Coping as a sad, absent grandparent

A couple of months ago I wrote this blog about becoming a grandparent for the first time. Many weeks later I received a heartfelt letter from a grandmother sharing her story of family discord that has kept her and her husband at arm’s length from their grandchildren and asking for some help.

It seems that for some grandparents — particularly perhaps those who are the parents of the father of their grandchildren, they can have more difficulty maintaining warm and connected relationships not only with their grandchildren, but also with their sons. A healthy and connected mother-daughter relationship is a very powerful circle of connection that has been cultivated over many, many years. I can imagine that possibly unintentionally it may feel difficult for the mother-in-law to feel as involved and connected.

When a woman becomes a mother she turns naturally to the safest women in her life for love, support and guidance. It is not always the case. There was an article in The Weekend Australian last year that shared many stories of mothers and daughters completely estranged after the daughters became mothers – so it is not a given that a daughter will reach out to her own mother later in life. Human relationships are such challenging things and many women choose to exclude their own mothers if they have found them to be critical, judgemental or unloving.

When my marriage ended, my mother-in-law was still my sons’ grandmother (Grandpa had died) and I continued to send her photos to keep her in touch – she lived 5 hours away. My mother-in-law loved home-made fruit cake and I continued to bake her a Christmas cake every year because I wanted to honour that she still mattered. Just because the marriage had ended the love that she felt for my boys had not changed at all and it deserved to be respected and nurtured.

As a mother of four wonderful and loving sons I am familiar with times when I have felt frustrated that they have not shared something significant that has happened to them and I have found out via a friend or a cousin. Early on I chose to feel a little miffed until I realised that they meant absolutely no harm – often they just simply forgot. If I chose to take such omissions personally as a deliberate act to distance me, then I would have created more emotional angst for myself. Maybe after a man is married and his primary alliance moves to his wife or partner he may find it difficult to stay as committed to staying in touch with his mother? He will still love his mother however that emotional distance may be hard to accept. When this emotional distance flows into the grandparent-grandchild relationships – that is a whole new world of grief and sadness.

The grandmother who wrote to me lives only within an easy 1.5 hour drive from her grandchildren and she and her husband tend to see them only 3 to 5 times a year even though they try to visit and stay in touch much more often. Sadly they have never experienced taking the little ones to the park for a swim, taking them to the zoo, reading them a book or taking them for a walk. Birthdays are a bit hit and miss even though every year with every grandchild they make an effort to connect and visit.

Their sadness and disappointment of having their hopes and dreams as grandparents dashed is palpable and poignant. It is especially sad because their grandchildren are very close to the maternal grandparents and they have had all those golden opportunities that she has not.

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But what can absent grandparents do to stay connected?

Suggestions for absent grandparents.

  1. Never stop trying to connect to your grandchildren. Keep sending those surprise cards, small gifts – especially home-made things. Never miss a birthday even if it is not acknowledged.
  2. Create a profound photo wall with photos of your grandchildren. As it is so easy to capture images and send them these days, please keep asking (in a loving way) for images to be sent. You might even have to bite the bullet and join Facebook if you haven’t already as billions of people find it easy to share things on there. 
  3. Write some family stories from your own childhood in a special book or create a scrapbook that captures old childhood memories. As we age we become fascinated with our family histories and when your grandchildren come asking, maybe after they have left home, be prepared to show them.
  4. Have your family trees done, both maternal and paternal, with the grandchildren on them. This is a powerful moment when we realise that we have many ancestors that we are related to.
  5. Record either as a video or an audio many of your life stories especially moments of challenge, fun and adventure. I know having these forms of history has been incredibly helpful for families who have had an unexpected death because hearing a person’s voice or seeing them speak is so much more engaging, touching and evocative than just the written word.
  6. The teenage years are often a challenge for families and always include this line in every card or message that you send to your grandchildren: “our door is always open for you”. Many teens want to run away or leave home often prematurely and I have known many who have turned up at their grandma’s unexpectedly. We need them to have somewhere safe they can go.
  7. Leave a special loving message to your grandchildren to be read at your funeral – naming them and telling them how much you love them and wish them a happy life.
  8. Find a family in your community who has absent grandparents or no grandparents and become an adopted grandparent for them. We have a beautiful special extra grandmother in our family – a lady called Pat – who my boys love dearly. She has been our extra grandmother for over 20 years and the relationship has been mutually beneficial for all of us.
  9. If you are financially able to sponsor a child from overseas do so as you are able to stay connected to them possibly more easily than your own biological grandchildren. It can still fill a sense of loving connection and of making a positive difference to another child’s life.
  10. Create a savings account and put $$$ in every month..it’s not about the money it’s about doing something for them over a long period of time. Tell them you want them to use it to travel to a dream holiday destination or fulfil some other dream.

Imagine that one day your adult grandchildren will come to visit and wonder why you were distant. So avoid blaming those who made it difficult and with these strategies – you can show how hard you tried and that will make such a profound difference in all your hearts.