South Africa


Transnational grandparenting: Granny, why are you living in a computer?

Transnational grandparenting: Granny, why are you living in a computer?
Technology has given us a means of creating bonds even when we're not physically together. (AI-generated illustration: DALL-E)

Emigration is not a mere change of address – it carries with it deep emotional and psychological consequences. For the parents left behind, particularly grandparents, the expectation of a shared future with children and grandchildren is abruptly terminated.

When a child is born, so is a grandparent, and this dual birth is the beginning of a transformative journey.

“I can never hold them again. That holding … It’s suddenly just, it’s gone. The distance … [crying], the [pause] that I can’t hold them, that I can’t press them against me. I talk to them, and I see them on Skype, but they don’t actually know who they are talking to, and my grandson said to my son, ‘My granny lives in a computer’.”

From grandparent to transnational grandparent

The parent-child bond is one of the most fundamental human interactions and, as our lives become longer, so too does our journey with our children and grandchildren. Studies of families in advanced age suggest that ageing parents and their adult children typically remain involved with one another their entire lives – grandparents therefore expect to have the opportunity to watch their grandchildren grow up and to be able to influence their lives.

This influence can be as simple as doting on their grandchildren and spoiling them as a grandparent often can. It might also be as fundamental as laying the foundation for a value-driven life by becoming mentors who entrench religious and family values and pass on experiences, skills and wisdom.

But the quality and depth of this relationship hinges on physical proximity.

In our modern, globalised era, emigration is an all-too-familiar narrative for many South Africans. As young people seek opportunities abroad, families are split across international borders.

The transformation from grandparent to transnational grandparent is often marked by these simple, sometimes painful words: “Mom, Dad, we are emigrating.” This life-altering decision sets off an emotional chain reaction for everyone involved.

Grieving for the living

In my professional experience as an emigration therapist, I often find that for those left behind, particularly grandparents, the sudden loss of the possibility of a shared future with their children and grandchildren leads to a deep sense of grief, which is not confined to one side. Just as the grandparent feels bereft of the opportunity to be present in their grandchild’s everyday life, so too does the grandchild miss out on tangible shared experiences with their grandparent.

This sense of “missing out” runs like a thread through the stories of transnational grandparents.

Although grandparents might understand and support their children’s decision to build a better or different life in a new country, the emotional turmoil of emigration means mourning the loss of physical proximity to their family.

Geographical distance and declining health significantly reduce grandparents’ chances to be an active physical presence in their grandchildren’s lives. This sense of loss has a significant impact on family dynamics; for example, the sheer joy of the birth of a grandchild might be overshadowed by the sense of loss because they cannot be present physically.

Dr Pauline Boss, emeritus professor at University of Minnesota, coined the term “ambiguous loss”. This type of loss freezes the grief process by complicating it, since there are no prescribed rituals for dealing with it.

According to Boss, families live with a paradox of absence and presence; the ambiguous loss of transnational separation leads to boundary ambiguity when children and grandchildren are physically absent but psychologically present. The boundary between grief and closure is viewed as ambiguous because, unlike when someone passes away, it becomes impossible to clearly define the grief.

Emigration’s emotional arc

While each emigration story is deeply personal, I have found that the process often follows a specific emotional trajectory. Based on my research, this path consists of three phases: pre-emigration; saying farewell; and post-emigration.

The pre-emigration phase is characterised by anxious anticipation and difficult realisations. Before their children physically depart, the weight of the impending separation casts a shadow over grandparents’ lives. With every passing day, the chances of holding their grandchildren, of feeling their warmth and laughter, is slipping away.

Emigration also leaves grandparents with conflicting emotions – knowing that their grandchildren will grow up in what they feel might be, for example, a more stable environment, is juxtaposed with the shattering of their own future vision as they anticipate losing cherished moments with their grandchildren.

Older people also have to confront an intensifying sense of vulnerability as they realise the next phase of their lives will lack the reassuring presence of their grown children; that they will have to navigate life without what they may feel is a day-to-day mental or physical support, amplifying uncertainty and anxiety.

With the announcement of the departure date, the realisation of loss then becomes a cold reality.

The second phase of emigration, saying farewell, is the most emotionally intense. The words “Goodbye, Grandma/ Grandpa” echo with finality. Airports and aeroplanes, once symbols of excitement, exploration and adventure, now become emblematic of the transformation from, for example, a more hands-on grandparent to a transnational grandparent.

The thought of letting go of your grandchildren is almost unbearable, especially if a strong bond has already been established. Farewells with lingering hugs and tearful eyes characterise this painful transition.

For many, this farewell is uncharted territory since there are no established rituals for handling it.

During the post-emigration stage, grandparents have to deal with the fact that their adult children and possibly grandchildren have physically left and that the nature of their relationship has changed irrevocably.

Among the many concerns, the dread of missing significant milestones in their grandchildren’s lives stands out. For grandparents, remaining a part of their children’s lives and ensuring that their grandchildren remember them can be extremely important. The principal challenge now becomes maintaining communication to preserve their bond.

The responsibility to nurture this bond often rests heavily on grandparents, emphasising the importance of persistent efforts in relationship-building.

Staying connected

Grandparents often highlight two “lifelines” that help them stay connected with their grandchildren: communication technology and physical visits, either to their children settled abroad or hosting them back in South Africa.

While much emotional – and sometimes financial – investment goes into maintaining transnational contact, being physically together was found to be as the ultimate wish of the grandparent staying behind. Their keenest desire is “being there” in the same geographical space as their children and grandchildren, to be able to experience them with all their senses.

Nothing can quite match the joy and depth of face-to-face interactions, especially for grandparents who long to create memories through the experience of spontaneous actions such as hugs, laughter and shared stories.

However, in the absence of these physical reunions, the introduction of social technologies gives families separated by distance the means to stay connected. Digital platforms like Skype, email, WhatsApp and FaceTime can turn “grandparents at a distance” into virtually present caregivers, enabling real-time conversations and shared moments.

Time differences and digital divides might pose challenges, but the resilience of these grandparents is clear. Their innate desire to continually fulfil their role of grandparent in the face of such change highlights their unparalleled devotion.

Bridging the divide

In an era where continents can be crossed with a click and emotions conveyed in pixels, family dynamics have been reshaped. This change is particularly evident in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.

South African transnational grandparents display marked resilience and adaptability. Their stories aren’t just about enduring separation; they are glowing testaments to the limitless capacity of love. DM


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