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What I learned about the connection between homesickness and re-entry

Before going abroad I sucked at perseverance.

I quit piano, I quit ballet, I didn’t study for tests. If I got into a fight with a friend, I assumed our friendship was over. So it’s no surprise that I hit a wall about six weeks into my year-long high school exchange program.

I was homesick. Really, really homesick. I was so homesick that at one point I was issued a one-way plane ticket back to the US, scheduled to arrive on my 17th birthday.

The depth of my homesickness surprised me. I wasn’t even sure what I was homesick for since all I’d ever wanted to do was leave home. All I knew was that I felt like crap every single day. And all of my see-the-world-dreams were completely overshadowed by the insatiable longing for a hug from my mom.

Every time I talked to my mom on the phone I tried to convince her that I should go home. That I didn’t really want to be an exchange student. That I’d be so much happier back in my old bedroom, going to my old school, wandering around the mall on the weekends.

Fortunately, my mom knew this wasn’t true, and she coached me over several days (and hundreds of dollars in phone bills because calling home was super expensive back then – sorry, Mom!) until I found the inner strength to return the plane ticket and complete my exchange year in Germany.

What turned things around?

When my mom identified my relentless feelings of deep sadness as grief.

Grief.

I’ve been through that. I can deal with that.

It suddenly made sense.

I didn’t want to go home; I was grieving home.

My last glimpse of home had been seeing my mom, dad, brother, and best friend waving good-bye from the airport terminal. Seeing them from the plane, just minutes before taking off into the unknown, I was struck with a deep-in-my-bones knowing that I was putting more than physical distance between us. 

When my mom put the word grief to my indescribable sadness, it started to make sense. In the process of gaining a new language, culture, family, and sense of identity, I was also losing things I didn’t even know I’d had, things that I could only describe as home.

Soon after that phone call with my mom the sadness lifted and I began to build a life in my adopted country. (And I realized that my mom could give me virtual hugs over the phone.)

We often talk about re-entry as a specific period of time, as happening once we return home, as reverse culture shock. But at its core, re-entry is about working through the grief inherent in transition.

I used to think homesickness and re-entry were two different things occurring at two different times. I don’t anymore. Now, I see homesickness as the simply the beginning of re-entry.

What about you? What’s your experience with homesickness? When did re-entry start for you?

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About Author

Hello, I'm Dr. Cate Brubaker! Are you a returnee who has been surprised to find your return "home" harder than going abroad? I created the Re-entry Roadmap workbook just for you. If you work with returnees, I'm here to help you with innovative resources and training that will make it easier to provide meaningful support for your returnees.