While our family waited at the gate to board our flight to Slovakia, my younger sister told me she thought she might be pregnant with her first (turns out, it was her first and second). My older sister told me via Skype a few months later that she, too, was pregnant. Over that year, both sisters went through their pregnancies, premature deliveries and NICU stays—and I was too far away to visit. I never got to see them pregnant in person, nor welcome their babies home when they were finally able to leave the hospital. It was painful to be abroad during such a significant time in their lives.
We have family spread out across the United States, and with all our moving, my husband and I have counted ourselves “close” to family if we can make the drive to see them in one day. It’s enough of a challenge to see everyone each year while we’re in the US; add living overseas to the mix and we’re always missing something important. Though we can’t be present for the big dates, we try to keep in touch with small, personal connections.
If you raise funds to work overseas, you may already send a newsletter. Consider a more personal version to send to extended family, because there are things you can say to them you can’t always broadcast to everyone. We tend to do big announcements this way, and that way everyone finds out at one time.
Video messages. There are so many apps that can send videos through wifi. With access to the internet and smartphones, it’s easy to send selfie videos of “Happy Birthday.” Seeing your face and hearing your voice will be an extra birthday treat. If I’m feeling camera-shy, I just put my kids on instead. Works every time! Though a lot of our videos end with little ones running at the camera asking, “Can I see it?”
Family reunions. If possible, schedule a family reunion. Planning to be back in your home country for the summer or returning on furlough for a few months? See if you can get everyone excited about a family reunion. Search AirBNB for homes large enough for the group on a beach somewhere or an event space you can use. Split the cost to keep it within budget. Pick a fun, drive-able location to up the interest and squash travel expenses. (Plus, you’ll still be recovering from air travel with the kids…and the cost for all those tickets.)
Give everyone grace. Family members still may not understand why you can’t come to the wedding or funeral or graduation. You may not understand why they decide not to attend the reunion you planned. There will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Acknowledge them and talk them through with the other person if you can, but if you can’t, forgive and keep the relationship alive with the tips above anyway.
Life continues at home while you’re overseas. Relationships do change when you live far away, but small gestures can make a big difference.
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