Grandparents who’ve lost contact with their grandchildren

May 31, 2015
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It’s a shameful secret. It’s a cause of grief and distress. When grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren, the loss, in the words of one grandmother, is “akin to a slow death.”

Divorce has created an army of broken-hearted grandparents, estranged from grandchildren for reasons not always clear to them. Often it’s a former daughter-in-law who’s sent them into exile. But a major fall-out with their own child can sever family ties forever. The effects cascade down the generations.

In the UK more than a million grandparents have been denied access to their grandchildren. Here the numbers are unknown. One study revealed 17 per cent of paternal grandparents whose grandchild lived mainly with the mother after divorce never saw their grandchild again. It’s a familiar enough story. It happened in my own extended family; I’ve witnessed the pain suffered by good people who did nothing to deserve their 50 years in Siberia.

Recently a grandmother contacted me to tell me her story in the hope of reaching out to others. Let’s call her Jacqui. “It’s been some five years since I’ve seen my grandchildren,” she said. “I have one son who flies me around the world and entrusts me to be their children’s guardian when the parents are out of the country; and another son who’ll not allow me to have any contact with his children. My son is in a happy marriage and is a good parent; it’s a strong family unit and they don’t want me in it for whatever reason.”

It was only when the first grandchild was born nine years into the marriage, that her son began the process of cutting Jacqui out of his life. She managed to form a “wonderful connection” with the first-born, had little contact with the second, and never met the third grandchild who’s four. “The effect on me has been overwhelming emotionally,” she said, “and the grief has led me into therapy again and a stint back into mental healthcare as a result.”

She writes cards and letters to her estranged grandchildren but doesn’t send them. ”They’re here in my home,” Jacqui said, “so that when they’re older, and I trust one day I’ll meet with them, they’ll know that even though they’re absent from my life, they’re a constant in my heart.”

Like many in her situation, Jacqui has examined her own possible role in this estrangement. She’d always had a difficult relationship with this son, stemming from when she left him and his father for a time; and her problems with depression, leading to past suicide attempts, are probably a factor. “I’ve tried to address these issues with my son but he has a great deal of anger towards me,” she said.

When Jacqui lets slip her secret to others, she’s amazed so many other grandparents are also suffering in exile. Under mounting pressure from grandparents, the Family Law Act was amended in 2006 to acknowledge the special role of grandparents. Unless it’s contrary to their best interests, children have a right to regularly spend time and communicate with people significant to their “care, welfare and development.” Grandparents are singled out in the law. Since the change, it’s become a “growing area of dispute and court action,” says Andrew Corish, of Corish and Co, specialist family lawyers, with experience in grandparent issues.

There’s another side to this story: as there are selfish and cruel parents, so are there selfish grandparents who’ve been emboldened to pursue what they regard as a legal right to see their grandchildren. Some even consider denial of access a form of ‘elder abuse’. At a grandparents’ forum in NSW a few years ago, some grandparents wanted the ‘wellbeing of grandparents’ to be given equal consideration under law with the best interests of the child. Some grandparents can go too far. Fair or not, parents have the primary responsibility to make decisions about their children.

Andrew Corish told me aggressive, manipulative and interfering grandparents are usually given short shrift by the court. “Grandparents are not the parents,” he said. “Family law is not about grandparents’ rights; it’s about the children’s rights.” One assertive and over-involved grandmother arrived at his office with a 200-page affidavit detailing the shortcomings of the child’s mother. “The court wouldn’t have anything to do with her; she was too critical and controlling.”

But the family court, Corish said, will be sympathetic to and supportive of caring grandparents who want to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren, especially a good pre-existing relationship, and have also done their best to remain on good terms with the parents. In one case, where he represented a grandmother successfully, he’s stayed in touch long enough to see the relationship between the grandmother and granddaughter flourish over many years.

Most grandparents, like Jacqui, rule out court action – they don’t have the money, they don’t want to represent themselves in court, or they don’t want to worsen matters. Instead they live with pain and hope.

In the case I know, the grandchildren flourished. Their lives would have been richer and broader had they known their lovely grandparents. But it’s not always, or even usually true, that all children suffer due to grandparent deprivation. And sadly these children grew to adulthood with no interest in seeking a relationship with their grandparents. The grandparents suffered terribly.  But just like Jacqui, they had to get on with their lives.

Do you know of similar cases – and what might help? Please leave a comment.

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