When your children decide to leave the country permanently, you suddenly have to outface quite a few challenges.
The well-known columnist Cecile Cilliers says people are surprised when they hear that she has three children on three different continents. “How on earth do you endure that?” they want to know. “In the long run, one gets used to anything, my elderly godmother always said; pain, loss, and yes, even the hedge tear in the kitchen curtains!” she answers.
In the last few decades, South Africans have increasingly sought their bliss and a new life elsewhere. Large groups of South Africans permanently settled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. However, not everyone whose children chose this way gets used to it.
Dr Douline Minnaar, a psychiatric nurse, has conducted extensive research on parents whose children emigrated. She says this news usually is a big shock for the parents. Often young people work on a contractual basis abroad and parents don’t have a problem with that, but it’s another matter when this move is permanent. “It’s the finality that breaks parents’ hearts. Some parents immediately feel rejected and in the way. Then they start worrying about what will happen to them and suddenly their future loses all its colour. These parents, most of them elderly, mourn quietly and do not let their children see their true feelings.”
Dr Minnaar says some parents share their children’s excitement and are positive about their move. These are usually middle-aged people who still live a full and busy life and for whom it is possible to visit their children abroad.
According to Dr Minnaar, one can talk about an unfinished grieving process in this situation. When a child dies, there is a measure of completion. But children who emigrate keep coming back to visit and leave again, so the process is never completed. She says other people usually do not understand this loss because they think it’s not that bad. That is why many parents wear a mask so the world cannot see how sad or even angry they are after their children left.
Dr S.T. Potgieter, a psychologist, recommends people to look at their children’s emigration differently. “When your child is emigrating, it’s not the same as a child’s death, even though it sometimes feels like that. It is this attitude of ‘it’s as good as if they died’ that complicates the matter for everyone involved. I recommend people to rather look at the positive things.
“Thirty years ago, it would not be so easy to constantly stay in contact with your child. You really would have struggled because letters only reached overseas destinations after a long time and international phone calls were extremely expensive. Fortunately, today modern technologies make contact so much easier: email, text messages, mobile phones, the internet, Facebook and Skype are some of the relatively cheap communication technologies that allow you to stay connected with your children on a daily basis.”
How should I approach their emigration?
Dr Minnaar explains that parents who cannot accept their children’s emigration can easily fall into a deep depression and later get totally isolated. It can also cause unnecessary emotional stress and therefore it is important to accept it.
She advises people to rather focus on the excitement and the new opportunities that are waiting for their children. Admire them for their bravery to build a new life in a new country that offers better opportunities. It is also very important not to withdraw yourself from society and live isolated. Even if your children live abroad, they will get wind of it and it will hamper their adaptation. Rather look at this experience as a new phase of life in which new worlds can open for you.
The most important thing is not to pity yourself. We are each responsible for our own happiness and we cannot shove that responsibility down on our children.
What do I do if the longing becomes too big?
Dr Minnaar says there is a constant longing but some days it is unbearable. She advises that you cry out your heart and then pour out your heart on paper. Visit a friend who is in a similar or other difficult situation and support each other. Usually, the longing will reach a peak, but then it gets better again.
It is important not to deny your feelings, says Dr Minnaar. Make sure you have a support system that can comfort you. Make sure that you know how to use all these new technological aids as it is the key to your contact with your children. Get a smartphone and computer and learn how to use it to communicate. Even though your children and grandchildren are physically far away, you can still be part of their lives.
What should you not do?
Dr Potgieter says the worst thing anyone can do after their children emigrated is to stop living. According to Dr Potgieter, it is also a big mistake to apply any form of emotional blackmail. Do not try to emotionally manipulate your child to stay in South Africa. People often tell their children who intend to emigrate that their life then will have no meaning anymore. That is very unfair.
Dr Potgieter recommends parents not to surrender to guilt. Most probably nothing you did play any part in your children’s decision. Be careful not to point fingers; it will only affect your relationship with your child negatively and that is the last thing you want.
Tips for the parents who stay behind
Go on with your life and live to the full. Remember, you have your own talents. Focus on what you still can do. Get socially involved. If you’re still strong and healthy, join clubs and groups or get involved with projects in your church. Go on outings, visit people or get involved in volunteering.
There are always small children who do not have grandfathers and grandmothers. Even reading a story at a nursery school will be an outlet for your love for your own grandchildren. Keep your support system strong.
Keep in touch with your child. You probably have more time to send emails. Make sure you have the necessary technology. If you don’t know how to Skype, let someone show you. Save money for an air ticket. It can be very expensive for an entire family to visit abroad, therefore it will be easier and cheaper for you to travel on your own.
If you really feel depressed or if you are under tremendous tension, go for counselling or pour out your heart to someone. Your pastor, therapist, counsellor or psychologist can help you with that. Realise that your children really need their parents’ support and understanding to ease their adaptation abroad.
Remember that your children also have their own lives. Discuss ways to communicate such as Skype. Sometimes it will not be possible for them to Skype you. Don’t see that as rejection; rather try to find a time that will suit everyone.