Love, Loss & Living Long Distance

Culture Editor Emily Phillips speaks to four transnational individuals and their families about the persistent pain of living far from their families and how love is cultivated and nourished during their time apart.

WORDS Emily Phillips

We are a generation lucky to have access to a breadth of technological communication via apps like FaceTime and Zoom. We have the ability to share any given moment in our lives on social media so that not only can the people we care for become engaged in our lives, but strangers as well. We have the capacity to form and nurture relationships without the limitations of physical proximity or former reliance on the wistfulness of handwritten letters. This is not to say that these online interactions do justice in fostering kinship, but the presence of social networks feels like fortuitous freedom to live any life we desire, wherever we want, without having to sacrifice the people we love, and the cultures we’ve grown up in, to estrangement. 

I remember clearly the first time I said goodbye to my parents before flying overseas from Canada to take up a new life in London. It was harrowing. It was the beginning of a brand new life in a foreign country, by myself for the greater part of a year. I flew back once for the summer, the last hurrah of my teen years spent exceeding 150 kilometres an hour on back roads and late nights basking by the Grand River, before returning to the UK and once again bidding farewell to familiarity. But then COVID-19 came around and what was meant to be less than twelve months abroad rapidly became a year; then a year and a half; and soon, two new flats, a breakup, and Binx (my new kitten). 

I’ve not seen my family in over two years; I’ve not touched them or held them or been to dinner with them; I’ve not sat on my mother’s bed late at night watching some second-rate crime show, forcing her to stay awake an hour longer just so I can complain about her constant commentary toward the television; I’ve not been bushwacking with my dad through the deep woods of the ‘True North’, tracking the prints of some unidentifiable creature and its ‘scat’; I’ve not watched Christmas movies with my best friend or been swimming with my former dance teacher’s kids; I was unable to attend my grandma’s funeral and be there for my father when she passed; I’ve not been home. And while virtual conversation provided some semblance of comfort, little did it ever do to make me feel more ‘at home’. For a long time, it only allowed me to dwell on the distance. I fell into a cycle of calling home a bit too much and feeding into my depression, anxiety and loneliness, constantly wanting to leave London and never quite feeling at ease. I wondered how and when I would ever see the opportunity to return to the embrace of my family, or at least to have them come to me. I grieved for my parents as I watched them age through the small screen of my cell phone and all the time shared that I felt I was missing. I became acutely aware of the physical distance, feeling the fragility of actually knowing one another in any context greater than superficial life updates. It was a long time before I finally found my place here, and let go of the attachment to my youth and all that came with it. 

I grieved for my parents as I watched them age through the small screen of my cell phone and all the time shared that I felt I was missing. I became acutely aware of the physical distance, feeling the fragility of actually knowing one another in any context greater than superficial life updates.

This is my home now, despite its tenacious novelty. But the time spent away does periodically catch up with me all the same. I still miss my family and I desperately want to see them, but I love it here; and though it’s far, it’s become familiar. 

From living long distance comes ameliorated love and disconcerting loss, abundantly free-flowing, but to categorise the experience in binary terms feels like a waste of the individualism that comes of it. Simultaneously, it is unifying as there is an unspoken understanding between those of us who live like this, despite the divergence in our experiences. 

I spoke to four transnational individuals – and with each, a family member (or two) chosen by themselves – about the persistent pain of living far from their families, the consequence it has to their mental health, the discovery of coping mechanisms, the people left behind, loves lost and moments missed; but also the love that is cultivated and nourished across dozens of FaceTime or Zoom calls, through art and imagination, gossip, shared experiences, and nostalgia. Our conversations are a beautiful consideration of love and loss, and together we capture the symbiotic relationship between blood or chosen families and the magic that happens as we resolve to stay connected. 

Scarlett Christie Haynes and Maeve Florence Post

In 2021, 33-year-old Scarlett Haynes, who currently resides in Berlin, gave birth to her first child – a beautiful baby girl called Iris. Due to the distance and the travel restrictions brought on by the global pandemic, her sister Maeve Post, based in London, has never met her new niece, and it’s a desolate, aberrant, and cumbersome chapter in the lives of both women.  

Scarlett: In 2020, around March, the pandemic had kicked off properly in Germany and things changed massively. Thankfully my boyfriend had moved over 6 months prior. We managed to get in one last trip to see family before we were pretty much locked in for 6 months. That was hard – being an expat away from family and friends in such an uncertain time, not knowing if and when I might be able to get back, was daunting. Lots of Zooms. God, I hate Zooms!

I gave birth to our baby daughter this June 5th and it was the most magical moment in our lives, but one we didn’t get to share with our family or friends. 

Berlin became, and in some ways still is, a very different experience for us now. Seven months of being so close but so far away from family when we were going through such a special time made us feel homesick. For the first time, we didn’t see the benefits outweighing being away from family and home with our new lives in Berlin. It has made us question where is home and in a lot of ways allowed Berlin to truly become our mother country; our home.

I always felt home and family reroot you when you’re feeling out of sorts, but we had to deal with not having that and trying to find new roots in our newer home and family here in Berlin.

I always felt home and family reroot you when you’re feeling out of sorts, but we had to deal with not having that and trying to find new roots in our newer home and family here in Berlin.

Scarlett Christie Haynes

Maeve: When the global pandemic came along, suddenly Scarlett felt really far away and we reverted to even more FaceTimes and Instagrams. I quite enjoyed this part of it all – absence does make the heart grow fonder. But when Scarlett got pregnant it was hard to be there for her; for all the scary foreign doctor’s appointments and endless forms she had to fill out. She is the first in the family to have a baby, so it was a big deal and I felt for her. Now little baby Iris is born and I am an aunt, but I’ve never met her. I cannot wait to get out to see her. It is mad to me that the only communication I’ve had with her is through a phone – watching her grow and take to the world through a screen. 

Where do you find affection?

S: I find affection in my boyfriend and now our baby Iris. She soothes all the affection you’d ever need!

M: I find affection everywhere; I am a very affectionate person. So, not being able to hug people is a hard one for me, as I am quite tactile. 

What is your intuitive response to being by yourself where the only “family” relationship you can closely nurture is one with yourself? What does a day look like in a place that no one sees? 

S: I quite like indulging in being lazy when I can. And if I’m honest, my go-to ‘protection’ method is: ‘I rely on myself’. So I’m pretty prepared for the times when I feel alone, sitting somewhere between enjoyment and a ‘me against the world’ ‘emo’ kind of mentality. I do get myself too far down that narrative though. It’s a long-time learnt, but it doesn’t serve me much happiness when it results in me closing myself off from everyone else.

M: I hate being alone. As the middle child, I have never really had to be. I surround myself with people so when I do have alone time it’s because I have chosen it and not because I have had to – that probably says more about me than I realise. But I do enjoy baths. I would literally live in a bath if I could – eat, sleep, smoke, read, chat, watch shitty TV shows, all of it. 

It is mad to me that the only communication I’ve had with her is through a phone – watching her grow and take to the world through a screen.

Maeve Florence Post

How reliant is your relationship on technology and how? 

S: I heavily rely on FaceTime and Whatsapp to stay in touch with family and keep them up to date with Iris. FaceTime helps but I can’t help feeling it’s bitty and never as fulfilling as I want it to be. I also use Instagram, of course, to stay in the loop of what my mates are up to… especially in being a new mum it feels integral – although not always healthy! 

M: Oh god, so reliant; I am addicted. But sometimes it hurts my heart talking to a loved one through a phone, especially a video call because I want to be there in real life. 

You had your first child this year, who has yet to meet much of your family. What can you tell me about this experience and how it has been not being able to share the beginning of her life with your loved ones?

S: Iris is three months old now! At two months my boyfriend’s brother made it over – which was amazing – and then my mum came for a week. Then her Godfather was able to come for a weekend, and now we’re waiting on my boyfriend’s dad and at the end of September her Godmother. Luckily, it’s gone from nothing, and feeling lonely in it all, to an influx of visitors pretty much non-stop. However, my sister hasn’t been able to visit. She’s waiting for her second COVID jab and can’t travel until she’s had it. It feels like it’ll be a lifetime until she’ll be able to meet Iris. The newborn days are well and truly behind us already. Before we know it, she’ll be 6 months and it’ll be Christmas before we can potentially go back to the UK ourselves.

Waiting on a passport for Iris is another reason we feel so locked in over here in Berlin and reliant on visitors. Apart from Iris Godparents, we haven’t had any friends visiting which feels super sad; I miss the support of my closest girlfriends. Being a new mum, it feels like they might not meet her until we – hopefully! get back – at Christmas. My granny, Iris’s Great Granny, my sister Maeve and the rest of our family are desperate to meet her! 

 What has it been like not knowing your niece through anything other than the internet? 

M: It has been super weird not being able to be there through any of Scarlett’s pregnancy, and now, Iris has just turned three months old and I still haven’t met her, held her or anything. She is my phone background and I am so in love with her already, but I have bonded with her through technology. However, the bond is deeper than that – an intuitive primal bond. 

We are lucky that it is so affordable and quick to get from London to Berlin, so I’ll be flying over to see her soon and I am already thinking about all the funny little outfits I can put her in. I doubt I’ll be able to put her down for more than a second. 

Artwork & animation by Vladimir Vidanovski

Vladimir Vidanovski and Sanja Muchkajeva-Vidanovska

25-year old Vladimir Vidanovski moved away from Macedonia, and their mother Sanja Muchkajeva-Vidanovska, 54, to the Netherlands four years ago to pursue their studies. Built-up in their head they had an intensely nostalgic picture of what home used to be, constructed from the memories and photographs of family and friends. But with each journey back to the Balkans came a harsh reality check where time seemed to accelerate all that they were missing and the physical changes in those who occupied their memories became overtly apparent, warping the memories of their youth. 

Vladimir: The underlying reason for my move to the Netherlands was my sexuality. It was something that drove me to seek escape in a Western world where my queerness would be more accepted. The first year I was here, I made the spontaneous decision not to return to my homeland because I thought that the true, queer identity I had started to build once I’d stepped onto Dutch soil would be compromised if I returned to my hometown. 

I am very close to my family, maybe a bit too close sometimes as I tend to share every detail about my life with them. Moving away to the Netherlands four years ago has changed that, and, even though I purposely decided to distance myself both physically and socially from them, I noticed that after a while this took a toll on my mental health. The contradicting feeling of missing home and the loathing of my closeted queer past had created a duality. Time seemed like it was passing faster – my father suddenly had more grey hairs than ever before; my little sister grew ten centimetres taller overnight; the changes on my best friend’s face were more apparent in real life than in our FaceTime calls. 

So, I decided to create my family as 3D characters, immortalising them in 3D figures, that I can in essence play with as digital dolls, creating scenes that have sparked from my memories of them. Time flows differently in my digital world. My grandmother recently passed, and I did not get to say goodbye, or attend the funeral. I decided to include her in the photos because she was like a second mother to me. Having her in there makes me feel like she is still alive, in my virtual worlds, forever captured within the 3D model I created based on my memories of her.

Family, for me as a mother, means life.

Sanja Muchkajeva-Vidanovska

Sanja: Family for me, as a mother, means life. While Vladimir was home, my relationship with him was as close as it could get between a mother and son. My husband and I wanted to establish the closest and most honest relationship with our children since the first day they started learning about the world. That is why when Vladimir decided to move to the Netherlands it also presented itself as the biggest turning point in my life. How was I supposed to continue living normally while I could not see him at home every day? 

Although I knew I needed to let him go live his own life, the separation between him and I was very, very hard. Us Balkan parents, as our kids like to call us, are in constant battle with the traditional values that have been embedded within our regions for centuries on one side, and the new times where our children want to find themselves with different values on the other.

Where do you find affection? 

V: I try to find affection within me, searching for comfort in my imagination, thoughts and memories. This is, of course, hard to achieve sometimes, so I can say that I am more than lucky to have a loving partner who will give me affection, even when I don’t know I need it. Also, having my princess kitty cat Kiwi around helps!

S: I express the love and closeness to my son and family with physical contact. I want to hug Vlad and tell him that I love him more than anything on this planet.

What is your intuitive response to being by yourself where the only “family” relationship you can closely nurture is one with yourself? What does a day look like in a place that no one sees? 

V: I am happy to know that the self-nurture I need, I will always be able to provide to myself. I do so by giving myself space to have fun, relax and take a breather, or to just be. I am very in tune with my inner self, I closely listen to my mind and body, and know what is best for me – and yes that sometimes includes playing The Sims for six hours straight.

S: Sometimes I cry when I’m alone. Especially when I hear a song that reminds me of Vladimir’s childhood years or when I look at our family albums. But I don’t want anyone to notice. I want to be strong for my family, and so I keep my nostalgia for the times we were all together at home, to myself. 

How reliant is your relationship on technology and how? 

V: If technology had not existed, I would be a completely different person than I am now. Technology has not only allowed me to stay in touch with myself, but it has also allowed me to stay in touch with my closest loved ones from back home, either through old videos and photos or through FaceTime.

S: Thanks to the Internet, I have the ability to regularly communicate with Vladimir, but it’s not the same. All I want to do while I see him through the screen is to touch him, embrace him, feel his warmth. 

All I want to do while I see him through the screen is to touch him, embrace him, feel his warmth.

Sanja Muchkajeva-Vidanovska

What have you learned about acceptance from both yourself and your family during your time in The Netherlands that you never could have back in Macedonia?

V: It was hard for me to come to terms with my sexual and gender identity. Years of bullying prevented me from accepting my queerness and caused me to think that what I was feeling wasn’t valid. Thanks to the Internet, I learned about people who were like me, and that there are in fact places where we are accepted for who we are. 

Before I got my acceptance letter from my school in the Netherlands, I was trying hard to be content with the fact that I would always have to hide who I truly was while being on Macedonian soil. Ever since I stepped into the side of Europe where LGBTQA+ people are more accepted, I decided to fully let my guard down, allowing myself to embrace the real Vlad. Though, this meant for me that I would have to be fully honest with my family about my identity. I’m not going to lie, it was quite hard at first. The traditionalist mindset of my region will always prevail within the minds of the people older than my generation, but I am extremely lucky to have parents who are willing to learn, relearn and accept their child’s identity, no matter the circumstances. 

I am now living happily and freely as a queer, gender non-conforming person, and I do hope that I am looked at even by one young person struggling with the same issues back in Macedonia with a bit of hope in their eyes, proving to them that it does get better. For me, it was with the privilege that I could go out and find myself elsewhere, but I also see that every day the discourse surrounding sexual and gender identity in Macedonia is becoming bigger and bigger, and with that slowly, but surely, more accepted. 

How have you managed being away from Vladimir all this time, and what have you learned about acceptance during his time away in the Netherlands?

S: Vladimir’s sexuality is part of his own intimacy. I understand his need to find himself outside of Macedonia, because, unfortunately, stereotyping and aggressive behaviours towards people who are not straight still linger in our country. As his mother, I do understand him but it’s hard for me that he cannot fully find himself in this environment. I want to contribute to and support him in this part of his identity, and to be his rock as I am in every single other part of his life. Honestly, I also needed some time to find myself the same way he was finding himself in this. Nonetheless, he is my son. I am proud and love every single part of his personality, character, creativity and temperament. He will always be the Vladimir I brought to this world, that wonderful child and now brilliant person who makes me the happiest, proudest, and most loved mother.

Tiago Silva Mathias and Renata Silva Mathias

Tiago Mathias, 24, lives in London but his younger sister Renata, 23, along with the rest of his family are situated in Brazil. He’s been in the UK for five years now, navigating a world that is more accepting of his homosexuality and allows him to explore self-expression but hasn’t seen his loved ones in over eight months. 

Tiago: Family means a lot of things to me and it’s hard to encapsulate all of it in a simple sentence. But, one thing my dad told me growing up and that has stuck with me is that we have two families: the one you are born into, and the one you choose – and they are both equally important to me.

Growing up, my family and I moved around a lot, so I’m used to living away from other family members and friends. But, when I finished high school, I moved alone from Angola to Brighton for university. 

Moving away was great for my personal growth. I was always very close to my parents and we maintain an amazing relationship, but I used to live in a very homophobic country which didn’t allow me to explore my sexuality. So, when I moved to Brighton it was the first time I was able to explore things at my own pace and in my own way, without feeling pressure from society – and in some ways, my family as well. 

I try to see my family at least once a year, but the pandemic made things harder for us to visit each other frequently. However, we do talk almost every day and try to keep each other updated on what’s going on with our lives. So in a way, our communication has become stronger. I feel like we all put more effort into talking to each other because we can’t be there physically. 

I feel very lucky that I have a very good, healthy relationship with my family, but also having my chosen family here in the UK helps me a lot. Living abroad is hard at times, there are moments where I miss the people I grew up with; I miss a lot of important dates and celebrations; but over here, my chosen family makes all the difference. They are my support system, and I am very grateful to have found a group of people that are very important and special to me.

One thing I like to do to feel more connected with home is making dishes I used to have as a kid. Food is a way of bringing a little bit of home to the UK. I love cooking for my friends and sharing with them my favourite dishes from back in Angola because it’s a way for me to share my culture, but also to appreciate my family and feel connected to them from afar.

I consider family to be the people who genuinely want the best for me, who want me to succeed in life and want to be part of my life and my journey

Renata Silva Mathias

Renata: Family, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean blood. I consider family to be the people who genuinely want the best for me, who want me to succeed in life and want to be part of my life and my journey. Essentially, it’s the people who love me for who I am and who I know I can count on. 

The last time I saw my brother was eight months ago because he works in London and I study in Brazil. However distance doesn’t affect our relationship because we are very close, and my parents always explained to us the importance of family. I know that eventually we will be together, so I just focus on my life and try to catch up with him from time to time. Plus, I would say our relationship gets better each time we talk, even with the distance. 

Where do you find affection? 

T: I’m an affectionate person, mainly physically. In Brazil and Angola, we are quite warm people; we love to hug and kiss,but I also think affection can be shown in so many different ways and that you can always adapt the way you show affection to others.

R: I find affection verbally because I’m not an affectionate person in general.

What is your intuitive response to being by yourself where the only “family” relationship you can closely nurture is one with yourself? What does a day look like in a place that no one sees? 

T: My family is the type that is together every Sunday; cooking, drinking, and just enjoying each other’s company. So, when I moved overseas I definitely missed those weekly gatherings. Now I try to incorporate that into my life here by seeing my friends and hanging out with my chosen family – I keep myself busy. 

I would be lying if I said I don’t cry sometimes. Being homesick is a real struggle, but over time I’ve learned ways of coping with it. I do miss my family and my sister a lot, but I also know that living in London right now is the best thing for me. So I always just try to remind myself as to why I moved here in the first place and that I’m lucky I have a family that is very supportive of me and my dreams.  

R: Growing up, I created a very good relationship with being by myself so I enjoy it. If I’m the ‘only family’ around me, I party a lot, go out to eat, go for walks, and go to cafés. Or I binge-watch a TV series all day, read, or study something I like.

I would be lying if I said I don’t cry sometimes.

Tiago Silva Mathias

How reliant is your relationship on technology and how? 

T: Technology plays a big part in my relationship with my family because it’s what allows us to communicate very easily no matter where we are. We can text, FaceTime, and send photos, so that even when I’m not around, I can see when they are together and stay updated on each other’s lives.

R: Our relationship is very dependent on technology because it’s practically the only way we communicate with each other. To feel close, we usually do video calls, but we also text and have family group chats.

You’ve lived away from your family for five years now. What has been the hardest part?

T: I’m naturally very independent, so initially I didn’t find living far away too hard. But that all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. When the UK first went into lockdown I was living alone, and within that first month, I lost my grandad. A month after that, I lost my grandma. It was very hard not being able to see my family or even being allowed to travel for the funeral. It was the first time I fully realised how far I was from my family and it was scary; I actually considered moving back to Angola. 

What has been the hardest part of living apart from Tiago?

R: The hardest part of being apart from my brother is that we don’t get to experience much stuff together. We can’t celebrate the accomplishments in each other’s lives properly, and it’s so hard not being able to be there for one another through the good and the bad.

Rachel Joy Nielsen, Naomi Hope Nielsen, and Hannah Grace Nielsen

Rachel Nielsen, 21, and her two sisters, 20-year-old Hannah Nielsen and 18-year-old Naomi Nielsen, are quite literally dispersed around the globe, with the pandemic only worsening their separation. Despite their birth and childhoods spent in Jakarta, Indonesia, Rachel was, and currently is, studying in Brighton while Hannah spent her gap year in Copenhagen, and Naomi finished up high school back home in Jakarta. Instigated by the distance between them, they’ve felt a loss of the ‘constants’ in their lives, the people they know they can come back to at any given moment.

Rachel: To me, family is love, support, freedom of expression, safety, and warmth. Growing up I have always had a wonderful relationship with my family; my two younger sisters and I being particularly close. We don’t see each other often anymore because we live in various parts of the world. 

I had just moved away to the UK for university when the pandemic hit. So, I was already meant to be entering a long distance family relationship, but COVID-19 made it more stressful and difficult than I could have ever imagined. By the end of 2020, I was feeling homesick. It was difficult to find the time to communicate and call because we had commitments to our education, and also the time differences were mad. 

Naomi: In the beginning, being in a long distance family relationship was an odd and sad experience. When Rachel first moved out for her gap year and it was just Hannah and me, I found it hard being an “incomplete” set of sisters. I remember video-calling Rachel approximately a month into her moving away, and then completely losing it; breaking down, tears streaming down my face, telling her how much I missed her and how I had been watching her Instagram story highlights for the sole purpose of having a sense of her with me. Family is a big part of my life. They are the people I know will always be there for me at the end of the day; the people who will always have my back.

To me, family is love, support, freedom of expression, safety, and warmth.

Rachel Joy Nielsen

Both my sisters moved at one point, Rachel being in the UK for university, Hannah being in Denmark for her gap year, and myself in Indonesia finishing high school. That experience to me was surprisingly odd. I slept in my own room for the first time. I didn’t have to share a bathroom with two other girls. I never fought with anyone around the house anymore. At first, I managed it quite well, being alone, experiencing this new feeling of ‘independence’ almost. But after a while, it got lonely and I found myself leaving the house more often. The relationship between myself and my sisters naturally weakened as we spent time apart. Yes, we would often video call, but it was never the same and on some occasions, we would have nothing to talk about. So the only other way I could feel close to my family when they were away is to look at old videos, keep up with what they’re doing on social media and interact with them by sending them a picture of something I think they would find interesting or other random acts that made me think of them.

Hannah: The long distance relationship I have with my sisters was the most hard-hitting during my gap year in Denmark, in 2019. I was living there alone and it was weird, because I always had them to lean on when I lived in Indonesia, but I felt incredibly lonely because I didn’t have my two lifelong best friends around anymore. It was tough on my mental health because I didn’t have anyone to confide in, and it just wasn’t the same talking online. Now, I’ve moved back to Indonesia so I’m living with Naomi again, but I’m still apart from Rachel. 

Where do you find affection? 

R: I’m such a physically affectionate person. I love hugs, but mainly I just love being present with my sisters. It gives me such a warm feeling having someone there that I can just talk to any time and what I loved about growing up with two sisters. They’re my best friends.

N: I find affection through physical actions – specifically hugging. I think that out of the three sisters, I probably enjoy hugging the most. Whenever I hug Rachel, she will hug me back for a while, then be the first to let go and say, “Okay stop!” Hannah, on the other hand, who doesn’t like being touched, would give me a disgusted looking face and put her hands in front of her as if she was stopping me. If I do get the chance to hug her, most of the time her hands are kept down and her body stays still – which is completely fine! I don’t care if they don’t want to hug me or not, because I know that they care about me regardless. Both my sisters show a lot of verbal affection to me; whether it’s comforting me from something terrible that happened, or criticising me because of something stupid I did; I know that it all comes from the love that they have for me. It’s what I call their ‘elderly sister advice.’

H: I find affection verbally and when interacting face to face or doing activities together because that’s when we can express ourselves freely and I can constantly make my sisters laugh and see their reactions to certain things. For example, with Rachel we like to take photos of each other, drink coffee, or workout, and with Naomi we watch Korean dramas together, go on drives, and play music. I’m not very physically affectionate at all, unlike Rachel and Naomi. 

What is your intuitive response to being by yourself where the only “family” relationship you can closely nurture is one with yourself? What does a day look like in a place that no one sees? 

R: I love being around people so I look for similar feelings to what my sisters bring me in the friends I surround myself with. It’s difficult to do things by myself that my sisters and I used to do together like go shopping or even sing because I just end up missing them or wishing I wasn’t alone. I cry more, and it feels even worse because I don’t have them with me.

Getting into a relationship is probably the best thing that’s helped me cope with missing my sisters. Though it isn’t the same, the relationship I have with my boyfriend allows me to have those similar shared spaces and comforts. Having a boyfriend has admittedly made the pandemic a lot more tolerable. Although I hate to think that I’m ‘using’ him as a coping mechanism, or see him as a ‘filler’ – he fills part of the hole in my heart that misses that comfort. I can’t wait for him to meet my sisters and feel what that dynamic is like, a room filled with the people I love the most. I’m exceptionally clingy towards my boyfriend in the same way I was to my sisters, but being with him is also teaching me to enjoy my own space as an individual because I think I have a bit of an addictive personality.

N: Where some days used to be reserved for hanging out with family, days like those no longer exist if I am alone. To be honest, I find myself making more bad decisions in life. I made many choices rashly which ended in a lot of tears and failed friendships. For example, I was hanging out with more people to fill up my time, even people who didn’t care about me, and I would party more. 

H: During my gap year I had more breakdowns and nightmares compared to when I was living with my sisters and had mental support and guidance that could back me up or validate my emotions. My days away were very monotonous and I felt like I always needed to be strong and happy in front of people, whereas when either of my sisters was with me I could break that barrier down and show my true emotions. Of course, I’m dependent on myself and do try hard to work on my problems by myself, but oftentimes it becomes very burdensome, which I know my sisters would lighten if I still lived with them.

How reliant is your relationship on technology and how? 

R: My sisters and I only stay in touch through texting and video calling, but even that is rare. I’m the one that tries to communicate the most. They’re both still in their comfort space in Indonesia while I’m in an entirely different country with not as many people that I know. So, I will try to call them at any time; walking home from the grocery store; while I’m washing up, while I’m getting ready for the day, etc. Of course, they don’t always pick up – which makes it all the more frustrating to be so far away and in different time zones. 

We are more ‘in-person’ communicators, being apart and FaceTiming still feels very weird. Yes, I can Facetime my sisters once every two weeks or so, but what I especially miss is their presence. I think that comes from having shared a room with both of them for 19 years. We would do everything in the same room. Even though we weren’t always talking or hanging out, we would always be in each other’s presence. 

However, something I do to feel close to my family is sending them pictures of things that remind me of them or that I think they would like. For example, if a street artist is playing the piano I’ll send a video to Hannah because she loves playing the piano. Or, whenever I put on a cute outfit I’ll send both sisters a video – and they’ll do the same. Then we’ll reply to each other’s videos asking where the items are from, and say things like “I’m borrowing that when I visit!” It reminds me of home because growing up they used to always steal my clothes. 

N: For me and my sisters, regardless of the presence of technology, our relationship would always remain tight-knit. I could go for weeks without calling them, but I knew that the moment I did, or the moment I saw them, we would still be just as close as we were the last time we spoke. In that sense, our relationship, and how close we are, is not very reliant on technology. 

H: When we are apart we are very reliant on technology, mostly texting and calling. But even so, we don’t call each other that often because of timezones and schedules (or laziness). Our communication is more open when face to face because I think when it’s online, there’s always a time limit, often because of our conflicting schedules and busyness. 

I no longer have people to sit and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with, even if it’s just in complete silence. Them being my constant made my life make more sense.

Naomi Hope Nielsen

What has been the hardest part of living away from both of your sisters?

R: Being alone. Like I love having a room to myself, it’s something I always wished for growing up. But sometimes I still miss being able to wonder aloud at 2:00 AM “Is anyone awake?” and have a voice chirp “Ugh, what’s up?”, or even just someone to get ready with and ask for their opinion on my outfit before leaving the house. Of course, I have my flatmates for that now but it’s just different because my relationship with my sisters is at the point where they will genuinely tell me I look ugly and change the tiniest detail! I miss that level of honesty and just being myself around them. Even the amazing friendships I have now just can’t compare. 

N: The hardest part is not having that ‘constant’ every day. When we lived together, I always knew that I could go home and tell my sisters about all the things that happened that day. They were the people that were always going to be there. But not having them in the house so I can ask for their opinion on the spot or steal clothes from them whenever I want is completely different. I no longer have people to sit and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with, even if it’s just in complete silence. Them being my constant made my life make more sense. 

H: When I lived apart from both of them, the hardest part was not having anyone super close that I could talk to with absolutely no fear of judgement. I could be sad, crazy, angry, or excited around them without feeling like I’m saying too much or being too dramatic. They would also calm me down and motivate me when I didn’t feel my best mentally. I had friends but my connection with my sisters is very different. I never had any “playtime” or the chance to do the crazy random things we would do when we were together.

<strong>Emily Phillips</strong>
Emily Phillips

Emily Phillips is a BIPoC Canadian writer presently based in North London. She is a current BA: Fashion Journalism student at University of the Arts London: London College of Fashion. Emily has an insightful, creative, and seductive voice that shines through in her writing. Her work has been published in 10 Magazine and Coeval Magazine, as well as the 2021 book Networked Futures: Online Exhibitions and Digital Hierarchies from the digital art gallery platform isthisit?

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