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When parents are left behind: The impact of emigration on family left behind

By July 28, 2023October 20th, 2023FinGlobal, Newsletter

When parents are left behind: The impact of emigration on family left behind

July 28, 2023


Sulette Ferreira, an emigration therapist, made this phenomenon the subject of her PhD study entitled Parents left behind in South Africa after the emigration of their adult children: An experiential journey.

Among all the changes mankind must face throughout their lives, few are as wide and complex as those that take place during migration. This is true not only for the emigrant but also for those left behind. Emigration is a systemic interactional phenomenon that never really ends – for the persons who leave and the ones who stay.

Exploring the psychological effects of South African emigration: Analysing stages in parents’ and children’s journey of emigration.

The impact of migration on the family left behind can be profound and long-lasting. During her study, the parents left behind shared their unique perceptions and personal journeys. To capture the essence of the South African emigration “story”, Sulette identified the following stages in the parent’s journey of their adult-child’s emigration.

  • Stage 1: Pre-emigration of the adult-child addresses the decision-making process, reasons given for emigration and whether the emigration is to be temporary or permanent. Her study found that the way the parents experienced these three aspects influenced their journey towards acceptance, understanding and making sense of emigration. Their involvement during this phase lay the foundation for the other phases.
  • Stage 2: The act of migration is a very short stage. It is viewed as a life-altering experience for parents left behind. It is the culmination of a period of preparation leading up to the adult-child physically leaving. The preparation took place weeks or months before, but physically leaving the country is the first tangible experience of loss for the parents left behind. These parents associate airports with loss and emotional turmoil.
  • Stage 3: Post-emigration of the adult-child is the stage where the parent must deal with the fact that the child has physically left and that the relationship as it was known has irrevocably changed. The child has moved physically, not just from the neighbourhood, suburb, or town, they have moved to another country, even another time zone; therefore, there is a loss of proximity due to geographical distance. The geographical distance has a life altering effect on the relationship, as it was known. This type of loss is an example of ambiguous loss.

What are the effects of migration on families? Examining ambiguous loss and other challenges.

Ambiguous loss is a distinctive kind of loss that is immobilising, confusing and defies closure. In her study Sulette found that the ambiguous loss experienced by the South African parent left behind, ran like a golden thread through the whole emigration process. Ambiguous loss is an uncertain and incomplete loss that impedes on grieving; it freezes the grieving process. This type of loss is not always recognised by society, and subsequently the magnitude of the loss is frequently not acknowledged. Special occasions such as birthdays, weddings and births are particularly difficult. They feel childless because they are unable to be physically part of these special occasions. They miss their grandchildren and mourn missed opportunities to develop a bond with them. The ambiguity of the situation makes it difficult to come to terms with the loss and there are no prescribed rituals for dealing with it. However, ambiguous loss is not always problematic – people can learn to live with uncertainty.

The migrating child also experiences losses from emigration – loss of people, belongings, and familiar surroundings as well as the connectedness to their birth country. The child must focus on building a new life in a foreign country and has many new responsibilities and challenges. The parent left behind, on the other hand, has to move from focusing on “what could have been…, what might have been…” to finding new ways of communicating and maintaining the attachment bond.

The parent-child bond is the most fundamental of all human relationships and remains distinctive because of its capacity to thrive and endure throughout the life of both generations. Literature studies of families suggest that aging parents and their adult–children typically remain involved with one another over the life course. Geographically far apart and often separated by multiple time zones, they still constitute a family – they share a history and a future. This geographical distance implies a transformation of the attachment bond, as it was known. The challenge is to maintain transnational communication in order to preserve the parent-child attachment bond.

How to deal with immigration stress through social technologies and maintaining transnational relationships

The introduction of social technologies into the lives of these families gives distant individuals the means to manage and maintain connection. Modern communication technologies, for example, e-mail, SMS texts, websites and Skype have created a “global village” in which transnational families can communicate across the world, enhancing the immediacy and frequency of contact between loved ones. More immediate and effective than in the days of only letters and expensive phone calls, they are used to overcome the physical separation, maintain, and reinforce transnational relationships, and to stay actively involved in each other’s lives. This “virtual” bond makes it easier than ever before for various generations to stay close to family and friends.

While much emotional investment goes into maintaining transnational contact, being physically together (visits), was found to be as the ultimate goal of the parent left behind. The longing to be embraced, the touch and the handshake remained a hope and aspiration. “However, if physical visits are not possible, never give up the effort of keeping in contact and sharing personal experiences and milestones,” Sulette adds. “I want to encourage you to maintain multiple links to social networks and to master the latest communication technologies to stay in touch.” Migration is about memory and most importantly, memory of relationships. The parent-child bond has the potential to endure even over multiple time zones.

Giving your children roots and wings: finding meaning in the journey of immigration as a parent.

How does a parent find meaning in this ambiguous journey of loss when their child immigrates? Sulette emphasises that there are no clear-cut answers – finding meaning is a very personal and complex challenge. However, folk wisdom declares that there are two lasting gifts parents can give to their children – one is roots, and the other is wings. The well-known wisdom of Kahlil Gibran concerning children says: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth…” It takes a special parent to raise a child to have the confidence and courage to undertake the daunting task of immigration.

Discover the expert advice of FinGlobal and Dr. Sulette Ferreira to help South African expats.

Dr. Sulette Ferreira, a specialised online migration therapist who can provide invaluable advice and support for those considering or already living abroad. Her website is the perfect place to get in touch with her services and we look forward to featuring more of her work in our upcoming blog posts.

Relocating overseas is a complex process that requires meticulous planning and specialised knowledge. At FinGlobal we have developed a streamlined and secure financial and tax emigration process that allows South African emigrants to cash in their South African retirement annuities hassle-free. Our team of experienced professionals is available to provide you with personalised advice and solutions for all your financial emigration needs.

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