By Barbara Allen, Contributing Writer
Region – For years, it has been the “elephant in the room,” the problem without a name. But grandparents all over the world have been lifting their voices in unison to raise awareness about an estrangement phenomenon which has become increasingly common among families today: grandparent alienation.
“This is a global epidemic,” said Amanda, the founder and president of Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, International, Inc., who protects her anonymity by using her first name only. “Just ask those around you and you will find what I have: everyone either has grandparent alienation somewhere in their family or knows someone close to them who is experiencing [it]. AGA gave it a name.”
Although headquartered in Naples, Fla., Alienated Grandparents Anonymous or AGA, which was started in 2011, welcomes members from across the country, as well as from outside the U.S. Its website (aga-fl.org) offers information on support groups, upcoming events, call-in support teleconferences, education, advice and coping skills for those who have found themselves abruptly and, most often, inexplicably, cut off from their grandchildren by their own adult children and/or the spouse of the adult child. It also provides a safe place for members to vent and tell their own stories.
“It’s absurd,” related Nan*, an AGA member from Shrewsbury, who is estranged from her son and his wife, and has never met her only grandchild. Devastated by their fractured relationship, she turned to AGA for support, reading personal accounts left by other grandparents on the website. “When I read the other stories, they’re so much the same.”
Zoe,* another AGA member who lives in Marlborough, and has not seen her two grandchildren for over three years, agreed that the stories are all very similar to one another.
“You literally look to see if your name is at the bottom,” she said.
Yet, according to the AGA website, although grandparent alienation is common, it is often not a topic that is easily discussed.
“It’s a thorny problem,” admitted Zoe. “No one wants to talk about it.”
Nan has learned, from the past reactions of listeners, to avoid the topic.
“The last thing you need is someone looking at you like you’ve done something terrible,” she noted.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you apologize and fix this?’” Zoe said.
Alienated grandparents wish it were only that simple. When the estrangement first occurs, they are shattered, “…willing to beg, apologize for things they never did, open a vein, whatever it takes to regain contact with their children and grandchildren,” explained Zoe. “Many times the parents write a self-abasing apology – often at a therapist’s suggestion – and they are devastated when the rift gets worse instead of better.”
One of the problems with making an apology is that alienated grandparents don’t often know what they are apologizing for. These are not situations involving abuse, neglect or addiction. Even the estranged adult children seem hard-pressed to explain what wrongs the ostracized grandparent might have done.
In some cases, a contentious divorce may have precipitated the separation. But there are other situations which seem to involve power and control, often on the part of the spouse of the adult child of the alienated grandparent. Most grandparents claim to have had a loving relationship with their adult child prior to his or her involvement with the controlling spouse. Some have been allowed to initially establish a relationship with their grandchildren, only to have that relationship severed without warning; others have never even met their grandchildren.
In both Nan and Zoe’s situations, their daughters-in-law seem to have been the driving force behind the estrangement.
“The relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can be a strained one,” acknowledged Nan. “But this goes beyond that.”
Her attempts at communication and reconciliation have been, to date, rejected. A visit to her son’s home, bearing gifts for her grandchild, was derailed by her daughter-in-law, who refused to let her meet the baby or see her son.
“It’s very much a bullying situation,” said Zoe.
She adored her grandchildren and cared for them while her son and daughter-in-law pursued advanced education degrees. Yet, as time went on, her daughter-in-law set up a series of “rules” that were impossible to follow. The smallest “infractions” (assembling grilled cheese sandwiches in the wrong order, taking too many photos at a grandchild’s birthday party) would cause an explosion. Looking back, Zoe realized there had been a long build up leading to the complete cut-off from her grandchildren.
It has been over three years since she has last seen her grandchildren. Cards and gifts sent to them are returned, unopened. She has no idea what her daughter-in-law and son have told her grandchildren about her disappearance from their lives.
“The loss is unbelievable,” Zoe said. “Nothing comes close.”
According to current Massachusetts law, grandparents cannot petition for visitation if the grandchildren are living in an “intact” family. Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, International, Inc., encourages grandparents to contact their state senators and representatives to fight for legislation which will support the visitation rights of grandparents. (For more information, visit www.aga-fl.org/legislation.)
In addition to pursuing supportive legislation, what can alienated grandparents do to …just cope?
“Look for support,” advised Nan, “especially during the holidays.”
“Try to find some of the many, many people who are going through the same thing. Don’t isolate, and don’t blame yourself.”
A statement on the AGA website home page validates their advice:
“Simply knowing that you are not alone on this traumatic rollercoaster journey helps you to cope better with the heartbreak and frustration of being a targeted grandparent.”
*Names have been changed to respect anonymity