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Long Way Home

Dealing with grief and homesickness is always on your terms, no matter where you are.

I wish grieving was like math. Wrong or right, you’d still get to some sort of answer, perhaps without ever knowing how you arrived at it. The word problems would look something like this:

If you cry for a day, eat irregularly for a week, and sleep till the lines between day and night become indistinguishable, how long does grief last?

Or this:

Person X has 15 chocolates. They exchange 5 in return for your sadness. How many chocolates do they have left? How much sad remains in you? I could solve the first part almost instantly. The latter is what gives me the most trouble.

In economics, we often use the term "ceteris paribus," to describe causal relationships. Literally translated as "with other things being the same," the term allows us to study the cause and effect relationship between two variables by assuming that all other relevant factors remain constant. It has never made sense to me even, though economic theory swears by it. How can you isolate any thing when everything is a tapestry weaved with threads of different factors?


On some subconscious level, I think I wanted to apply the ceteris paribus law to my life at home when I first came to school; I wanted all things to remain the same there so that they would be familiar whenever I returned.

For many of us at college, home is not a short bus ride away. For some, it’s no longer even in the same time zone. For me, home is a 17-hour flight away, and that’s before I factor in the hours of layovers in strange airports. Between my home and my school, there are 10 hours of time difference, and the closest I can come to breaching the physical space between the two is by a phone call or FaceTime.

And even so, there are times when home feels completely inaccessible.

When I was home over break, I scribbled this down somewhere: “Leaving is harder than pulling your nails out.” Watching your grandmother wither away as your flight itinerary sits in your room is, to say the least, uncomfortable, and contemplating whether or not you’ll be able to see her again is a permanent backpack of guilt on your shoulders. At times like this, getting on a plane can be hard. But you still do it, because you somehow have to. And the regret that follows is permanently stamped in your passport. And, somehow, at this point, your decision to board a plane is bound in shackles of self-imposed blame. When you find out later—over the phone, of course—that you are a grandparent less, the only one left to console you is your grief cloaked in anger.

It’s different for everyone. Maybe you never thought you’d be homesick and thought you hated your family. Maybe they were your best friends and you did everything together, and every time your sibling posts a picture of them eating at your favorite restaurant, a thread of belonging unwinds itself in your chest and floats away. Suddenly, you have a little less of them and they have none of you. Maybe that hurts a little. Or just surprises you. You never thought nostalgia was going to be a problem for you. Homesickness: you were never one to carry diseases. But it suddenly weighs you down.

When you miss a birthday.

When you lose a grandparent.

The reason I never cared much for the idea of "ceteris paribus" or constants is not only because I deemed the idea impractical and obsolete, but because I believe that the only constant we have is change. But, change can still be unsettling, no matter how hard you prepare for it. It doesn’t matter if you spend all of winter break at the side of your grandparent thinking this may be the last time you see them. It still hits you left, right, and center.

Apparently, there are five stages of grief, but that information would only be helpful to me if I knew where to start. I believe there is some truth in saying there is no right place to start. It varies from person to person. Similarly, there isn’t any formula you can use to rid yourself of homesickness. It shrinks and grows in size, but it never really goes away. It stays with you as long as you stay away.

But, what do you do with these sentiments? I wish I knew. But, I have figured out what not to do with it. I’ve realized not to use ceteris paribus; isolating these feelings doesn’t make them disappear. Instead, acknowledging them can be the right foot forward. Every time we face either grief or homesickness, it is perceived as something you get over; a transient place. Fearing that it might be a little more permanent than that can be scary. But, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t always have to be transitional.

Stay there—whatever “there” is for you—for as long as you want. And when you feel like moving on from this place, know that you are capable of that as well. Being sad is okay. Not being sad is just as okay. Being homesick is okay. Grieving is okay. Especially when it’s a long way home.

Zuneera Shah ’19 lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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