We thank Sue Mannering, who allows us to publish her article, Absence makes the heart ache longer, which summarises the content of “Forgotten Relatives”, a seminar Sue attended at the Families in Global Transistion conference earlier this year, and which was previously published in the August issue of the Anza Magazine Singapore. Sue blogs about living in Singapore, empty nesting and expat living at www.singaporefooddiaries.com
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 travelled 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 recognised the ache in my chest as loss.
How do we cope with these feelings of loss and absence? And what do we do as our parents age and increasingly need our help? And what about divorce on assignment and children travelling 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 DC. FIGT is a non-profit educational organisation based in the US, and its 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.
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:
• 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.
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.
As Dr Kristal and Vennekens-Kelly put it: ‘absence 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’re 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 advice to help expatriates manage their feelings about absence 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: ‘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 empathise with family members’ reactions, then offer other ways that you can participate in the event.
‘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 in absence of them.
• If children are spread across countries or continents, recognise the importance of being organised.
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 inter-connectivity, our communication choices have never been wider, or more immediate.