Siblings and the Expatriate

April 8, 2011 — Leave a comment

“You left!” “You weren’t here!” “You have no idea how hard it is!”

Sound familiar? At the recent Families in Global Transition conference, friend and psychotherapist Laura Stephens and I presented a session called Death from a Distance. It was well attended which was gratifying but more than that, it started the discussion on issues many expatriates will sadly face: the death of a loved one across an ocean, a continent and probably a few time zones, and the ambivalent feelings of siblings.

Laura was the voice of authority. My only qualification for speaking was experience, sadly five deaths in five years. Each one has been difficult and each has presented different issues but what none of them presented was an issue with siblings, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful.

Perhaps I should clarify. I was an only child to my parents, but I have a much-loved half sister, and my husband is one of three. My father’s paramour had two daughters who I have known for twenty years, so between us all we pretty much cover the gamut of family life.

But since our talk at FIGT the beast that keeps rearing its very ugly head is the one of sibling resentment. Initially it seemed to only occur between sisters, one ‘at home’ the other ‘away’, and I put it down to an element of sibling rivalry and I gave allowances for grief manifesting itself in unsavoury ways. But as the days have worn on I am hearing of the ugliness between sisters and brothers, and brothers and brothers, and then aunts and uncles and so the familial list grows; at a time when all are hurting in their own individual ways.

And what is a horrendous time of grieving, and busyness, is made worse by aggression very much pointed at the one who had the temerity to move away whether of their own volition or at the will of work.

A parent dying is a messy business and is rarely simple. Whether living next door or living on the other side of the world. All those surviving feel an element of guilt. For the person on the ground it is often regret at a cross word, or an impatient gesture brought on by the frustration of day-to-day responsibility. For the one abroad it is guilt at not having been able to do more, to be around more, to share that sad burden. Sometimes too, the one abroad feels wrong decisions are being made at home but swallows the words because of guilt at being away, and again resentment brews. Like I said it’s messy.

Expatriate life so often sounds glamorous as places like Dubai, Delhi or Djibouti pepper our conversation, and for those few short weeks we might be back at home base it is natural to talk about the good times abroad. Particularly to our parents who may well worry if they knew some of the issues faced in foreign countries. Life as an expat is not always roses, as any expat will tell you.

And when we fly home for a stroke, a fall, a final goodbye or a funeral the last thing we need to hear is, “How would you know?” Or “You weren’t here”. It is hard to suggest an alternative arrangement, or treatment, to one maybe made by the sibling at home. It is hard to wrest control of visiting hours away, or to suggest that maybe those nearest in geography take second place to those juggling work hours and distance whether for you, or your children trying to see a grandparent in hospital.

Cruel actions and words that the expatriate does not need to hear, and that almost certainly do not make the speaker of the words feel any better. It doesn’t have to be like that.

If hard discussions are held before the inevitable decline of our loved ones, openly and with all concerned, the trauma can be lessened a little. I know it’s difficult to appear on a parent’s doorstep after being away a year and launch into discussions of what ifs? And have you dones? But if you do it will help in the long term. You can take the onus away from the sibling on the ground by being the broacher of this conversation; the one about alternative living arrangements, about power of attorney, about wills and all the other issues that occur as a parent ages. By doing this you have shown your empathy for what a sibling might well have to go through, and that will go a long way to helping when the inevitable does happen.

Let’s try and lessen the recriminations, lessen the words that can’t be taken back and instead work with a positive vocabulary of how can I help from over here? And I’m so glad you’re back!

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