Airports: A gateway to ambiguous loss

SULETTE FERREIRA  |  18 DECEMBER 2021  |  ISSUE #18
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Photo by Safwan Mahmud on Unsplash.

I read somewhere that airports are story-making factories: People waiting to watch their loved ones walk further and further away from them until they can no longer be seen. Today is my turn … you with a backpack filled with dreams, on your way to another continent, and me with my memories bidding you farewell, not knowing when I will see you again. I wanted to paste a red and white ‘Fragile: Handle with care’ sticker over my heart, like a band-aid plaster to ease the pain…

 

Among all the changes that human beings must face throughout their lives, few are as all-encompassing and complex as those that take place during the emigration of loved ones. Emigration signifies a life-changing experience. This is true not only for the emigrant but also for those remaining behind. Emigration is not only defined by grief and loss; neither is it all about opportunity and adventure. Emigration is a complex psychological and sociocultural phenomenon, a major cause of ambiguous loss as we are separated from loved ones and physically absent from their lives, maybe even forever. Airports play a vital role in telling the emigration story from the parents’ perspective after the emigration of their adult child and/ or grandchildren.

 

An airport is a space that features frequently as a definitive link in the chain of emigration events. Is there a more transitional space than an airport? It is a space made up of ‘in-between-ness’, and ‘in-limbo-ness’. There is no other public place where so many emotions are unveiled. Yet, the architectural design of most airport experiences does not seem to acknowledge these precious moments of meeting and parting with loved ones.

 

To capture the essence of the South African emigration story, three stages have been identified as part of the parents’ journey of letting go of their children after they leave.

 

The first stage, namely pre-emigration, addresses the decision-making process, the reasons for emigration, and whether the emigration is to be temporary or permanent. It culminates with the physical act of leaving and the time frame varies for each scenario. Logistical preparations are a key characteristic of this phase as all family members psychologically prepare themselves for their respective emigration journeys. For the adult children, the airport signifies a gateway to new possibilities. For the parent remaining behind, the airport signifies a gateway to ambiguous loss, the uncertainty of when they will ever see their children again.

 

The second stage signifies the physical act of emigration. This is a very short, yet powerful stage. It is the completion of a period of preparation leading up to the final event, the ‘airport goodbye’. Preparing for this turning point takes place weeks or even months before, but leaving the country is the first tangible experience of loss for the parents left behind. A parent narrated her experience by saying:

 

... my daughter, oh, the worst, worst, worst was for me when my eldest daughter said to me, ‘mom, I don't want you to come along to the airport’. And, you know I cried the entire day at work but afterwards, I realised that it was for the best.

 

For those that remain behind when their children emigrate, the airport personifies an ambiguous loss – as a space filled with sorrow, fear, loneliness, heartbreak and tender moments. Many of us tend to avoid talking about ‘the goodbye’ and pretend that it is not happening until the final moment. Goodbyes are hard. We simply do not want to say goodbye to the people we love. While denial might be a coping mechanism for some, it may actually lead to a more emotional farewell. Discussing the farewell with your children ahead of time can ease some of the emotional turmoil and better prepare you for the singular moment of parting. Some families prefer to say their goodbyes at home or any other place but the airport.

 

Mourning occurs for those who go, those who are left behind, and those who return. The ambiguity of the situation makes it difficult to come to terms with the loss. With little or no prescribed mourning rituals, the ones left behind have to create their own private rituals to assist them in dealing with this painful act of ending an important stage of their lives. By creating private rituals, loved ones that remain behind acknowledge the tug between the past and the future – it can provide an opportunity to grieve for what is lost and look forward to the future. Giving a small personal gift, like a good luck charm, might be the start of forming a new farewell ritual.

 

The airport is full of people, but at that moment no one feels as lonely as the parent who has just said goodbye to their children and grandchildren, not knowing when they will see each other again. While people are rushing around, you are standing there with tears rolling down your face. Allow yourself to experience sadness and all of the raw emotions of the farewell. Be gentle with yourself in saying goodbye at the airport.

 

The best possible thing to do after a goodbye is to start making plans to be together again. It does not have to happen right away. Plan your next visit before your children leave. Planning ahead might not be possible for everyone, but try to have a rough timeline to hold onto. Knowing that the separation is not final is such an important coping mechanism since it gives you something to look forward to. Instead of saying goodbye, you can say ‘see you soon’ and start planning your next visit. After all, the sadness of an ‘airport goodbye’ is nothing compared to the happiness of an ‘airport hello’.

 

In the last phase, the post-emigration phase, families come to recognise an ending in their physical journey together. This phase is the longest stage and deals with the time after the children have left the country. Geographical distance has a life-altering effect on relationships. The airport features in this stage again as a physical gateway to their emigrant children. Parents staying behind explained that they had anticipated that the first goodbye was going to be the most difficult one, yet it got harder every time. A parent reflected:

 

 ... but no, it doesn't get easier. It's still that something in you that has been cut off which uh ... only comes back to you when he's back. No, it doesn't become easier. Yes, there is a little hole and the little hole does not heal, I can't claim that the hole gets bigger, uhm ... but the little hole does not grow over. The little hole remains there.

 

After every airport goodbye, another ambiguous loss is felt. With each visit, the parents dread the day that their children have to return. Each day spending time with your kids can be experienced as a day closer to their departure. Time is a precious commodity, forcing us to be mindful and not constantly think about the ‘airport goodbye’.

 

The challenge to maintain transnational communication and preserve the relationship with a loved one requires considerable emotional investment. Indispensable to transnational families is communication. Modern communication technologies have created a global village in which families can virtually connect with each other. The introduction of social technologies enhances the frequency of contact between loved ones and gives distant individuals the means to manage and maintain connections. It is important to establish a communication plan with your loved ones in order to preserve attachment bonds.

 

Being physically together is still the goal for most transnational families with the need to reunite with our loved ones and to be together in a tangible way. This leads to action that covers great geographical distances.

 

As parents, we do not ever want to completely let go of our children. Yet, with emigration we are forced apart geographically and often separated by multiple time zones. These entangled endings and beginnings are the very definition of ambiguous loss. Airports teach us that it is through the art of letting go that we are able to hold on.


‘We need in love to practise only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily – we do not need to learn it.’  Rainer Maria Rilke.

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Sulette Ferreira

Dr Sulette Ferreira (PhD) is a social science researcher and family counselling therapist in private practice in South Africa. As a researcher, she is passionate about the topic of transnationalism and the effect thereof on intergenerational relationships in families. Her research interest feeds into her practice where she specialises in the emotional effect of emigration. Transnational families face unique challenges in preserving the special bond with their loved ones. As a registered health care professional and a specialist in pre- and post-migration, Dr Ferreira aids these families by providing counselling for the emigrant and those left behind (parents, siblings, and grandparents). The loss experienced through emigration, also called ‘ambiguous loss’, occurs on multiple levels and is seldom acknowledged by society. By sharing this knowledge through articles and workshops, she attempts to create awareness among the general public about this ever-increasing phenomenon.

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