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SA expat advice: telling your loved ones you’re emigrating

By January 7, 2016July 25th, 2020South African emigration

SA expat advice: telling your loved ones you’re emigrating

January 7, 2016

Emigrating from South Africa can be an administrative nightmare. You need a visa, certified documents, original documents, work, a place to stay, schools, transport, a passport, accounts and a whole list of additional paperwork.

But the hardest part of emigration is not necessarily the admin – it’s the emotional turmoil and upheaval which comes even before you’ve made your big move. It’s telling your friends and family that you’re leaving.

For many expats, this revelation can be the hardest part of the journey. In fact, many emigrant forums advise others to delay telling their families until their emigration has been approved and they’ve completed most of the administration.

So what can you do? How do you tell your loved ones and how do you deal with the conflict of leaving your family behind? We’ve rounded up a few pointers on breaking the news to your nearest and dearest.

There’s never a right time

Although you may want to hold off on telling your loved ones you are emigrating in order to spare yourself (and them) months of bickering and emotional upsets, carrying the burden around could also play havoc with your stress hormones. Of course we can’t advise on the right timing for your particular case, but think it through and give your family at least some warning before dropping the bomb. It’s much the same as breaking up with someone you’ve been in a relationship with for the wrong reasons – if you respect them, they need to know so that they can deal with it and prepare for a new life without you.

Prepare for grief

No matter how you break the news to your loved ones – there will be tears and there will be anger. Remember that emigration, to some, elicits the same grieving response as death or other severe trauma. The grieving process will therefore be the same as losing a loved one to death or abandonment, which means you need to be cognisant of the stages of grief your family and friends will go through. The five stages of grief include:

1. Denial

Denial is a survival instinct which helps the body cope with shock. In this stage, your family may seem a bit aloof, and they may even appear supportive. This is due to the fact that they have not yet processed the information and cannot make sense of it yet.

2. Anger

You may not want to hear it, but anger is a necessary precursor to healing. Unfortunately you will feel (and hear) the wrath of your loved ones as they vent their frustrations and disappointment at you. Don’t let the words spoken in this phase of grieving harm you and don’t retaliate. You may be experiencing the same grieving process, but remember that your loved ones did not have a choice in your move, so be empathetic.

3. Bargaining

In the bargaining stage, your loved ones may seem overly doting, religious or ‘nice’. During this stage of grieving, they are trying to bargain with the universe or God in order to change the inevitable. This is a confusing time, as people tend to do and say things they they don’t normally do – they are changing their actions and approach to life in order to establish if this change in themselves could change what has happened.

4. Depression

The stage of grief which could last the longest is undoubtedly depression. After denial, anger and bargaining have passed, your loved ones will find themselves deeply immersed in the reality of their situations. And from this reality springs a surreal and debilitating feeling of nothingness – every event, interaction and thought is painful. Be particularly cognisant of this phase for your family or friends who are alone or prone to depression – organise support structures or psychological help for them if needed. Despite depression being very scary though, remember that it is a natural stage of grief and necessary for healing.

5. Acceptance

At some stage, and without warning, your loved ones will accept your emigration. This could happen at any time – whether it takes months or years. It will be an overwhelming experience, since you’ll be used to a relationship filled with depression and arguments by now. You’ll have thought resentment to be at the core of your interactions with your family. So be aware – take in this beautiful moment, acknowledge the stages of grief and your move will be much easier.

The promises won’t last

Relocation often leads to many promises from both sides. You may find yourself promising to buy tickets or return frequently, while your loved ones will promise to visit you in return. But these promises rarely last. In reality, people just get busy. You will get busy trying to organise and adapt to your new life – and quite often you’ll simply want to sit and be quiet for a while – you’ll want to avoid further stressors from your life. And your loved ones will carry on with their lives – they will also get busy filling your void. In addition to this, there are unforeseen financial, health or administrative hurdles which may hinder travelling between these two countries. Be aware of this. Be prepared for this. Try not to make too many promises and don’t let broken promises dishearten or make you bitter.

Remain positive

Irrespective of your reasons for emigrating from South Africa, remember that your loved ones are still here. Before leaving, tell them positive stories about your new country without making it seem like a competition. Try to avoid negative commentary about South Africa. This may be harder than you believe. Because it is simply a natural human reaction to justify your move – and the best justification is often to discredit our reasons for staying. We also tend to depreciate our home countries in order to urge our loved ones to follow suit and join us where we are. But although this is quite natural, try to keep your negative remarks in check. Because in the end we want everyone we love to be happy and feel validated, irrespective of where they live.

Stop second-guessing yourself

Vilifying our home countries as emigrants also tends to come down to doubt. We need to reinforce our own choices with bravado, which is harmful to ourselves and others. Make peace with your decision and empower yourself by trusting in your own instincts and choices. It may be hard, given that your family may be against you, but remember that you are making a move to improve your life – don’t hamper your experience through crippling self doubt. What you are doing is right. We believe in you, you’d better believe it too!

Change is the name of the game

Emigration is a major change, so don’t expect your usual communication styles or tools to remain the norm. You’ll have to adapt to new ways of communicating and break your usual habits of interacting with your family. What this means is that you may want to use new communication resources like Skype, snapchat, Instagram or other social media platforms to connect. You may want to start a private family wiki or open a cloud account where you can easily share big files like home movies or photos. If there’s a time zone difference, you may also have to put in some late nights or early mornings. And you’ll have to put in a greater effort to ensure that you still stay connected with your friends and family.

We wish all our emigrant friends, family, colleagues and clients the strength and resilience to take this big move in their stride and make a success of their lives abroad. And we wish all those left behind the empathy and insight to support those who are leaving and recover from this trauma.

Leave the admin to

While you are dealing with the emotional aspects of your move, why not leave your financial admin in our capable hands. can tend to all you financial migration needs – whether it’s foreign exchange, transferring your retirement annuity abroad, trust and inheritance transfers, financial emigration or tax needs. Simply leave your details and we’ll call you!

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