Migratory grief: More than just homesickness

A Parisian metro station. Photograph used with the permission of its author, Kelvik Pineda.

Whether forced or not, there is no denying that migration causes different types of ailments not only for migrating people but also for the families, friends, and various personal connections they leave behind. Many of us know how, or rather, learn how to cope with its multiple burdens. Otherwise, our circumstances force us to prioritize survival over emotions. 

However, sooner or later, bouts of homesickness often overwhelm migrants to varying degrees. These feelings stem from dates that take us back, text messages, social media content, and even the social climate of the country in which we now live.

In my case, the trigger that made me think about all these things and remember my life before leaving Nicaragua was realizing that more than five years had passed since I left. At that moment, emotions overwhelmed me, which weren’t all necessarily negative but were how I felt when I left, thus making me relive my migratory grief.

As Spanish psychiatrist Joseba Achotegui states, migratory grief has specific features that make it different from conventional grief, like when we lose a loved one, for example. One of its most striking features is its multiplicity. The person suffering this grief experiences multiple losses from one cause: migration.

The impact of migratory grief on people’s health

Migratory grief should not be considered a direct synonym of migration. As Achotegui points out, “This would mean denying the existence of the many positive aspects of migration and its benefits.” Leaving a country can also have many positives: new job opportunities, better studying conditions, improved family finances, and, something we often take for granted, being alive.

That said, we cannot ignore that migrating often means experiencing multiple stressors. In 1973, endocrinologist Hans Selye defined “stress” as “the body’s non-specific response to any demand placed upon it.” However, how does stress affect people’s health?

In 2001, Maddock and Pariante hypothesized that “stress could trigger the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This causes hormonal and behavioral changes (sickness behavior).” Considering psychological stress as a pathophysiological process, the release of cytokines, among other contributing factors, is even involved in neurodegenerative changes and reduced neuroplasticity.

These conditions include the involvement of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary stress response mechanism. This axis ends with the release of hormones into the bloodstream, one of which is the renowned “stress hormone,” cortisol. 

According to the Best & Taylor Treatise on Physiology, some of cortisol’s effects on health include: 

  • In terms of circulation, it causes increased blood pressure.
  • In terms of bones, decreased calcium absorption and increased secretion through intestinal and renal mechanisms cause marked osteopenia (reduced bone density).
  • In severe cases, like Cushing's Syndrome, it can cause states of depression, euphoria, and even mania.

In general terms, these are a direct consequence of the prolonged elevation of this hormone. However, cortisol also plays a crucial role in stress adaptation and has anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular, metabolic, and immunomodulatory functions.

Experiencing migratory grief or going through constant stress because of the triggers around us doesn’t necessarily mean that we will suffer from any related serious illnesses. Therefore, as migrants, it is crucial to remember that everyone’s circumstances are different. The conditions under which we migrate and how our lives evolve also differ.

Far from alarming and fatalistic, this article seeks to provide a quick reminder that the stress we experience as migrants and its emotional impact are closely related to its physical impact. Therefore, we should not trivialize the health problems that we now have and probably didn’t have before migrating.

Can we prevent migratory grief?

A few years ago, a friend and I interviewed some individuals exiled from Nicaragua for my podcast, La Guarida del Oso (The Bear’s Den). In these interviews, we got various takes on the incidents in Nicaragua in April 2018, the individuals’ experiences of being forced to leave and coping with their new realities, and so on. We also had a few moments of reflection in these discussions on how each individual creates their own concept of “homeland” and what they miss about it. Homesickness can often overwhelm us because of various factors: food, relatives, friends, pets, personal belongings, and daily activities.

There will always be something that somehow triggers homesickness, a memory, and uneasy feelings about our past lives at home. We must experience these emotions, at least in my mind, as they keep us grounded in the reality of being human beings able to overcome significant challenges, like leaving our comfort zone, inner circle, family, food, and even our language behind.

You can’t help but feel this grief. However, you can take action to prevent its temporary emotional impact from becoming a more chronic health problem that we cannot control over time.

On a more personal note, I encourage you to do some physical activity where time allows. Try to rebuild a sense of community with new people, and be open to new gastronomic experiences and cultural exchanges with people interested in learning about your culture. But most importantly, don’t feel guilty about your emotions or the decisions you made that brought you to this new reality in a different country with completely different people. After all, migration threatens to separate us from our identity, and all these factors are part of it.

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