Handling Homesickness

Aug 16, 2011 |Becky Castle Miller

Nine tips to keep in mind before you move, when you arrive and the days that follow.

I have lived in two countries, seven states and 14 cities. I moved for the 25th time before my 25th birthday. In all that life-long change, the hardest move for me was the day I left home for college.

Though I generally considered myself a strong person, that day I fell apart. My mom described my tears in the car as we drove away with the unglamorous word of wailing.

Without a real hometown, my family was home to me. I had also invested myself deeply into my church during the end of high school. Leaving my community, my family and my friends tore my heart in a way that took years to heal.

Many of you are right in the midst of life upheavals, transitions, and moves that are both exciting and scary, that cause joy but also mourning. I hope that lessons I've learned from processing goodbyes, grief, and God's leading will bring hope and healing to your own homesickness.

Before You Go

Prepare for grief. Moving can be hard whether it's your first time or your 25th. Even when the changes in your life are good, there can be pain in what you leave.

Grief is a natural reaction to any loss, and homesickness is a natural reaction to moving. God's people in captivity understood homesickness: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. ... How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:1,4). To me, that verse feels like biblical permission to be homesick.

You may not feel sad or homesick at all, and that's OK, too. Just be prepared for a grief reaction so you're ready to handle it if or when it happens.

Create closure. In the million-and-two logistical details of moving, don't be so caught up in packing and travel arrangements that you leave unfinished business.

Plan out times to say goodbye to people in person. Tell them what you've appreciated about their friendship and express your hope for staying connected. If you have trouble talking when you're emotional (like I do), write letters to leave with your loved ones. Take pictures with your friends — even if tears have reddened your eyes and nose; you'll treasure those snapshots.

Settle any grudges or rocky relationships so you can leave at peace with your past.

Drive or walk around, revisiting favorite places, cementing those images in your memory. Take a moment to look around your home one last time.

Avoiding the reality of leaving will only make it worse in the long run. Embrace what's ahead by carefully closing what's behind.

When You Arrive

Make yourself at home. Invest in your new home. Even if you don't feel up to it, get out and explore. Find a new favorite restaurant and hang-out spot. Seek out unique, interesting aspects of your new town. Plan for your old friends or family to visit you, and think through what you'll want to show them. What does a perfect day in your new home look like? That process helps you "own" your new home, making you a resident, not a transient or a tourist.

Look for places to continue activities you enjoyed back home. If you're a runner, explore bike paths and trails; if you love volunteering, seek out an animal shelter, a nursing home, a library.

You can't replicate the life you left, but you can make a new life that's full and satisfying.

Risk your heart. The thought of investing in new friends may terrify you. You know what loss feels like, how much it hurts, and you know that if you love, you'll risk losing again.

Even knowing that you or your new friends may move away, choose to love them, rather than protecting your heart by keeping it securely to yourself. Don't fear putting down roots that might later be ripped up. The fruit that strong roots will bear is worth the risk.

Of course you'll miss your friends from back home. Stay in touch with them via Skype, e-mail, phone calls, texting. Just don't spend so much time keeping those relationships going that you forget to spend time building new ones.

Allow time to process. Deliberately set aside time to work through your experience. Give yourself permission to feel what you're feeling, rather than denying or trying to logic away your emotions. If you're an introvert, you'll probably want to do this alone; if you're an extrovert, you might want to talk it out with other people.

I find music to be cathartic. The right song gives words to my thoughts and melody to my emotions. Some of the songs that have helped me most in handling homesickness are:

  • "Stranger in This Land" by Waterdeep
  • "Faith My Eyes" by Caedmon's Call
  • "For My Home" by Tom Conlon
  • "Shadowfeet" by Brooke Fraser
  • "This is Home" by Switchfoot

Consider counseling. Sometimes we pass the point of being able to self-heal, and that's where professional counselors come in.

I waited far too long to see a therapist and made difficult emotions worse by delaying the processing. As both a military brat and a pastor's kid, I thought I had to be brave and independent, and that being homesick was a sign of weakness. If God or the Army wanted us somewhere else, we went. So for most of my life, I stuffed away my grief and believed I was OK.

When the accumulated losses suddenly caught up with me a couple of years ago, I finally started personal counseling. Don't wait a decade to deal with your emotions!

Sadness is normal when you go through a big change, but the strength of those emotions varies widely from person to person. If you experience extreme or long-term grief beyond your "normal" range, pursue professional counseling. Even a couple sessions with a licensed counselor can make a positive difference.

Persistent sadness, sleep issues (too much or too little), weight changes and thoughts of hurting yourself are symptoms of serious depression. Please, please tell someone if you're experiencing any of these. Focus on the Family counselors are available at 1-800-A-Family (232-6459).

Prepare yourself to go back home. Be ready for an onslaught of change the first time you return home. People will have moved on. Maybe you or your family sold your house, and you can't go back to the same physical home. Little things in your town will have changed: a new Starbucks on the corner, a new name on the grocery store.

You might not have noticed these gradual changes if you'd been there to watch them, but seeing them all at once can be jarring. That's disorienting, and it's OK to feel conflicted or confused.

You may also feel replaced and displaced. On my first trip home from college, I stood in an empty church hallway, as lost as a kid in a department store. "I don't know where I belong," I told a friend. "No one needs me here anymore. My jobs have all been filled: the Sunday school class I taught, the small group I led. But I don't fit in at school yet either. I don't have a place there."

He replied, "We don't miss you because you were a leader. We miss you because you're our friend."

While others may fill the roles you leave behind, you are not replaceable. You are a unique creation of God, and no one else can replace you in your friends' hearts. No one else will do things like you did. If your old job or ministry or friendship seems to have been taken over by someone else, that doesn't mean you are insignificant. You made an impact in the past, and God has precious plans ahead for you.

At All Times

Dwell in God's presence. "I the LORD do not change," God promises in Malachi 3:6. That's one of the most comforting verses to me regarding handling homesickness.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the one unchangeable in this life. Whether I am facedown on the carpet in an upper room in Missouri or kneeling on my kitchen floor in Rhode Island, I feel His comfort.

Spend time alone in His presence, in worship and prayer, both before and after you move. You'll find that He is the same no matter where in the world you move, no matter the status of your relationships, or housing, or school, or job. Sink your roots down into intimacy with Him, because He is the consistent home that can never be taken away from you.

Look toward heaven. We long for a permanent home, but we dwell in a non-permanent world. So how do we live in the tension between heaven and earth?

Abraham knew, as he lived as a foreigner, wandering from place to place, dwelling in tents. He was looking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. That view toward heaven helped him and his sons and grandsons find contentment as fellow heirs of the same promise (Hebrews 11:8-10). "Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:16). And not just a city, but a home. Jesus said, "My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2).

God gave us a desire for home to remind us that He is our real home. Homesickness is not only normal, but I also think it's healthy. No matter what changes you go through, how much you lose or where you live, you can know that one day you'll be home forever.

Copyright 2011 Becky Castle Miller. All rights reserved.

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