On finding a sense of belonging…

Cultural transition and grief (Part 1)

“My heart wants roots. My mind wants wings.

I cannot bear their bickerings.”


I think I am safe in saying that all of us have a need for strong relationships and a sense of belonging. It goes along with knowing ourselves and being known by others. That is, being in a place where we don’t have to continually explain ourselves and our history, where we are understood, accepted and feel that we matter to others. A place that can nurture us.

Many of us grow up in a basically stable, traditional, monocultural community where our value system, sense of identity and core relationships (with family and friends) can develop and we feel settled and comfortable knowing where we belong and how we fit in.

“Being known” provides us with a sense of stability and security and generates trust. But what happens when we are uprooted early on in our lives? What if we have to face a number of significant losses and separations before the end of our adolescence? What if we have to relearn the basic cultural rules and practices over and over again, including new languages?

During the first 18 months of our life, with the stability, care and affection of our caregivers, we develop a sense of trust in the world which continues into adolescence as we search for who we are and develop our identity, self-awareness, self-esteem and relationships. Frequent uprooting may not provide enough stability to allow these aspects to fully develop. It may not be possible to form strong and stable relationships and may leave us feeling lonely, isolated and insecure.

Experiencing multiple cultural transitions during the formative years without appropriate physical and emotional support can cause mistrust,  low self-esteem and a fragile sense of self. The experience can be traumatic and impact on our emotional health well into adulthood.  We may end up lacking a sense of purpose and suffer from depression, becoming dissatisfied with our job, relationships and life in general, troubled by a sense of rootlessness and restlessness. We may be prone to rageful outbursts which not only frighten ourselves and our loved ones but may also jeopardise our wider relationships.

Apart from resentment, anxiety and a deep sense of emptiness, depression and anger are also common emotional responses to unresolved grief,  for unresolved grief is what we’re talking about here. The deep underlying sadness experienced by many who have lived through cultural displacement during their formative years is often linked to losses in the past.

The healing process can begin when we connect with the sadness and start naming the losses, whether it be loss of status, lifestyle or the past that might have been. Then we can allow ourselves to grieve. Grieving is a natural process and it is important to share our thoughts and feelings with someone we trust and feel safe with, like a counsellor, who can be with us during our immediate emotional discomfort when we initially express these losses. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve we will remain stuck and unable to engage fully with the next part of our life.