Maverick Life

OP-ED

Just this one Christmas: Covid and the pain of being apart

Travellers check the information board to see the latest schedule amid cancellations due to Covid restrictions at Cape Town International Airport as restrictions on international flights take effect, Cape Town, South Africa, 28 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

After Christmas 2020, where holiday plans were cancelled or extended due to the second wave of the pandemic, many people were placing their hopes on this year’s holiday season to make up for the lost time.

News article headings following the discovery of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant in, among other countries, South Africa, and the travel ban that ensued said it all: “I cried and cried,” said one South African on News24; “It’s heartbreaking – people are devastated. OR Tambo airline passengers hard hit by travel ban,” reported Shiraaz Mohamed on Daily Maverick

After Christmas 2020, where holiday plans were cancelled or extended due to the second wave of the pandemic, many people were placing their hopes on this year’s holiday season to make up for the lost time. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, families living apart due to emigration can be affected in a very specific way.

The pain of being apart

Of all the changes that human beings face throughout their lives, few are as far-reaching and complex as those that take place during the process of emigration. Nowadays, emigration is a major cause of “ambiguous loss” as we are separated from loved ones and physically absent from their lives, sometimes forever.

Emigration signifies a life-changing experience; not only for the emigrant but also for the ones left behind. Emigration cannot simplistically be defined in terms of grief and loss, of opportunity and adventure. The person emigrating has physically moved: not only between neighbourhoods, suburbs, or towns, they sometimes have physically moved to another country, even to another time zone. Therefore, there is an added loss of proximity due to geographical distance; this geographical distance has a life-altering effect on the relationship, as it was once known. This can lead to an uncanny “chronic sadness” and feelings of ambiguity. 

With emigration, each role player experiences a variety of losses in a unique way. On the one hand, emigrants who make this life-changing decision find themselves in a liminal space of which they need to make sense anew. They can experience the deprivation of their mother tongue, a familiar environment, traditional values and customs, family structures, and perhaps the way they express their faith; but especially the closeness of family members and loved ones. 

On the other hand, those who stay behind experience their loved ones as sometimes physically “unattainable” after emigration. For both, however, the idea of loss and longing runs through the whole emigration process, like a golden thread.

Ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss – a term coined in 1970 by Dr Pauline Boss and which has been the inspiration for countless books and epic films – is the same loss we read about in headlines about the travel ban. It draws attention to the powerlessness of the actors. In the throes of a pandemic, we typically think of loss as a black-and-white event, such as the death of a loved one. But with an ambiguous loss, no one has died, there is no funeral where we can express heartache and grief and go home. There are no rituals.

An ambiguous loss is an “unclear loss” that continues without resolution or closure; whether it is the result of an unexpected diagnosis, the end of a marriage, infertility, the loss of a loved one due to emigration, or a family member being physically alive but in a state of cognitive decline. Ambiguous loss is immobilising and confusing, and defies closure. It is also one of the most difficult losses to deal with. Boss defines ambiguous loss (unresolved loss) as an uncertain and incomplete loss that can slow down and hamper the grieving process.

In addition, she distinguishes between two types of unresolved loss: with the first type, the person is physically present but emotionally absent, for example, sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, severe depression, dependence, chronic illnesses, as well as addiction to work or computer games. With the second type, the person may be psychologically present but physically absent. Examples of these include loved ones who have emigrated, divorce, and a child given up for adoption; closure is complicated by the knowledge that the person is alive but cannot be approached.

The ambiguity renders the person experiencing it to be frozen in time. What follows are the unanswered questions about what could have been, what should have been, and especially the indescribable longing to be together.

On longing for physical togetherness

This emotion of longing can creep up on you unexpectedly. You may be perfectly fine and then suddenly, the sound of a familiar song, or a movie scene that sparks memories can bring up a sense of emptiness and a space too wide to fill.  

Emotions such as longing serve to maintain and confirm relationships. The longing to be embraced, to touch and be touched remains a hope and aspiration: an aspiration that has been challenged by the presence of Covid-19 where our sense of normality has been upended; for many, the pandemic has robbed families of life-defining moments. 

A paradigm shift

With this type of life-changing loss, our sense of order and meaning is threatened, even shattered, and we struggle to adjust. There are no clear-cut answers to dealing with ambiguous loss. Finding meaning is a very personal and complex challenge. There are many people in similar situations, not only in South Africa but across the world.

We often measure good relationships by the quality of togetherness and how physically present and actively involved we are within our family circle. We, therefore, have a need for regular visits and to provide “hands-on” care. Emigration makes this very difficult and causes migrants to sometimes feel powerless. 

Following emigration we need to learn to think differently about our involvement, and develop new ways to stay in touch with families who are far away. We need to create a paradigm shift in the way we measure good relationships, as we rethink the way we stay connected. 

So how do we preserve these relationships with loved ones when we cannot be with them? 

Three possible solutions lie in exploiting the opportunities provided by modern communication technologies, planning for physical engagements, and adapting to the circumstances.

The challenge to maintain transnational communication and preserve the relationship with a loved one requires considerable emotional investment. Modern communication technologies provide distant family members the means to preserve connectivity. For example, e-mail, WhatsApp and Skype, to name only a few apps, have created a “global village” in which transnational families can communicate with each other across the world, enhancing the immediacy and frequency of contact between loved ones.

While much emotional investment goes into upholding transnational contact, being physically together is still the goal for most transnational families. The need to reunite with our loved ones and to be together in a tangible way leads to action that covers great geographical distances. Visits are about reuniting families and the goal is to make meaning of the separation, to share stories, and to reinforce family identity that could have been lost during the time of separation.

Be creative

There are unfortunately many things outside our control that greatly impact our lives – outside circumstances often hit hard, making life very difficult. But by realising that these circumstances are beyond your control and not your fault, you can adapt and make new plans. 

Move the goalposts; re-plan; create new rituals. For example, if you cannot be together for Christmas, start planning to be together for Easter; make these plans as soon as possible to have something new to look forward to. Most importantly, do not cancel your festivities. Celebrate what is important to you. Improvise, be creative and make it a memorable event for all involved. 

Knowing that your loved ones want to be with you as much as you want to be with them does ease the pain. There lies some great comfort and the reality of being loved despite being time zones apart. DM/ML

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