Migratory grief: a split-screen life

By Sara Valle-Martínez

There are over nine million immigrants living in the United Kingdom according to a 2019 study by The Migration Observatory. This means 14% of the population could be experiencing what is known as “migratory grief.”

The British Psychological Society says there are two types of loss: the physical one, which would refer to a tangible loss such as a loved one; and the symbolic loss, which is more abstract such as “a homeland, status, social environment and social identity.” The latter is the most common amongst immigrants trying to adapt to a different country, climate, and culture.

Yetunde Otuwehinmi, who works as a counsellor in London Metropolitan University, said: “I think any movement is a loss and it’s traumatic depending on what the journey has been, what they left and what they come to because of the culture difference and the isolation.”

From Denada Sateri’s family album – she’s third from the left.

Denada Sateri, 30, front office assistant manager in a hotel in central London, was born in Albania and moved to Greece when she was six. She has experienced the shock of being an immigrant in two different countries throughout her life. Even though she recalls the time she left Albania as foggy and confusing, she remembers the sorrow.

Sateri said: “I remember back in 1997 there was a civil war in Albania, so it was really traumatic for me because that was the main reason that my parents wanted us to go in Greece. I remember this time that we had to get into the ship to get to Greece… and all I remember from that day was confusion and crying.

“I think it’s easier when you’re a kid because you don’t realise much but it can be hard in both situations. It’s really different when you have to leave your place because you’re forced to… But it’s hard anyway, even if it’s your decision because you want to try new things or find a better life or career,” Sateri added.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions also exacerbated the feeling of loss. In the midst of the global pandemic, in May 2021, the health insurance company Russell Williams interviewed over 1,100 expatriates worldwide about how COVID-19 affected their mental health. Over half of the expats would have preferred to travel back to their home country during the pandemic.

Miguel and his sibling. Photo provided by Miguel Arévalo.

These feelings of loss and guilt are especially common in first generation immigrants such as Miguel Arévalo, 27, animation student and Spaniard living in London. He said: “Once you move abroad to another country, in my opinion, you could say you live in two different universes. You have people you know and love in two countries and you have the constant feeling that you’re missing out on your own life because you have two lives that you can’t live simultaneously.”

Research in the US lists language and cultural differences, adaptation and social status and integration as some of the most common challenges in migrant mental health. But remorse and the fear of missing out often top the list for expats in casual conversation.

“We always forget our parents are growing old and now it’s the time we need each other the most but we don’t realise until you’re away. … I’ve cried many nights about this because I miss them, but I know I have to be stronger for them and for myself,” Sateri added. 

“Now that I have two lives, I don’t know where I belong,” said Miguel. “I’m confused when I try to think where I’m comfortable or where my home is. It’s not an easy answer anymore.”

If you are a London Metropolitan student experiencing any mental health issues or difficulties coping with your day-to-day life, please make sure to contact the Counselling Service team here.

You can also find mental health crisis helplines at Mind’s website.

Link to published story: https://hollowayexpress.org.uk/migratory-grief-a-split-screen-life/

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