Family gatherings that were once noisy have now become silent affairs. The elated little ones and their parents are no longer home: your brother and his family have moved to London, your sister has made Dubai her new home, and the lifeline connecting those relationships is the occasional FaceTime call.
It goes without saying that migration has an irreversible effect on family dynamics, as bonds between parents and children increasingly span long distances. While the multiplier effect of immigration on society and the immediate family is gaining academic attention, sibling relationships remain unstudied. In my practice, this topic is increasingly becoming a topic of discussion.
Unique relationships between siblings
As anyone with siblings knows, 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 lives with their siblings.
During childhood, special bonds are formed between siblings that deepen with maturity and often exceed 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 shared history and collective vision for the future. No one affects us as deeply as our brothers and sisters – not our parents, not our children, not even our friends.
Then that very special person migrates…
Immigration radically changes the nature of one of a person’s longest and closest relationships. The dynamics of the original family are changing, recreated and redefined in a unique way.
This is why the impact of the sibling’s decision to emigrate is so severe.
The emotional triangle of migration
Because of the interdependence of family members, the impact of migration radiates through the family unit, as each individual grapples with the effects in their own unique way. The immigrant siblings, the parent, and the remaining siblings each experience a complex mix of emotions.
The immigrant brother faces both anxiety and excitement about what the future holds. Along with the many changes and challenges of immigration, they may feel torn between creating a new life and staying involved with the family of origin which can lead to an experience in limbo. These feelings are dominated by guilt towards the family left behind, along with pressure to thrive in their new surroundings.
The parents feel a mixture of feelings: concern for the well-being of their immigrant child in an unfamiliar country, and grief over the loss of daily interaction and physical presence for the child. However, parents are also proud of the opportunities the child has taken, the child’s accomplishments, and the pursuit of a better future.
The remaining siblings navigate a sea of their own emotions: longing, helplessness, and an unsettling sense of abandonment. At first, they may feel jealous when they hear how fun and safe life is in the new country. On the other hand, they may also admire the immigrant brother: after all, it takes courage to start a new life abroad. He shows the remaining brother that it is possible to migrate successfully, if they also go through the process.
Siblings left behind often find themselves taking on more responsibility towards the parents, causing ambivalent feelings for all parties. Especially when a parent is in the hospital and needs more physical care, or when important decisions need to be made, the physical absence of a sibling is sorely missed.
When a distant child visits, parents must navigate carefully to strike a delicate balance. After long periods of separation, parents may find themselves tempted to lure a visiting child with overwhelming affection. “Whenever my brother and his family visit, they are treated like honored guests” is an experience several siblings describe regarding visits from immigrant siblings.
Strengthening bonds across vast distances
To address the change in family structure caused by sibling migration, these feelings must be acknowledged. Immigration requires a new perspective from all family members. The changing dynamics within the family as a result of migration may seem daunting, but it also presents opportunities to reinvent and strengthen relationships. It is essential to actively embrace the new normal and adapt to these changes.
The new world of virtual interaction holds many possibilities, such as engaging in online games or participating in common hobbies. There is nothing like a regular family test to encourage healthy competition between siblings and provide moments of joy and laughter. Regular and consistent communication establishes a routine that helps maintain an emotional connection between siblings. Bonds can transcend national boundaries as siblings continue to share their life experiences, offer encouragement, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
However, these connections are not only self-preserving. It requires active commitment from all family members. Whether it’s shared vacations, online video catching up, or WhatsApp group chats, every effort to bridge geographical distance strengthens and keeps those bonds alive.
Geographical distance or difference in time zones should not become an excuse to deviate from one another. Instead, it should serve as motivation to explore new ways to stay connected. Family ties have the wonderful ability to transcend any distance, as long as we are committed to making the necessary efforts to bridge the gap.
A brother living in South Africa concludes:
“I can really justify my decision as to why I should stay here. Yes. No one will convince me otherwise. I read the same things I do and I see the same things – I’m not blind to it, I’m not naive. But I’m ‘happy’ – I’m really happy here and I wish them well.”
“You don’t always understand how you can grow up together in the same house and have the same genes and blood lineage and mom and dad and vacations and memories and things that make you tick, and then they can be so happy somewhere else 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 happy, that they are at peace where they are.” DM
Dr. Solette Ferreira is a social science researcher and an immigration counseling therapist in private practice in South Africa. Her research interest fuels her practice, where she specializes in ambiguous loss.