This is a summary of the meeting of our Online Support Group, which took place on 21st May. The topic was ‘How to deal with aging parents from far away”. Friends from Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, England, Indonesia, Cape Town and Jerusalem took part, and Barbaraexpat from Melbourne chaired the discussion.
Translated from Italian by Barbaraexpat
The aging, illness and death of our parents or other loved ones are topics that touch many of us and we had a record number of participants for this meeting. Nine women took part and we had to start by learning how to deal with the microphone and camera. Luckily under the technical guide of our Claudiaexpat, we soon found the right balance and had a powerful meeting, full of empathy and honesty.
One of the common threads in most of the experiences was guilt. Here are some of the words used by the participant to express this feeling:
“…guilt for not being able to be there.”
“I feel guilty because I won’t be able to be close to her in her last years…”
“I’ve found my path, I am very happy with my life but this doesn’t help with the guilt I often feel.”
We started our discussion by talking about the long calls home, listening to the list of ailments and complaints of our loved ones, and about the trips to the other side of the world, that should be “holidays” but often turn into a succession of commitments to try and ease a situation that is rapidly crumbling. All this in the desperate attempt to feel a bit closer, to be able to help, to listen, to take care, to alleviate the pain, to be more present. In spite of all this, we are left with the uncomfortable feeling of not having done enough.
At times the energy to be present abandons us, and the constant running and disruption of our life becomes too much. At that point we almost reject this impossible situation. Only to find more guilt, this time because we don’t want to be present.
The grief and helplessness when confronted with these circumstances showed in the words of all the participants who, with immense courage and generosity, shared their experiences.
Luckily it is possible to overcome this feeling of guilt and by acknowledging and accepting our choices and ourselves, we are able to lead a more contented life.
Another common factor that surfaced in our discussion is the sense of confusion, described by one of the participant as “the feeling of not knowing where we are”, that emerges when leading two separate lives. One in our adopted country, dealing with work, children, husband, friends and daily routine, and another one in our country of origin, where our parents need our help and from where, if only with our thoughts, we find impossible to detach. Coexisting with these two realities is cause for more discomfort.
We talked about family dynamics, in particular the ones that develop when siblings, or other relatives, become the main carers of our parents. This can cause resentment and disconnection that, in time, can wear out our relationship. Although these negative feelings are hard to accept, it is almost impossible to change others’ behaviour. In spite of this we can learn how to deal with resentment and to live in peace with ourselves.
What about when we need them?
Two participants, pregnant at the moment, shared their yearning to be closer to their parents and feel them more involved in this special and joyful journey. Another one is going through a personal crisis and the support of her family, even from a distance, would be a comfort. Parents and relatives are not always eager to travel to follow the needs of their expat children. Sometimes they don’t realise the depth of our distress and aren’t able, or willing, to offer the right assistance. At times we must face circumstances, either joyful, as the birth of our child, or painful, as an illness or a personal problem, by ourselves.
We only briefly touched on this topic, examining our reactions in front of the words: “It was your choice to leave”. The choice to live abroad is certainly a very personal one but this shouldn’t preclude family support in times of need. However, this choice can occasionally form a gap between the ones who stay and the ones who leave. The fracture is often nourished by a reluctance to look beyond the clichéd view of expats lives and to understand that those who live abroad must deal with the same problems and heartache as everyone else. Trying to clarify this aspect of expat life can be tiresome and it was suggested that it might be more beneficial to use our energies to strengthen the support network amongst expats, rather then fighting a lost battle with those who stay back.
Some of the strategies used to maintain a closer involvement at times of need are regular contact on Skype, not only with our parents, but also with those people involved in their care (siblings, carers…) and, when possible, more frequent visits. By doing this we will feel more involved and present.
The main purpose of the meeting, though, was to offer emotional support, not practical advice. The strength of the group is in the listening and sharing. Being able to express what we feel and have the certainty of being understood, not judged, established an atmosphere of closeness and warmth that stayed with me for the entire week.
To end I would like to clarify that, although the meeting offered an opportunity to vent, the experiences and feelings were told with honesty and gratitude but no self-pity.