Gratitude For Grandparents

    No matter what culture or ethnic group, grandparents are usually adored by their grandchildren. They are addressed with special “sweet” names, common in every different culture, but they are more than merely unique: They inherently embody affection and convey cherished bonds of deep love. (Some examples are Zaidie/Bubbie, Awa/Tata, Grandmere/Grandpere, Abuelo/Abuela, Yeye/Nainai, Nonna/Nonno, Soba/Sofu, Saba/Safta, Babushka/Dedushka, Nana/Poppa, Bibi/Babu and of course so many more.) 

   Questions for you: Were you close to your grandparents? Did they have special names? Are you young enough to enjoy your relationship with them now? Are you old enough to have grandchildren of your own?

    Given the increased life expectancies prevalent in many countries today, the answers are most often affirmative.

    My experiences with my own grandparents were extremely sparse: I knew only one, my maternal grandfather, and he passed away when I was only two. (I cherish a photo of him holding me close, taken shortly before he passed away.) My paternal grandparents were killed in the Holocaust and my maternal grandmother died before I appeared.

    I do, however, have a cognitive and visceral perception of them, as well as a spiritual sense of closeness, based on old photographs and the lore related by my parents and other relatives.

   I was fortunate to meet many grandparents of cousins and friends when I was a child, and remember feeling how lucky they were to have those special relationships with relatives from another generation. I’ve read about these unique relationships in novels and family studies (since I was a clinician), and I worked with grandparents (and grandchildren) in my practice and in my research studies. 

   There is a humorous parable about grandparents “having all of the pleasure and none of the responsibilities” of raising children, the point being that they can play with their grandchildren, provide excess sweets and gifts, impart pearls of wisdom, contradict or criticize their parents (your children!), but they don’t have to assume the burdens of disciplining, emotional upheavals, pains or expenses, borne by the “real” parents. 

   That is an exaggeration, of course, as many grandparents feel close to and share the joys and sorrows of their grandchildren. Moreover, millions of grandparents throughout the world participate in child-rearing and are actively engaged in the work and pleasure of raising and protecting their grandchildren. 

   Some grandparents have the time, means, energy and the desire to create close bonds with their grandchildren and voluntarily help out in raising them.

   Much more often, however, these kinds of arrangements are less planned and smooth, and borne of necessity. That is, circumstances arise and dictate that grandparents are needed to fulfill parenting roles, due to the temporary absence of the parents for employment reasons, or financial needs, career demands or personal needs and desires. 

   Often there are even more salient and poignant needs for grandparents’ involvement in childrearing. These occur under pressured or dire circumstances, as when one or both parents leaves due to marital break-up, or one spouse’s withdrawal, or severe illness (physical or mental) or the death of one or both parents. 

    These mixed burdens and blessings for grandparents are increasingly necessitated by demanding fiscal realities, particularly in impoverished and underdeveloped countries. 

    In the recent movie, “Hillbilly Elegy” (Netflix), based on the best-selling book by J.D. Vance, the actress Glenn Close evocatively plays an overburdened grandmother who was always deeply and inextricably involved in the complexities and challenges, sometimes the chaos, faced by her children and grandchildren. She was by no means perfect, but in spite of her faults and frailties she was a dominant and protective force of nature which supplied her grandchildren with stability and the presence of intense love. 

    It was clear that without her powerful influence, the family would have suffered immeasurably and likely have fallen apart. 

    She captured the profound emotions that many grandparents experience in their close involvement with their grandchildren: The palpable joys and meaningfulness, the pride and passions, worries and pains, and the caring and love which she felt so powerfully and which she imbued in the lives of her family. 

   In my studies years ago I interviewed retired individuals (mostly octogenarians) about the central criteria for their feeling personally fulfilled and worthwhile during their long lives. I was especially interested in, while looking back, their senses of having achieved “The Four B’s: Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence.” 

    In each of these areas, it was remarkable to me how often and spontaneously they brought up their relationships with their grandchildren. It was particularly meaningful and moving to the grandparents when they felt loved and needed by their grandchildren, and vice versa. This was of singular importance to them in assessing the worth of their lives.

    Grandparents who have sufficient health, motivation and means to help care for and raise their grandchildren represent to me the epitome of a “win-win” situation, as both generations can benefit immensely from each other. It goes without saying that this arrangement can be as much or more a benefit to the “skipped” generation, ie, the actual parents of the children. 

    So much so, that I wonder if this particular arrangement (grandparents helping with the raising of grandchildren) could not be more formally encouraged, planned for and officially supported by municipal, state and federal governments. Grandparents in families with insufficient means could be de facto “hired” to give the mothers or fathers some respite. It could be voluntary and preschool and daycare would still be important, but these services could be modified and tailored to the needs of the children and their grandparents. 

     During the current pandemic, grandparents are like an “endangered species,” in that they more susceptible to the coronavirus, and thus often separated for their own protection from their grandchildren by the dictates of public health authorities. This situation may be temporary but it is particularly poignant, and one in which I find myself. 

    This particular octogenarian hasn’t seen two of his three sons and their wives, and five of his seven grandchildren, in over a year. My grandchildren, ranging in age from eight to twenty years, individually and as a group enhance and ennoble my very existence. And as I increasingly remove myself from the day-to-day frenzy of productivity, competition, obligations and deadlines which besiege so many stressed parents, I can in retirement (end of pandemic allowing!) give more of myself to the lives of my grandchildren, and without a doubt, to myself.

    In a way, our grandchildren “complete” the circle of our lives. No, I am not being fatalistic or morbid: To the contrary, I am energized and hopeful, aware that these are our legacy gifts to humanity and to our planet which reside in the lives of these wonderful young people. 

    If so, the world will be in good hands.

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