Lockdown, or living far away from each other, are just two reasons why you might be separated from your grandchildren. It’s not always easy, but there are ways of coping. Our writer, Grandmother Jacqui, explored her own situation and how she tackled the challenges, before talking to other grandparents to find out how they’re coping...
When my eldest daughter gave birth, she was living a mere 20-minute drive from me. I had moved closer to her a couple of years previously, with a feeling that soon there would be a grandchild on the way.
When my grandson was born in March 2017, I was relieved we lived so close. I had all kinds of plans for how I’d play a part in his life, visions of how close we’d be. So when it was announced, just months after his arrival, that his little family unit was moving to Scotland, I was silently devastated.
I didn’t show any of this of course. What good would that do? I was pleased for them and remained stoic. It would be fine: I’d visit; they’d visit. How hard could it be?
I was living in London at this point – just four hours on the train; what’s that between a grandma and her precious absent grandbaby? It’s no time at all.
Seeing them was harder than I thought it would be
Before I knew it, however, several months had passed. Courtesy of Facebook posts and mini-videos via email and messaging apps I could see my grandson growing fast. But I’d only met him once in person, when he was five days old, so I couldn’t wait to go and get another cuddle with him.
But he was six months old before I got to see him again. He was almost 10 months old on my next visit. The following visit was prevented by snow, and the next. The one after that was cancelled due to a death in the family. Being able to see my grandchild was not as easy as I’d hoped.
Having a long-distance grandparenting experience
My friend Graham and his granddaughter Leni – now four – have had a long-distance relationship all her life. Grampy Graham, 65, lives in Portugal and Leni lives 1,200 miles away in Bristol: but the distance between them hasn’t been a problem at all.
“At first, I was a bit worried about how it would work,” admits Graham. “When she was born in 2016, I flew back to the UK and helped out as much as I could for three weeks. Leni and I bonded in that time and that bond has never been broken. Despite the distance between us, we’re incredibly close.”
Now retired, Graham visits as often as he can. For him, being separated from his beloved granddaughter hasn’t been that difficult.
“It’s the way it’s always been,” he explains. “When I’m in Portugal, we video call at night before Leni goes to bed. Sometimes, we just chat and other times I’ll help get her off to sleep by reading her a bedtime story from one of the books I keep here for her. We’ve done that since she was a baby, before she could talk, so it’s just a part of her routine now.
“These days she can chatter away, and with video calls she can see me and I can show her around my apartment. She often instructs me to take her to see the swimming pool or the kitchen. I have a bedroom here for her, so she likes to check on that occasionally to make sure I’m keeping it tidy!”
Technology to the rescue
Graham thinks it’s imperative for grandparents to have some kind of video connection to distant grandchildren. “I know a lot of older people aren’t that great with technology,” he says, “but if they want to keep in touch, they really do have to get to grips with it, no matter how alien it might seem to them. I’d say, if you want to maintain a regular relationship with a distant grandchild, that’s THE most important thing.”
Accounts supervisor Maggie agrees. “If you have a computer or a tablet, it makes staying in touch a whole lot easier. A phone can be a bit of a strain on the eyes, so I’d definitely recommend getting a laptop. It’s better to have a computer, especially if you like to watch TV together, which I do a lot with my grandkids – whole films usually!”
She reckons it’s also important to let them know you’re there for them 24/7. “Just because you can’t be with them physically doesn’t mean they’re cut off from you. I always tell my grandkids they can contact me any hour of the day or night.”
When the separation gets too painful, Maggie says, remember to tell them you love them and that you’ll see them as soon as you can. They need to know that being apart isn’t a forever thing.
Another grandparent, Liz, 56, from Teeside, agrees. “If it hadn’t been for video calling, I’d have been at my wits’ end during lockdown,” she claims. “I was used to seeing my seven-year-old grandson Star every day, then, suddenly, we were in isolation.”
Missing the human touch
From March until August, Liz, who suffers from health issues and was shielding during lockdown, was unable to have any kind of physical contact with her family – and that included Star. “It’s been so hard,” she sighs.
At one point, desperate to see her darling grandson, Liz even ventured out and stood in the street so Star could wave at her from the balcony of the first-floor flat where he lives with his mum Louise and dad (Liz’s son) Charlie.
“It broke my heart, seeing him up there, waving, but not being able to reach out and hug him,” she remembers, “but I had to do it. I had to see him in the flesh. Video calling is all well and good but it’s no substitute for actually seeing someone, especially when that someone is your little grandson.”
It wasn’t just Nana Liz who was missing Star. ‘Granda’ Bob, 54, was having a tough time of it too. Liz says: “Star loves to visit his granddad. He loves Granda’s bedtime stories, most of which were like something from Horrible Histories – quite terrifying! Star was constantly asking when he could come and see us, and it was so hard telling him he couldn’t. It was a tough five months.”
Falling back on traditional methods of staying close
Feeling that calling, messaging and balcony visits weren’t enough, Liz took to writing letters to Star. “It was great fun,” she says, “especially when he started writing back. It’s so old-fashioned and something most kids never get to do these days. It was exciting for us both, getting letters in the post. I’d recommend it to all grandparents, whatever the situation!”
Maggie, 54, and her building-site manager partner Steve have eight grandchildren, and have embraced postal gifts.
Although they live close to their grandchildren and see them regularly, they missed them a lot during Lockdown. “It was really difficult,” Maggie says. “We all stayed in touch via WhatsApp videos of course, but it wasn’t enough. It was my birthday in April and we couldn’t see each other – and that was really hard.”
The Enfield-based grandma likes to keep the grandkids happy by sending them lots of little presents she orders online. “They love that, but they still get frustrated if they can’t see me.”
The importance of grandparenting
Psychologist, TV presenter and writer Emma Kenny stresses the importance of grandparents spending as much time as possible with their grandchildren, and suggests that being separated from them can have a negative impact on body and mind.
“One of the reasons that people live a long life is due to having close and present bonds with the people that they love,” she explains. “When starved of these attachments the impact can be negative – psychologically, physically, and emotionally.
“Lockdown was meant to last three weeks; a manageable moment in time, allowing us to fully appreciate the relationships we were suddenly unable to attend to, but this stretched on for months, meaning that many grandparents were denied the life-enhancing relationships they have with their grandchildren.
“As we get older, time is appreciated on a whole new level and, when that time is stolen due to separation, grandparents can experience increased stress and decreased enjoyment – two variables that are contributors to negative health and psychological well-being.”
How to cope when you can’t see your grandchildren
- Make sure you’re up to speed with using the internet so that you can make use of video calling and social media. For help, read our handy guide.
- Call, message, or video call them regularly
- If they’re teenagers (and if they’ll let you!), follow them on social media
- Make it easier for teenage grandkids to stay in touch with you by opening up your own Instagram account. (You might love Facebook, but no teen uses that platform these days!)
- Let them know you’re there for them
- Tell them you love them whenever you can
- Send cards even when it’s not their birthday
- If you go away, as well as video calls and messages, send a postcard
- Almost as old-fashioned as sending postcards, try a bit of letter-writing: it’s not something modern-day kids do very often, and many will enjoy it
- Use online shopping to choose and send regular gifts: they don’t have to be extravagant – just little tokens of your love
- Get their parents to keep you updated with videos, photos, news of their achievements and copies of school reports
- Always remind them that you’ll see them as soon as humanly possible and that you just can’t wait