Feelings of grief over family separation

  • My dear great-grandson Andy lives an ocean and a continent away.

    My dear great-grandson Andy lives an ocean and a continent away. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

 
Updated 5/16/2021 7:04 AM

A perceptive reader alerted me to a problem I'm sure many families face in one way or another -- sadness, even grief, over family that live far away. Because sometimes it feels like a permanent separation -- due to a great distance, such as abroad, on another continent.

This problem is intensified by many factors that inhibit long distance travel -- it could be health, finances, work and these days it is often the COVID-19 travel restrictions.

 

Now, why does this bring on feelings of grief for some? Well, sometimes this does indeed seems like a permanent loss -- because people are gone, cut off, no hugs, no kisses, no birthday parties, no soccer games with grandchildren.

I think the root of this problem is based in the inability to enjoy and fulfill a traditional social role. Much of the way we perform our social roles is traditional, and is connected to certain behaviors.

For instance, a usual grandparent role involves lots of contact and fun with grandchildren -- weekend dinners and barbecues, birthdays, holidays, going to sports and school events to support them. Ice cream cones. Basically spending time together. Sometimes babysitting or helping raise those grandchildren. If none of this is possible, then there is a big loss, and it is hard to figure out how to be a grandparent.

This same brand of thinking applies to other social roles, such as a divorced parent who lives far away or cannot support their children, or has no place for them to spend overnights and weekends. Some parents are separated from their children through work or other circumstances. And whether grandparent or parent, all this is exacerbated if the separation is while the children or grandchildren are very young, before that growing-up-together bond is fully formed.

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I thought a lot about this because these days I, too, am separated far away from our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, many close friends, and even great-grandsons and great-grandnephews. None of them live anywhere near me. Our daughter and husband, granddaughter and husband, and great-grandson live abroad, permanently.

The big difference in my case, especially regarding grandchildren, nieces and nephews, is that my dear Baheej and I spent a lot of time with them while they were growing up, while our children's families were young. We did it through travel, holidays, family reunions and at times living fairly close by.

My biggest dilemma now is very similar, however, to the grandparent problem. How am I going to get to know my two great-grandsons, and my three great-grandnephews (one is actually the son of a close friend I consider a close niece). And how shall I play a part in their life or growing up.

The point is: This "family separation" issue is going to take a lot of figuring out, and perhaps it will have to be different from the traditional role we expect So far for me it's long distance communication -- emails, telephone, gifts, communication through their parents. It definitely feels like a loss.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What next? Some travel will be possible eventually but that cannot make up for weekly family dinners and gatherings.

I guess we will have to figure out about how to more effectively use social media and Zoom, etc., to build relationships.

The current young generation and ones coming up do and will make close friends online and through social media. We will have to try. Folks who have their families close are blessed.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at sakhleif@comcast.net or see her blog longtermgrief.tumblr.com. See previous columns at www.dailyherald.com/topics/Anderson-Kleif-Susan.

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