By Jill Curtis
Anyone who has ever been involved with the breakup of a family knows that the waves of shock and pain spread far and wide. Not only are the couple deeply affected, and the children of course, but also the rest of the family and close friends. Suddenly they all feel a very cold wind blowing through many lives.
Much has been written about the impact of divorce on the nuclear family, but let us spread our net wider to take in the grandparents. What is often not taken on board is that as the number of divorces increases, so do the number of ‘divorced’ grandparents. In my research for my book ‘Find Your Way through Divorce’I heard of the way divorce had wrecked the lives of many senior family members.
I was distressed to hear from so many grandparents who had become part of the wrangle between the divorced couple. In many cases grandparents found themselves cut out from their grandchildren’s lives. Sometimes this was because a parent who had custody of the children moved away and made little attempt to keep contact. It seemed that punishing an ex-partner, whether consciously or unconsciously, may have entered the scenario. The fact that the children will suffer too, was at times overlooked in the heat of the moment. It is painful enough for children to deal with the breakup of their family, but for them also to lose contact with one set of grandparents as well, is to deny a child part of their heritage.
Another aspect is the question of loyalty. What if it is your son or daughter who has been instrumental in bringing about the split? Unhappy are the parents who feel they have to choose between supporting their own ‘child’ and supporting a very unhappy son-or daughter-in-law. Blood is thicker than water, but the heartache that many grandparents feel when they see how their own child has been unable to carry out their responsibilities is a terrible burden to carry. Especially at a time in their life where they may have hoped for a little peace and happiness.
On the whole grandparents, parents of the divorced couple, find little support. People do not consider what a wrench it can be to lose a much loved son-or daughter-in-law, so most grief at this loss is unacknowledged. It can hurt, too, for friends to say they could ‘see it coming’ or that they ‘had never liked him/her in the first place’.
Often the grandparents become a port of call for help, and they may be required to be more involved with the care of the children. A ‘weekend’ parent may find it very helpful to take the children to the grandparents’ home, and that is where the grandparents can help to provide stability for any family which is breaking apart. A wise grandparent will keep in mind that the ‘other’ parent should never be criticised in front of the children. However a parent has behaved, to the children they are still ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ and the children are dealing with enough without feeling torn by a sense of divided loyalties. Helping to parent the grandchildren is a task nearly always taken on with love, but it doesn’t leave much time for the mourning which must take place. Because, after all, a divorce and the loss associated with it is a bereavement. Even if the divorce is seen as inevitable, it is sad that the hopes and dreams which were there at the beginning, have come to nothing.
One grandmother, Eileen, said to me that when her daughter told her that her husband was leaving her with three small children, Eileen felt her eyes fill with tears. Her daughter reacted by an angry: ‘Mother, don’t YOU cry, I couldn’t take that too.’ Eileen swallowed her tears, and kept them for later. Perhaps however grown-up we are, we need to feel our parents are okay and are strong. But the next time you hear someone say ‘My daughter/son is getting divorced’ be sure that you recognize that grandparents hurt to, and they might appreciate a shoulder to cry on or a space to express their anger and anxiety. Remember that any divorce becomes a family divorce, and when you see your children in pain, it becomes an unimaginable ache. I know. I am a grandmother, and I have been there.