When the link is broken // The Heartbreak of Grandparent Alienation

I remember running up the steep incline of my grandmother’s driveway on Friday afternoons, pulling open the front door and inhaling the sweet scent of peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. The smell guided me into the kitchen where my grandmother would serve huge slices of Rice Krispie treats, warmed in the oven so the sticky goodness melted into my fingers. As a very little girl I came for the goodies, but as I grew, my grandmother’s home became an extension of my own, a sweet little nest of love. Instead of the treats, I’d come for the way her eyes lit up when I stepped through the door, as if the only thing missing in her day was my arrival, and now that I’d come her happiness was complete.

At this point in my life I know that the deep bond of my grandmother’s love was not just a heart-warming display of affection, but that it contained the kind of strength that holds its own shape and builds an identity. If parents form the central influence in their children’s lives, grandparents are like the layer around it, a cushion or a buffer to seal it all in. My relationship with my grandmother was like the faintest whisper, this is who you are. This is where you come from. With her presence came an awareness that I was not born in a vacuum. She was the link that connected me to the line of great women who came before me.

In a series of interviews, I speak with grandmothers who are alienated from their grandchildren. Every grandmother has her own story to tell and her own way of telling it, but through the pauses that stretch a little too long and the sighs that break up their words a little too often, I hear the same tale. They are all women who hold an unbreakable strength, grandmothers who have experienced the diverse angles of life; the beauty, the sorrow, the vulnerability. At a time when their days should’ve been filled with the richness of an uncomplicated love, they find themselves grieving instead for the grandchildren that have been roughly torn from their lives. I hear the pain they feel in holding onto a love that they cannot give, and I hear a deeper pain in their knowledge that the grandchildren they loved—and who loved them back—are thinking about them and wondering where they’ve gone. There’s strength in their voices but there is also the kind of layered grief that does not soften with the passage of time. If anything it seems to strengthen, taking on an ever more desperate longing as the weeks and months slide by.

As I listen to their pained voices, I think of my own grandmothers and how identities shift and grow new layers throughout our lives. I think of the hugs, the kisses, the running up driveways, and I know that the love flowing both ways between my grandmothers and their grandchildren did not only shape our own identities, it shaped theirs too. Grandchildren are the link that connects their grandparents to the future, to the line of people who will come from them. Our love to them is like the faintest whisper, this is who I have become.
This is the double-edged sword of grandparent alienation. The parent with the custody rights is in the center, the gatekeeper who refuses to acknowledge or care about cutting away an integral link in the chain.

As we get ready to welcome the Yom Tov that celebrates the connection between generations with the command to tell and retell the story of our history, the breakage in their familial link is ever more pronounced. But Pesach is also a time to celebrate redemption. Sometimes redemption comes in a sudden windfall, sometimes it crawls to the finish line through small steps. Today, there is a growing awareness and a support group for estranged grandmothers to help soften the sharp edges of the chasm left in the wake of their grandchildren’s absence. They are small steps toward salvation, but significant ones. It is my hope that they grow into giant leaps that lead to a full and complete redemption for every estranged grandparent.

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