It is hard to stop telling the engaging and very personal stories of the “reunited families” and bring to the forefront some of the common issues they all have, in order to think about ways of approaching treatment intervention. In spite of common elements, each family has reunited bringing their own very different history, which, through the generations, colors with a particular meaning their experience of separation and of coming together. Past separations and losses have been “explained” and lived out emotionally in each family’s own particular way. This “inheritance” is the framing for the current reunion. It is for us as therapists to find this special meaning, in order to help bring the family into a restorative encounter. So, this is an important task to undertake and which we cannot ignore: we need to find out the meaning of the parent-child separation for each of the members affected by it. How do they interpret this experience both emotionally and cognitively, as these two meanings may be very different. In my experience, many of the youngsters have lived the separation emotionally as abandonment, even though they may have been told repeatedly by their extended family that it was a necessary step to insure the wellbeing and survival of the family. Some, however, felt it like parents were placing income over their emotional well- being and may express such feelings as “I would have rather be poor together than live apart”, or more directly, “all they care about was the money”. All of this, with the very limited adolescent’s understanding, of course, of what that means in terms of anxiety and suffering for parents that cannot provide adequately for their children. The same conflictive meanings hold true for the parents, who even though they could see the separation as a necessary step to provide adequately for the children, they still feel the guilt of not participating, protecting and being there for the child on their daily life and milestones. Even though, on the other hand, some authors have described cultures of migration and “other mothering” (Chamberlain, 1997) which makes for a more supportive and less guilt inducing environment for the parent and possibly diminish any critical evaluation of the decision by the extended family left to care for the child. This is the other key factor of the emotional meaning the separation carries for both parent and child, as we have seen in some of the stories narrated before, where the caretaker assigns a very negative meaning to the parent leaving: “she didn’t want to take care of you”, making it virtually impossible for the parent-child relationship to start healing on reunification without outside help in revisiting the story. The meaning can start to change when we allow for all the factors involved to play a role in the picture that colors the separation, where reality is not a black and white judgment, but integrates a sense of compassionate understanding of the situation as a whole and leaves room for forgiveness. Because forgiveness is called for, even though the real bad guy is poverty and lack of opportunities, that create migration as the only open door for people the world over, or in some other cases, the need to escape violence, either in the community, or as political or racial/religious persecution, or at home, as domestic violence, as it is the case with some of our families. However, why is forgiveness still called for? As I have explained it to parents, it is because as parents one of our most important roles is to be the protector, and every time we fail, or are not there to protect, even when it is not out of our own choice, we can ask for forgiveness to pave the road for mending the parent-child bond. Why? Because our child is hurting, and suffered with our absence, missed us and longed for us to be there or felt other children got to have the parenting that he/she missed. Because perhaps, we erroneously thought that the separation would be shorter. Particularly, and most importantly, when the child suffered abuse or neglect in the hands of the caretaker or others. I will come back to this important process of asking for forgiveness more in depth, but I just wanted to put it out there, to start the process of thinking about it. This is a process that needs to be carefully and thoroughly understood and emotionally accepted for the one asking for the forgiveness, for it to work well. Because forgiveness is a process that takes time for the one doing the forgiving, and that person is entitled to have the time needed. Thus, it is not necessarily the first step in the therapeutic process. However, in my view this is one of the pillars we want to build on for the process of healing to take place, even when we need to respect the actors involved in choosing their own speed and comfort in it.
The first step in the therapeutic process is trying to identify the immigrant families that separated for a long time and hopefully, as early as possible, so that we can prevent the problems from growing within the parent-child relationship. Additionally, and just as important, because for the sons and daughters it is too much to ask of them to be dealing with this process of recovery of their relationship with their parents, while at the same time they are navigating adaptation to a new country, learning a new language, many new skills and a totally new educational system, mourning their losses of family and friends and trying to build new relationships with peers. In this, the school systems have an advantage over clinical environments, because they can intervene early and easily, by identifying in the entrance level, or lower level English as a Second Language classes, who the families and students are who are reuniting, by asking the students to answer a few simple questions in a short questionnaire about who they lived with in their country and how long they were separated from the parents. Or, as we had also done in our system, a question about that information was asked in the intake form, for parents to fill out together with all the other background information about the student. When the students were identified, then they were invited to participate in a workshop about separation and reunification and the parents were later invited to participate with their newcomer child to a workshop with the same content. These workshops will be examined in detail later on, as they are closely based on the ideas for therapy of the reunited family, as shared in this section. So the reader needs to be thoroughly acquainted with this background information, before attempting to use them.
When the parents and the child are not identified early in this manner, and targeted for psycho-educational intervention, while additionally offered further therapeutic follow up as needed, then, these questions need to be incorporated as a routine inquiry in an intake of immigrant youngsters and their family, as they come to the attention of the clinician, either in the school system or in the community mental health system.