The Unspoken Grief of Migrating
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
This blog post has been inspired by my conversations with fellow migrants to New Zealand from various parts of the globe and my work as a group facilitator of a grief programme.
When people migrate, through choice or necessity, there is often a grief process that comes with it. Whether recognised or not grief comes in some form with any experience of loss or change. Migrating involves massive, sometimes overwhelming change, that can elevate the migrants stress levels and make coping with everyday life more of a challenge. It can put stress on relationships of migrant families. Left unrecognised and unacknowledged this often unspoken and hidden stress can take its toll over time.
We experience stress in our bodies and minds when we feel threatened. Real or perceived this threat creates fear and our brains and bodies respond to fear with the fight, flight, freeze response. This is a survival tool that helps us when we are in immediate danger. It is only ever intended as a short-term response not a long-term state of being. How quickly we adapt to the change of migrating and assimilate into the new culture we find ourselves in can impact how much stress we experience.
We all adapt to change differently, depending on the coping strategies learned from past experience and how we respond to the new environment we find ourselves in. As humans, we are social beings. We all like to feel like we fit and contribute to the society we live in. Growing up we learn to fit by taking our cues from the environment we inhabit, from the language, tools, rules and boundaries that make up the culture and sub-cultures we engage with. These cultural norms not only help us survive but also thrive in society. Cultural norms change when we migrate.
Our perception and perspective on life comes from these cultural norms, which help us form the core beliefs we hold. It is normal then, when we migrate, to experience not only a change in our outer world but also in our inner world. It can feel like we have to wear new glasses so we can adapt our vision to the new environment. Our core beliefs can be challenged, forcing us to bring into our conscious awareness and challenge long held beliefs that have served us well in our old society but no longer serve in the adopted society. It can leave us feeling disoriented and out of kilter with the world we are living in.
Added to this are the enduring links to the world we left behind, that continues in our absence. Family and friends we keep in touch with. Changes in the landscape of the environment and culture of our motherland, that we are not directly influenced by but view from afar. These links can leave us feeling powerless, as we try to maintain the links but without the vicinity to affect change or help in any way.
All these factors can contribute to a rocking of our world that can feel like an earthquake leaving us with no solid ground to stand on. Society tells us we have to adapt and change and make an effort to fit in and for some that is easier than for others. For those who struggle to fit and cope with the change it can be more complex than that. It requires us to dig deep and find strength in our own being.
So how do we find that inner strength at the core of our being? For each of us it will be different but Māori have a wonderful word, turangawaewae. It has to be my favourite word for explaining this inner strength. It has stuck with me since I first heard it. Turangawaewae was explained to me on one of my Marae visits, as the group I was with stood in the wharenui in the centre of the Marae surrounded by the carvings, weavings and photographs, all representing the ancestry of the Iwi of that Marae. It was explained that this was the place to experience standing tall and strong, firm on two feet. It was the place, surrounded by their ancestry, where each member could find their place of belonging and once they had that understanding and recognised what it felt like, they could take that with them wherever they went in the world and still feel that inner strength and understanding of belonging no matter what life throws at them.
How can this inform a way forward for migrants to help them find strength in their travels and adapt to the new life in the new land, without loosing who they are in the process?
We all come from somewhere, belong to some family, whether it is through birthright or circumstance. our sense of belonging depends on what we choose to identify with. Migrating challenges us to live consciously and question who we are as human beings and how we fit in the context of the bigger picture of the world we inhabit. It asks us: “How do we want to be in the world?” It invites us into a place of self-awareness offering us an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to accept that parts that sit well with us and leave the rest without judgment or criticism. It invites us not only to explore our new environment but also to explore and bring into our conscious awareness aspects of our inner world to find the strength we need to draw on to help us not only cope but to thrive in this new world. To do that takes courage. This is the same courage that helped us step away from all that we knew to venture out into a different world and set down new roots. It also takes a shift in focus not only to self-awareness but also to self-care.
Self-care is really important at a time we may feel vulnerable and unsure. This is the time to be our own best friend, to put ourselves first. It is not selfish to do this. It is self-caring. Even if we have dependents that rely on us, all the more reason to put ourselves first. It is important to stay balanced so we are in a good place to interact with those around us and support those dependent on us. On an aeroplane, the safety instructions in case of emergency tell us to put on our own oxygen mask first, before assisting others. We are each ultimately responsible for ourselves first. Once we are in a healthy balanced place within ourselves the positive energy that comes from that place flows out of us into those around us.
Migrating highlights all that it means to be human. We are individuals living in the context of the bigger picture that is ever-changing. Change brings loss and grief. To manage change loss and grief, we have to accept what we cannot control and learn to understand what we can control to survive. To survive we have to adapt to change. To adapt to change we have to know ourselves. To know ourselves we need to be self-aware and self-caring. In developing the self-awareness of our inner world we can connect to the context of the outer world we live in, wherever that may be and still stand tall in our own truth and be strong enough not only to survive but to thrive.