours.
Not to mention, there are all kinds of links between excess time on social media and loneliness, depression, and anxiety. You don’t necessarily have to go cold turkey, but if you find yourself constantly checking it or scrolling through bored, at least turn off your phone notifications.
Self-care is such a buzzword that I cringe to use it. But it’s important for a reason.
I’m not referring to self-care in the sense of “I need to go to the spa and take some me time” but much more basic. Sleep enough. Eat properly. Move your body. Go outside.
Without those basic necessities, life is just harder.
How many of us are getting the ol’ eight hours a night? Not enough. How many made New Year resolutions to exercise more? Many of us. How many of us get comfortable in our cars and couches and find the day goes by without having a proper walk outside (nature is calming and grounding and all that)? Oh, you too. And food affects our moods in more ways than just being ‘hangry’.
That all seems like enough for a second full time job. Ain’t no one got time for that. But you must make the time. Prioritize it. If you have children it’s hard because relationships are a priority too. But if you are running on empty, minor issues become monstrous obstacles and a fond remembrance of home becomes a sob session. Your kids need a parent who sleeps, eats real food, moves their body, and breathes fresh air. I’ve far from perfect in these areas, but I try to be mindful of it and recognize I do need these things.
6. Have a little cry
It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to miss home. How blessed are we who have a place and people to love! Sorrow at not being together shows a loving heart.
So have a little cry. Get it out. I may have done the same one early morning this Christmas season after seeing the rest of my family all together.
But try not to wallow in it. Get up, and find the beauty of the moment where you are.
For Christians, prayer can be a source of peace and strength, a call for help, the assurance of an understanding God, a reminder of the Four Last Things (and by association the transitional nature of this world). We can take our sadness, join it to Jesus’ suffering, and offer that up as a prayer.
Anybody can take a few minutes everyday to quiet their mind and breath deeply to maintain calmness and mindfulness. Or attempt to anyway.
Do you have a way of dealing with homesickness? Or of being in the present moment?
Write in the comments below, perhaps it will help another reader.