Emotional impact of sibling separation is complex and should be prepared for
A sibling’s decision to emigrate can result in a complex sea of emotions for the remaining siblings. To process the change in family structure brought about by sibling emigration, these various emotions must be acknowledged.
The once boisterous family gatherings have become muted affairs. The cheerful young ones and their parents are no longer on home turf: your brother and his family relocated to London, your sister has made Dubai her new home, and the lifeline connecting these relationships is the occasional FaceTime call.
It goes without saying that emigration has an irreversible impact on family dynamics, with bonds between parents and children stretched increasingly thin over long distances. While the ripple effect of emigration on society and the immediate family are gaining academic attention, sibling relationships remain understudied. In my practice, this topic has increasingly become a topic of discussion.
The uniqueness of sibling relationships
As anyone who has siblings knows, the relationships between brothers and sisters are inherently complex, shaped by the dynamics within each unique family. On average a person spends about a third of their life with their siblings.
During childhood, special bonds are formed between siblings that deepen with maturity and often surpass the depth of any other friendship, as they share the same genetic heritage. From the moment of birth, siblings embark on a shared journey, bound by a common history and a collective vision of the future. Nobody influences us as profoundly as our brothers and sisters — not our parents, not our children, and not even our friends.
And then this very special person emigrates…
Emigration fundamentally alters the nature of one of a person’s longest and closest relationships. The original family dynamics change and are recreated and redefined in a unique way.
This is why the impact of a sibling’s decision to emigrate is so intense.
The emotional triangle of emigration
Due to the interdependence between family members, emigration’s impact radiates through the family unit, with each member grappling with the implications in their unique way. The emigrating sibling, the parent, and the remaining siblings each experience a complex mix of feelings.
The emigrating sibling experiences both concern and excitement about what the future holds. Along with the many changes and challenges of emigration, they may feel torn between creating a new life and staying involved with the family of origin which can lead to an in-limbo experience. Overlying these emotions is a sense of guilt toward the family left behind, coupled with the pressure to thrive in their new surroundings.
The parents experience a mix of emotions: concern for their emigrant child’s wellbeing in an unfamiliar country, sadness over the loss of day-to-day interaction and the physical presence of the child. However, the parents are also proud of the opportunities the child has seized, the child’s achievements, and the pursuit of a possibly better future.
The remaining siblings navigate their own sea of emotions: longing, helplessness, and an unsettling sense of abandonment. They may initially feel jealous when they hear how enjoyable and safe life is in the new country. On the other hand, they might also admire the emigrating sibling: after all, it takes courage to start a new life abroad. It shows the remaining sibling that it is possible to emigrate successfully, should they also undertake the process.
The siblings remaining behind often find themselves bearing more responsibility toward the parents, which causes ambivalent feelings for all parties. Especially when a parent is hospitalised and needs more physical care, or when important decisions need to be made, the physical absence of brothers and sisters is sorely missed.
When the distant child visits, parents must navigate with care to strike a delicate balance. After long periods of separation, parents may find themselves tempted to shower the visiting child with overwhelming affection. “When my brother and his family visit, they are treated like honoured guests” is an experience many siblings describe concerning visits from emigrated siblings.
Strengthening bonds across vast distances
To process the change in family structure brought about by sibling emigration, these emotions must be acknowledged. Emigration requires a new perspective from all family members. The changed dynamics within a family as a result of emigration can seem daunting, but it also presents opportunities to reinvent and strengthen relationships. It’s essential to embrace the new normal and adapt to these changes actively.
The new world of virtual interaction holds many possibilities, such as engaging in online games or participating in shared hobbies. There’s nothing like a regular family quiz to encourage healthy competition among siblings and provide moments of joy and laughter. Regular and consistent communication establishes a routine that helps maintain the emotional connection between siblings. The bonds can transcend national borders as siblings continue to share their life experiences, offer encouragement, and celebrate each other’s achievements.
However, these connections don’t just maintain themselves. It requires an active commitment from all family members. Whether it’s through shared vacations, scheduled online video catch-ups, or WhatsApp group chats, every effort to bridge the geographical distance strengthens these bonds and keeps them alive.
The geographical distance or difference in time zones shouldn’t become an excuse for drifting apart. Instead, it should serve as motivation to explore new ways of staying connected. Family bonds have the remarkable ability to transcend any distance, as long as we’re committed to making the necessary efforts to bridge the gap.
A sibling living in South Africa concludes:
“I can really justify my decision why I stay here. Yes. Nobody will persuade me otherwise. I read the same stuff as you and see the same stuff — I’m not blind to it, I’m not naive. But I am ‘happy’ — I am really happy here and I wish them well.
“You don’t always understand how you can grow up together in one house and have the same genes and bloodlines and mom and dad and vacations and memories and stuff that make you tick, and then they can just be so happy in another place and just come here to reset now and then.
“You know it, you don’t understand it, but you don’t have to understand it. You just hope that they are really also happy, have peace with where they are.” DM
Dr Sulette Ferreira is a social science researcher and migration counselling therapist in private practice in South Africa. Her research interest feeds into her practice, in which she specialises in ambiguous loss.