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What makes us feel homesick decades after leaving home?

BY Katey Lovell

30th Dec 2022 Life

What makes us feel homesick decades after leaving home?

Katey Lovell left home more than 20 years ago, so why does she still feel homesick? Here are the reasons and responses 

In September 1998, I boarded a north-bound National Express coach, heading from a small border town in South Wales to Sheffield Hallam University.  

The UK’s fourth biggest city had it all. Clubs, bars, theatres, a skating rink…it was a huge juxtaposition to my hometown, which hadn’t even had a cinema until the year before. I’d always bemoaned the sleepy nature of where I came from, complaining about the lack of train station and how buses didn’t run on a Sunday (or past six in the evening). Sheffield had options, opportunities—I thought I’d love it.

Longing for Wales 

But despite Sheffield offering everything a student could hope for, I missed the Wye Valley. The natural beauty of the winding path of the river cutting through my town, the quirky gatehouse bridge I’d walked through most days, even the colour of the leaves on the trees, which I swore were a different tone of green to those in the steel city. Sheffield had a charm of its own, with its seven hills, boasting both brutalist architecture and sprawling woodlands, but my heart still longed for Wales.  

Wye River in Wales

The Wye River in Wales

Over time, I settled. Friendships were formed, a career was built and I married a man who had spent his childhood in South Yorkshire. Our son was born in Sheffield, and I’ve now lived in Sheffield longer than I lived in my hometown. Yet no matter how happy I am in my adopted city, there’s always a desire to return to Wales. Why? 

Emotional attachment 

The simple answer is that the concept of home doesn’t necessarily correlate with time spent in a place—instead, it is about emotional attachment and a feeling of safety. 

“Homesickness usually stems from being somewhere that doesn't quite feel like home,” says award-winning Cheshire psychologist Wendy Dignan. “It's a little bit like grief emotionally because we've lost something that provides boundaries. As humans, we create a safe zone.

"The concept of home is about emotional attachment and a feeling of safety"

“Some people may not be particularly attached to a place and that means their safe zone is internal, but others rely on an external stimulus, so it might be a place, or a home, or with a person.”

Senses and triggers 

Interestingly, our senses also play a big part in homesickness, particularly scent, which explains why the scent of talcum powder transports me right back to my childhood home.

Person walking through lavender field

Homesickness can be triggered by sensory experiences like certain smells

“Scent bypasses a part of the brain,” explains Dignan, “that's why sometimes a smell triggers an instant memory or emotion.” Recognising what triggers your homesickness can be helpful in overcoming it. 

Nostalgia and hiraeth 

There’s also an element of nostalgia at play. The desire to return home—especially after such a long time away—can be as much about wanting to go back to a simpler, happier time of life as it is about returning to a place. This is particularly relevant when feeling homesick for where you grew up.

"Hiraeth is a combination of longing and grief for a lost time or place"

The Welsh language has a word for this specific type of homesickness—"hiraeth”. There’s no direct equivalent in English, but hiraeth is a combination of longing and grief for a lost time or place. Although hiraeth relates to an acutely painful situation, it’s not a word with negative connotations.

It recognises the love for a specific time and place as well as accepting that going back in time is impossible. Those who do take the leap and return to their hometown may find a very different place to the one they left behind.

Connections and safe zones 

There are things you can do to help yourself if you are struggling with homesickness. Surrounding yourself with familiar objects and following a regular routine can be a way of holding onto connections to the past, while being present in the now.

Dignan suggests going to the same coffee shop or gym at a certain time each day or week to build a pattern of familiarity because, as humans, familiarity is a useful tool for overcoming homesickness and building that all-important safe zone. She speaks of us searching for a pattern to our world. When so much in our lives is unpredictable and beyond our control, it is no surprise that we crave the stability of a safe zone.

"However much I love the life I have in South Yorkshire, there’s a part of me that will forever belong in Wales"

I’m fortunate to have that solid foundation in Sheffield, with a loving family, supportive friends, and a comfortable home, but I’ve come to accept there will always be a magnetic force pulling me towards the green, green grass of home. The pangs of longing wax and wane but, however much I love the life I have in South Yorkshire, there’s a part of me that will forever belong in Wales. 

And that’s okay.

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