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A virtual red lollipop for my grandchild

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When a child is born, so is a grandparent. The transition to earning the honorary title of granny or grandpa is perceived by grandparents as one of the most meaningful and emotional events in their lives – an important life-affirming experience. Yet, the remarkable announcement that you are going to be a grandparent may be tempered with sadness, particularly when the expectant parents – your children – live continents, even time zones away. Maintaining intergenerational relationships is challenging as emigration has a strong tendency to loosen family ties and disrupt intergenerational relations.


In today’s interconnected world, emigration has increased considerably. South Africa is no exception and has lost many citizens to emigration, especially over the last two decades. According to David Buckham, roughly 23,000 people per year emigrate from South Africa. Based on these statistics, it can be deduced that an extensive number of parents and grandparents remain behind after the emigration of their adult child(ren), and grandparents are summoned to rise to the challenge of becoming transnational grandparents. 

A grandparent’s close involvement with a grandchild is positively associated with the overall wellbeing of both the grandparent and the grandchild. Caring for grandchildren offers the grandparent, especially the grandmother, an opportunity to indulge in a relationship that is very unique in nature. A grandmother described her role as: 


“... you get a grandchild which I can tell you is the biggest plus of all. You don’t love your grandchild more than your children; you love your grandchild in an indescribable way to know that this is the child of your child and all you want to give is love. That is why grandparents are supposed to be there because they give the lollipop when mommy says it is bad for your teeth. That is the role, the lollipop – and that  has been taken away from me.”


When your grandchildren live in close proximity to you, and their parents decide to emigrate, it leaves you with a void. Feelings of loss are experienced on multiple levels. As a grandparent you are scared that you might miss out on important life stages and even everyday happenings. An attachment bond has already been formed and their physical departure is a painful reminder that life is not always fair. The ambiguity of the situation is difficult to come to terms with. They are ripped from your life and you become the granny that lives far, far away. The frequency of contact might decline but the emotional closeness remains, therefore you need to stay in regular contact to keep the memories alive.

The quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship hinges on frequent contact. Geographic distance, one of the strongest predictors of contact between grandparents and grandchildren, greatly effects the emotional involvement between these generations. The possibility of experiencing a significant relationship with a grandchild is closely linked to consistent contact between the three generations: the parents/ grandparents left behind; the adult child that has emigrated; and the grandchild generation. 


Emigrant parents, especially the mother, act as a communication bridge between grandparents left behind and grandchildren by encouraging or hampering interaction between them. The mother of the grandchild is often said to be the gatekeeper and the most important link to the grandchild. The role of the mother as a gatekeeper, especially in transnational families, is to initiate and preserve contact between the generations. The quality of the relationship between emigrant parent and grandparent will dictate to what degree the grandchild will maintain contact with a grandparent, and the attitude grandchildren will have towards their grandparents. It becomes nearly impossible for a grandmother to develop or maintain a relationship with her grandchildren and to be part of their lives if the gatekeeper hampers communication and frequent contact. To keep the grandmother connected to the family, it is vital to send her photographs of the grandchildren and to share their daily activities and important milestones with her. 

How do you give a lollypop if you are continents away from each other? To fully enjoy the pluses of close loving relationships with grandchildren, there's no substitute for physical proximity. Visits, if possible, are the ultimate. They allow you to be part of your grandchild’s new world and to create new memories. They also assist you in forming a mental picture of your children’s new surroundings. The other alternative is Internet communication. It is imperative that grandparents familiarise themselves with digital communication technologies such as email, Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime, to develop the necessary skills to communicate with their grandchildren. Time differences, however, reduce the spontaneity of the interaction and require forward planning. A grandmother that is connected can become innovative and creative by using her laptop to virtually teach an old family recipe to bake pancakes. Setting a date to do activities such as reading at a set time every week can create continuity. 

Via intangible bonds of ever-present connectedness, lollypops can sometimes be sent virtually. Each grandparent finds his/her own way to maintain connection, and meet the challenges of sharing their affection with their grandchildren. Despite being a transnational grandparent, the honorary title of grandparent will always remain.

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Sulette Ferreira

Dr Sulette Ferreira (PhD), a social science researcher in private practice in South Africa, specialises in the emotional effect of emigration. In the last decade, many adult South African children have emigrated, leaving their elderly parents behind. As a result, many of these parents experience an ambiguous loss – a type of loss that is often not acknowledged. Emigration is a complex psychological and socio-cultural phenomenon that has an immense impact, not only on the emigrant, but also on those left behind that have to deal with the aftermath of this phenomenon.

As a registered health care professional, she does grief bereavement with a focus on post-emigration counselling. She is passionately researching transnationalism and the effect thereof on intergenerational relationships in families. In sharing this knowledge via articles and workshops, she is creating awareness among the general public about this ever increasing phenomenon.

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