While a move to a different city or country can represent a fresh chapter for an individual or a family, active steps need to be taken to maintain bonds with loved ones at home, so that these important relationships can continue to flourish from afar.
Azeezah Saloojee, an occupational therapist at Netcare Akeso Parktown, notes that humans are by nature sensory beings with a significant need for physical presence to connect with others, and that sensory deprivation in a relationship can contribute to the deterioration of closeness.
“People all over the world are moving around to pursue different education, career and lifestyle opportunities – whether in another city or country – and South Africa is no different. A side effect of this is that families are separated by distance and in some cases, time zones as well. This can be very hard with those on both sides feeling mixed emotions without necessarily knowing how to bridge the gap with their loved ones effectively.
“There is much you can do to stay connected to your family and close friends in this global society, starting with open communication and sharing your concerns and points of view around this change in physical proximity.
“This is a conversation you should preferably have before the move takes place or shortly thereafter, as the longer these emotions go unexpressed, the more difficult it can be to build an emotional bridge,” she says.
Saloojee notes that while this may not always be an easy conversation to have, if just one person breaks the ice and talks about how they feel it can go a long way to addressing any misconceptions around the move and can result in some much-needed reassurance in certain cases.
“It is common for family members and close friends remaining behind to experience feelings of abandonment or regret at the same time as wanting to be happy for their loved one. Some individuals may see themselves as being left behind or wish that they could have done more to keep their loved one close. Such feelings are not always verbalised, and it can be helpful for the person or people who are moving to explain that the purpose of the move is a separate matter and is in no way a reflection of the relationship.
“Often people will repeat the phrases ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m going to miss you’ but being more specific can make a big difference. For example, you could also say ‘I need to pursue this opportunity right now, but that does not change how important you are to me, and I am fully committed to finding new ways for us to stay connected from afar’.”
Differing points of view
Saloojee points out that on the other hand, the person or family unit that is physically making the move will also experience a range of emotions, which may include excitement and anticipation as well as guilt and anxiety.
“While logically you may understand the validity of your reasons for moving, when this means having to leave loved ones behind it is natural to feel some level of guilt. Furthermore, once the move has taken place both parties will feel different sides of the same coin. The person at home may feel that their loved one has left a huge hole and has moved on to exciting new experiences without them, for example. Meanwhile, the individual who has uprooted has undergone an enormous and traumatic change and is likely to experience anxiety, isolation and possibly even depression as they adjust to their new environment.
“Ultimately, aspects of the change are difficult for both parties but by communicating openly and leaning into your relationship with practical actions, you can support one another and remain connected,” she says.
Tips for staying close
According to Saloojee, there are numerous small but meaningful gestures that can further enrich your bond with your family and close friends when living far apart.
Maintaining your connection from afar requires a concerted effort to express more than that which is only surface level. There will naturally be day to day news to share but it is important to connect on a deeper level too. If one of you finds it difficult to speak your feelings you can try communicating those aspects in other ways, such as via email or text. Expressing the simplest wishes can be meaningful, for example saying “I wish I could give you a hug”.
When moving away from an elderly parent or another relative who requires care, it is important that you do your part by being an ongoing source of emotional support with regular phone calls and messages that you know will be meaningful to your loved one. Wherever possible, provide financial help if required, so that the responsibility is not being left entirely to others. Staying engaged lets your family know that they are not alone in the situation.
While you might have the best intentions about staying in touch, it can be all too easy to allow more and more time to pass between conversations. Try to make use of available opportunities to catch up, such as when you are travelling home from work or set yourself reminders for regular phone calls with loved ones so that you do not miss out on staying in touch with what is happening in one another’s lives.
Try mixing it up and scheduling a video call at a convenient time for you both so that you can sit down and share a meal together, as it were, or take your relative with you via video on a fun outing you are having, for example. Connecting in moments of happiness and joy can be more easily achieved with the help of modern technology.
Missing the physical presence of a far-away loved one is inevitable, however you can take steps to bring tangible elements into one another’s lives. For example, giving a special pillow or soft toy that is sprayed with your fragrance, provides an object that can be hugged and smelled when you are apart. You may not be there in person but you can send gifts to each other for special occasions or when you simply want your loved one to know you are thinking of them – the accessibility of e-commerce makes this easier to do now more than ever before. When it is financially feasible, book your next trip home or on holiday together, even if it is long in advance, as having a tangible date to look forward to can help in making the time apart easier to accept.
While social media has many pitfalls, it can offer some real benefits for families and friends who want to actively stay connected, with certain apps and platforms providing convenient channels for all parties to share updates and casually chat in one digital space. For this to truly be successful everyone involved needs to participate on an ongoing basis. Fruitful relationships happen when everyone is committed to contributing and sharing.
Finally, Saloojee notes that there are circumstances in which professional help may be required. “As much as we hope it would never happen, there is always the possibility that a loved one passes away. Processing your grief around this from afar can be very difficult and may require additional steps for gaining closure.
Many people who find themselves alone or in new places are also more likely to turn to substance and behavioural addiction in response to their changed lives and estranged relationships. This reinforces the importance of human connection and in cases where a person is not coping with their experience, help should be sought,” she concludes.
About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact [email protected] for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565.
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Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Parktown
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer
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