The Blog

The Other Side of Grandparent Estrangement

About six months ago, I visited my elderly grandmother in her care home. I'd not seen her in years, too many to excuse really. This was partly as a result of my estrangement with key figures in my family.

About six months ago, I visited my elderly grandmother in her care home. I'd not seen her in years, too many to excuse really. This was partly as a result of my estrangement with key figures in my family. I'd struggled to maintain contact with this now vulnerable woman, who was my beacon of light in younger days, as she herself became more reliant on the people with whom I had no contact. But a larger part of the reason that this visit was the first visit in nearly a decade was that returning to the close-knit region where I was born and raised was, and always has been, a heart wrenching thought. There was a dread of hard memories, baffling questions, and sinking into a state of upset about all the interactions that had led to this heavy silence.

So I set off on the bus ride that would take me to the town where I spent much of my youth, and the location of my grandmother's home. The town's outline was familiar as the bus rolled down into the valley: the church spire was prodding out and above the trees as it always had. Every stop of the bus was anxiety ridden, and a gamble of bumping into someone I knew or someone who would recognise me.

Living out of contact with someone for whom you care deeply is a taxing affair, one that is as draining as it is frustrating. It is a living loss, but not quite a full grief. There's something that you can't really let go. And there are many moments in which I wonder if I'll know if my grandmother dies: would those responsible for the dissemination of information let all the family know if they go? Or would caregivers assume and work on the principle all families communicate adequately? Furthermore, that all nominated powers of attorney are neutral? And that bad news travels regardless.

From our anecdotal understandings of estrangement within the Stand Alone community, alienating the young or the elderly is often seen as a move against those that are felt to lack compliance. There are various shades of this lack of compliance: it could be those who rock the status quo, a person who doesn't accept and live by a particular family myth, or those who are perceived to have hurt or betrayed another in their actions. Of course, there are many more than I could possibly list here, as each situation we encounter is so different.

This presents a different angle for the proposed legislation towards legally enforced contact with wider family members. There are so many families, where straightforward logic does not apply, and the needs and the wants of a vulnerable person are lost in power play. And perhaps these basic moments of critical illness and death are the complex situations that such a law would make simple. But then do all family members have the right to know if someone could die, and furthermore say goodbye?

But back to the care home, as it was almost time. I got there, I got down the corridor with weak knees, and I opened the door with the nurse who had excitedly led me to her room. And after the many years that had elapsed, hearing the giggle of my ninety-two year old grandmother as she saw me standing there will never leave me. She looked me up and down after I'd been there a while, seeing how not quite a decade had changed me: 'I missed all those years,' she said in amazement. 'How can I have possibly missed all those years?'

It was a surprise visit, and I left through the back door. But I walked back to the small bus station with something priceless that grey autumn day. It was a timely reminder that even when we had not shared a pot of tea for however many years, the love and the bond had not gone, and will never really go. However hard it is to communicate, whatever barriers there may be, it doesn't matter as much as the bond itself.

Some months after this visit, I wrote a blog piece here advocating that there shouldn't be a law that gives grandparents the legal right to see their grandchildren, a law that would allow all parents a right of passage to contact with their grandchild, whether the parent liked it or not. In this article I addressed concerns that legislation of this sort would act as a bypass to the hard work; soul searching and ownership that is needed to re-build a healthy family environment for the child. In any reconciliation, all family members are encouraged to show empathy, and understand the separate family realities that live within these rifts. And, of course, I was concerned about the risks to the grandchildren from a percentage of grandparents that may have a history of abusive behaviour towards their own children.

I'm not taking these statements back, even if a law of this kind may help people in more extreme positions to see those elderly relatives that are held dear. However, in all of this debate about estrangement, the law, and what is right and wrong with contact, I feel we are missing something crucial. It's the love that really matters, and not the hours. If love is present in any relationship, it is powerful in its force to survive infinite distance and time, and will eclipse any efforts at alienation that are thrown at it. And for all of those people yearning for something closer, for less politicised access or information, it's this fact alone that we must cling to.