Thankfully, many grandparents are blessed with the opportunity to get to know and stay in touch with their grandchildren. However, the relationship ebbs and flows like any other. As kids grow older, they may move away. Divorce, illness and a change in residence can also result in either a temporary disruption in contact or, in some cases, an enduring loss of contact. Of course, death of either the grandparent or the grandchild can also result in very difficult feelings of loss.
Unfortunately, grandparents have limited control over the how much or how little contact they have with grandchildren. Parents can decide to move the family to another city. Parents can also decide that they do not trust grandparents to be alone with their kids. Standards of what is considered adequate supervision of children have changed considerably. Kids can decide they no longer want to visit. In addition, as they age, grandparents may find that health issues serve as barriers to contact. As Dr. Brian and I have mentioned before, while stress can be difficult, lack of control over stress producing situations can be particularly hard on one’s physical and emotional well-being.
Researchers Linda Drew and Merril Silverstein, from the University of Southern California, have focused on how grandparents are affected when they lose contact with grandkids. The researchers tracked the depressive symptoms of grandparents over 15 years. They compared grandparents who had not experienced loss of contact with their grandkids, with those that had. The results showed that grandparents who lost contact were more likely to experience a steeper increase in depressive symptoms. They also found that grandparents who experienced a sudden loss of contact with their grandkids, for example, through geographical separation, death or illness, had a significant increase in depressive symptoms up to 3 years following their loss. However, on a positive note, they returned to their normal state after 3 years.
This research suggests that there should be concern about the emotional health of grandparents following a sudden loss of contact with their grandchildren. The support that comes with loss needs to be a two-way street. While parents often expect to have support for their loss from grandparents, they should also be cognizant of the loss being experienced by grandparents and be prepared to provide them with the support they deserve. At the same time, it is important to remember than grandparents tend to return to their normal level of functioning after approximately 3 years.
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.