Absence Makes the Heart Ache Longer
We all know the benefits of living overseas – be it for a few years or forever – but often we miss out on a lot too. Sue Mannering considers the trade-offs for families living the expat lifestyle.
Within six months of our family moving to Dubai from Australia in late 2005, my husband’s aunt died suddenly. He made the 15-hour journey home for the funeral with one of our sons. That same year, my sister married, and our family of five traveled to Sydney for the wedding. But I missed another sister’s 40th birthday, and we spent our first Christmas overseas. As the years rolled by we were absent for births, deaths and marriages. I recognized the ache in my chest as loss.
How do we cope with these feelings of loss? And what do we do as our parents age and increasingly need our help? And what about divorce on assignment, and children traveling between countries to visit parents?
Earlier this year, as part of a scholarship, I attended the annual Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference in Washington, D.C. A non-profit educational organization based in the U.S., FIGT’s aim is to provide educational resources to help families who relocate internationally. In its 16th year, the conference brought together some 150 people from all around the world to provide information on supporting global families, both expatriating and repatriating. This year’s theme was ‘The Global Family: Redefined’. A session entitled ‘Forgotten Relatives: Coping with the Extended Family’ provided some answers to these questions. The session was headed by psychologist Dr. Jill Kristal and intercultural trainer, advisor and author, Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly.
As Dr. Kristal and Vennekens-Kelly put it, “Missing out on events impacts your connection to those you love.” You aren’t there to build shared memories. This can trigger feelings of sadness, loss guilt and loneliness. When you are next in the company of your family and the event comes up in conversation, these feelings are raised again.
“Just because you aren’t there doesn’t mean you don’t care,” says Vennekens-Kelly. She provided the following advice to help expatriates manage their feelings about missing out on family occasions:
- Discuss rather than avoid the topic.
- Try to creatively find ways to participate and express interest in the event.
- Accept that some people will be upset with you.
- Celebrate the event on your next visit.
- Decide which events are important for you to attend.
Dr. Kristal suggests setting aside funds for travel throughout the year. Additionally, if you can’t attend something like a funeral, it may be of benefit to visit later.
Lastly, Dr. Kristal and Vennekens-Kelly suggest to be clear in what you are communicating and, “If you can’t be there, say that you can’t be there.” Don’t be vague or make promises you can’t keep; listen to and empathize with family members’ reactions, then offer other ways that you can participate in the event.
A sudden deterioration in the health of parents calls for urgent decisions, while a gradual change can allow planning. The latter can be challenging for those far from home, particularly if there are siblings who have constant contact with your parents. Communication with everyone involved reduces the chances of conflict. Try to have some care planning meetings online. While offering your opinions and support, remember that you are not onsite, so you may have a different perspective. Consider what expectations there are of you. These might include financial support, having your parents live with you overseas, and your travel flexibility. Ask how you can best help, and create a contingency plan in case you need to visit your relatives quickly.
Dr. Kristal and Vennekens-Kelly surveyed some expatriates who offered the following tips:
- Some cultures don’t discuss the issue of aging parents, and parents themselves may be unwilling to discuss their issues or even acknowledge changes.
- Document what you have agreed to.
- Keep a notebook by the bed if loved ones are in hospital so all family members can enter information.
- Try to be Skyped into doctor’s examinations.
- Periodically check in with the support team.
- Spend time with relatives while they are healthy.
The changing family & the ‘D’ word
There are many challenges for children impacted by the divorce of their parents while on assignment. Identifying the needs of the children, visitation matters and managing relationships with the extended family is an ongoing process that requires constant revaluation and negotiation. In addition, divorce may change immigration status; ‘home’ may not be home and possible repatriation means that children may ‘lose’ a parent, and their ideas of family and culture may change.
“Remarriage across cultures requires extra determination,” say Dr. Kristal and Vennekens-Kelly. “It’s about relationships – maintaining the existing ones and building new ones”. They suggest the following:
- Define priorities.
- Manage your time with children and without.
- If children are spread across countries or continents, recognize the importance of being organized.
They also suggested putting the children’s needs first; creating a vision of where you want to go moving forward; and gathering all the school schedules each year. An awareness of different communication needs is also necessary: one child may prefer texting, while another may choose Skype (and this may change over time). Other ideas included creating a family website, blog or private Facebook group for sharing information and pictures (this can be useful for the absent parent). Some families like to make sure there’s time set aside for the children to have individual times to talk with their absent parent.
At the end of the session, Dr. Kristal explained, “You left, so you have the responsibility to make the effort to stay connected.”
Fortunately, in this world of interconnectivity, our communication choices have never been wider, or more immediate.
Images © altanaka via shutterstock.
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