Anatomy of Homesickness

By Valerie Andrews

photo by Ahmet Sali unsplash

There are many reasons for feeling homesick — from heading off to college to moving to a new community to fleeing times of war or famine.  Though these are different degrees of loss and separation, psychologists agree that it’s hard to leave behind the people and places we love.    

First, it’s all about attachment. We bond with our towns and our homes, and when those relations are disrupted, we suffer just as we do with the loss of a beloved. In short, homesickness is like enduring a broken heart. We grieve and live in limbo, with faith that in time, we will grow to love another landscape, learn to build community, find comfort in another set of rooms.  A recent article in the Huffington Post sums up this point of view.  But what happens when the sadness lingers longer than a few weeks or months?  What does that say about the condition of our souls?

The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung linked persistent homesickness with an inability to adjust to new challenges and surroundings.  Writing to Sandor Torok in April, 1959, he said, “There are people who because of their homesickness cannot accustom themselves to any new situation. But then they would never have accustomed themselves to their homeland either. Others, who identify with their homeland, youth, and origins, regard them as a kind of lost paradise and yearn to get (it) back again.”    

People often harbor a messianic belief that they will be reborn in a new land.  In short, they project paradise into the future, imagining a city on the hill, where  life is easy, the spirit soothed, the streets paved with gold.  A necessary fairy tale, perhaps, for those who have to endure a perilous and costly journey.  But then it can be harder to endure the shock of the real. 

During the big wave of immigration in the nineteenth century, homesickness took such a toll on a newcomer’s health that doctors regarded it as a serious medical condition. “Homesick” meant depressed, moody, melancholy. It was associated with lack of energy and engagement. A general wasting of the body and the spirit.

Relocating meant severing all ties with one’s family and homeland, in a kind of limbo where the past was inaccessible and the future uncertain.  During that era of major migration and resettlement, America was awash in homesickness. But the problem wasn’t just missing a familiar time and place.  It was the collapse of hope.   

One of the hardest things for any immigrant is the loss of family talismans, those special possessions that affirm one’s values and identity. These objects carry a certain energy or manna. Without them, we grow disoriented and may even lose our will to live. As the psychologist William James once observed, “We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”  So let’s look at how things can help us to adapt to a new reality.

Carrying Home in a Quilt

American quilt, WikiMedia Commons

Pioneer women traveled West with “friendship quilts” made by loved ones they would very likely never see again. The journey was harsh and these quilts were used to cover the hard buckboard seats that bore into the spine and left dark bruises. Sometimes they were used to bury family members wiped out by marauders or disease on the hard journey. When they reached their destination,  these women would tack a quilt over the front door to keep out the dust, wind, or rain, and to consecrate the home.  Quilts adorned the walls of the most primitive lean-to, or shack, until a more permanent dwelling could be built. These artful creations connected settlers with their former way of life while brightening up a barren landscape. 

Life on the prairie had few comforts. Often the only furniture consisted of a tree trunk and a plank for a dining table, with a lumpy mattress in the corner of the room.  A quilt not only brought beauty and a sense of comfort, it reminded people where they came from, and of a whole symphony of relationships. Not surprisingly, it was one of the first things that got packed when it was time to move again, for there were more relocations on the horizon if the crops failed, the land was poor, or a husband died and the plot too much for a woman to manage on her own. 

The House as a Vessel of Culture

In Shadows on a Rock, Willa Cather observes that women were responsible for not just for feeding and clothing the family, but for carrying a bit of culture into a foreboding wilderness. In this passage, we see how important it is to pass certain rituals of homemaking on to the next generation.

photo by Peter Lewicki, unsplash

“During the last summer of her illness, (Madame Auclair) lay much of her time on the red sofa that had come so far out to the rock out in the wilderness. She could hear Cecile moving around in the kitchen, putting more wood into the iron stove, watching the casseroles. Then she would think, fearfully, about how much she was entrusting to that little shingled head; something so precious, so intangible; a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries, and that she had brought with her across the wastes of obliterating, brutal ocean. The sense of ‘our way’–that was what she wanted to leave with her daughter. She wanted to believe that when she was lying in this rude Canadian earth, life would go on almost unchanged in this room with its dear (and to her, beautiful) objects, that the proprieties would be observed with all the little shades of feeling that make the common fine.”

Caring for the contents of a home, no matter how rude or humble, means caring for the family soul. 

Fateful Moves

Freud’s collection of antiquities, WikiMedia Commons

In the twentieth century, a collection of statues helped ease the symptoms of homesickness for Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. When Freud closed his practice in Vienna before the start of World War II, he arranged to transport some two thousand antiquities to his new residence in London. Years later, he told Ernest Jones that his beloved statuettes helped him to adjust to a foreign land.  These talismans served as transitional objects for Freud’s patients on their inner journeys.  His consulting room was lined with figurines of totem animals, ancient gods and goddesses. In this energetic field, analysands lost in the realm of threatening feelings and emotions, learned how to find their way back home.  

Belgian city on the waterfront, photo by Alex Vasey unsplash

Often a single object allows us to reconstruct our feelings for a place. As a child, the writer May Sarton heard many stories about her family home in Belgium, with the magical name of “Wondelgem.” To her, it seemed a mythical place.  At the start of World War I, her parents had fled Europe and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Once peace was declared, they went back to see what remained of their estate.

“We were there at the gate,” Sarton writes, “At first, my (parents) must have felt their life together violated, trampled down.”

The building had been bombed and was now nothing but a ruin.    Then her mother cried out, “Look, George!” lifting a single Venetian glass with a graceful stem from a pile of rubbish.  “How has this single object survived to give us courage?” 

Our possessions endow us with a deep sense of continuity and connection.  We make the most successful adaptation to a new place when we internalize these values.  As Jung noted, those who cannot adapt,  “share the same illusion that the goal is somewhere to be found in outward things and conditions, without realizing that psychologically they already carry it within them and always have. If they knew that, the question of homesickness would be answered once and for all.”   The talisman is powerful because it connects us with the strength we have within.


Finding Your Talisman

One of the most traumatic things in life is the loss of home. With violence erupting in so many areas around the globe, we are now living in the Era of Displacement.  Today there are more exiles than ever before. Data from UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report, shows that almost 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced. To put this in perspective, this is double the level of 20 years ago, 2.3 million more than a year ago, and corresponds to a population between that of Thailand and Turkey. Most of these people are fleeing war and persecution, leaving their heirlooms behind and taking only what they can carry on their backs.  

Immigrants usually bring with them one or two small objects that remind them of home. 

On her mantel, a Guatemalan psychotherapist keeps a hand-carved figurine (dancing skeletons of a bride and groom) commemorating the Day of the Dead and promising a happy afterlife.  On the walls of his study, an Iraqi writer displays an illustrated page from the Koran, a souvenir from his grandfather’s library in Baghdad.

If you had only minutes to pick out what you loved then stuff it in a travel bag, what item would you choose? What object has enough “home” in it, to prevent you from getting “homesick”?   What piece would you carry with you as a talisman — to help you begin your life anew? 

Valerie Andrews is the founder and editor of Reinventing Home.  “We’ve experienced a new wave of relocation during the pandemic so we need to think more about the emotions surrounding homesickness. A recent article from Hire a Helper,  “Is Homesickness Mentally Dangerous?” provides a good summary of resources and tells you how to cope.  

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