The family left behind

When adult children move abroad with their children

Imagine… You’ve invested years of your life, raising, nurturing and loving your child. You have watched her grow, watched her learn to make her own decisions, watched her succeed… and fail.

You have held her hand every step of the way, cherished her smiles and dried her tears and your pride when she becomes a mother herself is enormous.

You’ve done a great job and now you can let go a little bit – take a back seat; you can watch her raise, nurture and love the next generation and you can enjoy the privileged role of grandparent. There to spoil the child, enjoy the ride and revel in her achievements as an adult. You might even get the little ones to yourself for a while, when she goes back to work! Life is good – you’re a very involved grandparent.

Then she drops the bombshell.

She is moving, with your grandchildren, to the other side of the world.

I say ‘she’ but of course this applies to grandparents on both sides – it’s equally likely that it’s your son that is moving abroad. Regardless, the resulting shock wave can be devastating and conflicting. You try to be brave and positive when faced with what feels like a huge loss. Some grandparents even try to make their children feel guilty for leaving and pile on the pressure with weeping, wailing and guilt trips.

The grandparents’ point of view

As the ones who are keen to move away, to get on with our new and exciting lives, aspiring expatriates can find the burden of reluctant parents annoying and unsupportive – but let’s look at it from their point of view.

The one thing we all want for our children is to see them live their lives to the full and to be happy. In our heads, we’ll always be a part of their lives and they’ll always look to us for guidance, support and love no matter where in the world they may be. In our hearts, they’ll obviously never move further away than reasonable walking distance and we’ll see them daily! The catch 22 here is that when we do a really great job of raising them, they become fully independent; they want to spread their wings and live their own adventure. Without us.

We need to remember that the loss of a loved one is one of the hardest things any person ever has to face. For the expatriate, the adventure beckons and there’s a shiny new life to explore – full of opportunities and new friendships. For the ones who get left behind, there is nothing new. Only a hole where a family used to be. There’s empty time to fill and glorious waking moments where everything is normal – followed by crushing grief at the daily realisation that in fact, everything is different.

That makes it sound like someone died, doesn’t it? How very melodramatic!

But please do try not to look at it as a loss. You’re not losing them; they are just moving. Very few people these days live around the corner from their parents and grandparents. Yes, they may be moving very far away, but you can’t live your life for other people, just as they can’t live their life for you.

However, the loss of a loved one to expatriation is not unlike the grief of a bereavement – if you let it affect you that way. No one has died – phew! – but there is a similar void; one which is accompanied by guilt and frustration that you shouldn’t feel that way because no one has died. This can lead to anger and resentment – on both sides – if it’s not managed appropriately.

So, what can we do about it? How can we ease the loss and maintain a fulfilling and meaningful grandparent/grandchild relationship?

How to maintain your relationship

The answer starts with intent. Both sides must be committed to making this work and whilst the grandparents most certainly will be, it takes more of an effort and more of a commitment from those who are moving away. You may need to embrace modern technology – something my own mum has never done! But we all still have a fabulous relationship with her, and see and speak to her (by phone) regularly.

Modern technology

Modern technology provides us with the gift of Skype, allowing grandparents and grandchildren to speak with each other regularly and to see each other too. One of a grandparent’s greatest fears when being left behind is that they will be forgotten, so we need to reassure them that this will not, ever, be the case.

Older children could be given a mobile phone with nana and grandad’s numbers pre-programmed so they can text regularly. Letters and gifts through the mail should not be under estimated either – these are physical reminders of loved ones and can be as frequent as you want to make them, allowing a little anticipation and excitement to enter into the maelstrom of emotions.

Visits and holidays

Visits should be planned in advance too. Even if it’s only a couple of times a year it gives those who are left behind something to hold on to and to look forward to. Perhaps one visit ‘home’ for the expat children and one visit abroad for the grandparents is a good compromise? My daughter and I used to spend most of the long summer holidays back home with my mum – perhaps this is an option for you too?

The world is a small place; you’re only a plane ride away. Yes, there may be a great distance involved, plus the expense, but you could possibly plan to meet somewhere in the middle and enjoy holidays in different countries. Look at this as the world opening up for you, the grandparents, too.

It is frustrating and many expats talk openly about feeling angry with their parents, for trying to hold them back from their great adventure. The ones who are left behind talk a lot less openly about their feelings – because they only want what’s best for their children and they feel desperately guilty that they can’t be happier for them.

What I’m saying is, let’s cut grandparents some slack. Your child moving away at any age is devastating and we shouldn’t expect them not to feel sad just because we’re all grown up and moving on. Plus, children benefit hugely from a close relationship with their grandparents, so instead of letting resentment ruin the chances of that happening, take a step back, walk a mile in their shoes and try to reassure them that this is not an ending, it’s just a different sort of beginning.

You have brought up your children to be independent and now they are. They are doing a great job at following their dreams and want the best possible life for their children and to enjoy the many wonderful experiences you get from living in a new country.

Your child and grandchildren will be having a happy, rewarding life with loads of new opportunities and experiencing a new culture.

What more can any parent want?

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  1. I can relate to Claire’s post. We live in Oregon, USA, and our son moved to Australia 3 years ago with his wife and our grandson who was then 1 years old. It broke my heart. My son married later in life (40’s) and when they had a child I was thrilled because I had given up thinking I’d ever have grandchildren. We were there for his birth and traveled across the USA to see them several times before they moved to the AU. I got a taste of being a hands-on grandma and then it was snatched away. My husband and I are happy for them but also very sad. We do weekly video calls but it’s not the same as being there. Her parents live nearby and see the grandkids (now 2 of them) every week. It’s hard not to be a bit jealous. We planned to visit them once a year but the pandemic made that impossible. We haven’t seen them since they moved in 2019 (it’s now 2022). The flying distance between Oregon and Australia is very great and difficult to do and because we’re older (70’s) I worry about how long we’ll be able to do it physically and on a retirement income. We used to be able to mail small packages for the 2 grandsons but the US postal service upped their rates so much ( $65+ for any kind of package) that it is too expensive. We do Amazon but it isn’t the same. We have an adult daughter but she is disabled and unmarried. The only grandkids we’ll ever have live on the other side of the world. We try to stay positive. We’re planning our first visit in Spring 2023 when hopefully the pandemic will be over. We plan to have future visits in fun places like Hawaii. If life throws you lemons you make lemonade – right?!!

  2. I totally understand where you are coming from. Claire. Our circumstances are different … my daughter’s father (my ex husband) paid for her and our grandson to move to where he lives with his new (half his age) Vietnamese wife in Vietnam. He has always used money to get what he wants and thus every move my daughter makes is out of my control. I cannot let the gates of grief open for fear they will never close. Losing the constant access we used to have to our (my husband of 22 years has been an amazing step parent) grandson has been near intolerable. Video sessions to chat and catch up on their lives are … video sessions … you just cannot hug them … and the grief is raw to say the least.

  3. I hurt so much since our son , whom I was , or thought I was , very close to , moved to Australia with his Australian wife . During lockdown , they had a child , our first grandson . We have yet to see him, as lockdown hit the U.K. and then extended to Australia . Because I was the person working , with my husband looking after the children , I feel I am missing out even more , if that is possible , than my husband . Timing has not been good either , as I semi retired at the same time as they moved to Australia three years ago . I can only compare the suffering we feel to that of total loss , an ache that never goes . I cannot understand why he would leave the family unit , which we worked so hard to build , and why he can settle in a country like Australia , so far away from Europe and our cultural background .
    I often wish I could forget we have a son, so that my husband ,and I can find happiness again . Thankfully , our daughter , who married a lovely Spanish man , lives close to us and is expecting her first child . We will be there to love and help the family ( making sure not to overwhelm them with too much affection . We realise we all need to have our own lives . ) But I feel such anger , such sadness that our son has left . I resent the fact that the other set of parents see them at every big family event . It seems so unfair to us here .
    How can one cope with the pain ? We don’t want to speak to him , as we then cry after the call . Videos of our grandchild upset us , as we see what we are missing . Would it be best to cut all ties , to try to avoid the ache and hurt , even if the loss is always in the background ? It seems to be better when we have no contaçt at all . Does that make sense ? It is so draining being that unhappy .

    1. I’m sorry you’re feeling so broken by your experience. The pandemic has been really hard on so many people, and in Australia, with the lockdowns, it’s very tough indeed.
      I am shocked, however, that you are considering cutting contact with your son to help you feel better. That’s not going to work for anyone.
      I think you need to work with a professional counsellor to talk this through.

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