When ESTHER RANTZEN spoke up for couples denied access to their grandchildren she triggered a flood of heart rending stories revealing the agony of family breakdown’s forgotten victims
- Esther has received more than 250 letters from suffering grandparents
- Jane Jackson has not seen her own granddaughter for seven years
- Family rifts leave grandparents broken-hearted
- Worry that their grandchildren don’t know they are deeply loved
Being told I could never see my toddler grandson again, would make me feel as though my heart had been plucked out of my chest. Yet I have received more than 250 letters from grandparents who are suffering that agony now.
They tell me it’s like a living bereavement and they think about their grandchildren every day. The greatest agony they feel is the worry that those children may not know how deeply they are loved and missed.
These desperate letters were written to me after I made a film for BBC’s The One Show exposing the misery of grandparents denied access to their grandchildren. Tonight I will be revisiting the subject, for the same programme.
Many grandparents suffer the agony of not seeing their grandchildren
I first met Jane Jackson in January, when I visited the Bristol Grandparents’ Support Group she has set up to help others in this predicament. She has not seen her own granddaughter for seven years.
In her home I met a group of dignified older men and women, all of them suffering, many of them in tears, as they talked about their loss.
Jane remembers with frightening clarity the seven-year-old grandchild she adores running down the path away from her after a visit, blue eyes shining, ‘a smile as broad as the Earth as she waved goodbye’. That was the last Jane saw of her.
Her son had been though a difficult divorce and the girl’s mother wanted to distance herself from her husband’s family. Her decision left Jane and her husband Mark brokenhearted.
Why do these rifts happen? Often, as in Jane’s case, it’s the result of a divorce or a family feud. Sometimes it’s simply an incautious word, a tactless remark that leads to a row. Often grandparents tell me they simply have no idea why they have been cut off
The most tragic cases occur when one parent dies, and the surviving parent stops contact. Sheila, a grandmother who lives in Swindon, wrote to me: ‘Last year my daughter died of breast cancer aged 40. I had a loving relationship with my grandchildren. My daughter’s wishes were for me and my husband to love and watch out for her children after she died.
‘She feared her husband would stop contact. Unfortunately, she was right. As soon as she died, her husband pushed us out of the children’s lives.’
It is not uncommon for a surviving partner to be so grief-stricken they cannot bear anything that reminds them of their loss — and that may include any contact with the surviving family. ‘My granddaughter, who’s four, is mystified where her mummy and grandparents have gone,’ says Sheila. ‘When my daughter died it was a double loss — you have the loss of your daughter to deal with, and the loss of contact with your grandchildren.’
“I remember my beloved 7-year-old grandchild running down my path, waving goodbye. That’s the last time I saw her” ~ Jane Jackson
Another grandmother who wrote to me, Julie, has not seen her granddaughter for three years after a family upset that she did not want to repeat in detail. Even her letters and presents to her granddaughter were returned. ‘It hurts so much when I have to ask someone to try to search for a photo on Facebook, which I cling on to as I have nothing else,’ she says.
‘My grandchild will be nine this October and probably doesn’t even remember me. She might well think I am dead. I just want a hug, a cuddle . . . and the ability to share some family history and stories that would be so lovely to pass on to the next generation.’
She wrote of feeling ashamed that she could not keep her family together and of being desperate for even the tiniest scrap of news.Several grandparents who wrote to me have even attempted suicide.
Leslie, who lives in Preston, told me her relationship with her son had been strained while he was growing up and when he married he cut off all contact with her. When she heard from friends that he had a baby son, she was desperate to meet her only grandchild.
After she sent a note to her son, asking if they could be reconciled, she was visited by the police warning her away from her son and his new family which left her sobbing. She was so distraught that she attempted to take her own life.
Thankfully, she survived and now helps and encourages other grandparents who are also suffering.
Leslie keeps a memory box into which she puts little presents to celebrate milestones in her grandson’s life: brightly-wrapped birthday presents, Christmas cards.
‘Last year he was three and so we bought him a Fireman Sam card with a number “3” on it and a Fireman Sam T-shirt, they are all wrapped up in his special box. Three years of love inside the box.’
It can happen to anyone. The wife of one distinguished Professor of Psychology wrote to me: ‘A lot of the time, the grandparents have no idea what the problem is. It feels like we are just something to be thrown away and forgotten.
We are not even important enough to talk to, let alone have a relationship with.
‘It’s really hard when others show us pictures of their grandchildren. That just stirs it all up. I wish there were some way to get across to the parents not only the pain they are causing the grandparents but what they are doing to their kids.’
The impact on the grandchildren, innocent pawns in an adult war, leaves scars. Many of the letters I receive are from adults who were caught up in this as children.
Martin, 27, told me he is only just getting to know his grandmother, and still doesn’t understand why conflict has shattered his family.
‘Something happened when I was younger that stopped me from seeing them,’ he said. ‘Neither I, nor my grandparents know what happened. I met my fiancée three years ago and she has allowed me to gain enough confidence to meet them, much to my mother’s displeasure.
‘My grandad was severely ill with cancer and sadly passed away in January. Now I’m living with deep regret that I never really got to know him. The few times I met him were amazing. I am still going to visit my Nana and am so happy that I am finding about my family, I just wish I had done it sooner.’
Michael, 29, was stopped from seeing his grandparents when he was a child. He was never able to discover from his parents what caused the rift. ‘My grandmother died when I was 12. We were not allowed to go to her funeral,’ he says. ‘I remember my grandfather tried the legal route and found he had no rights whatsoever.
‘He died when I was 16 and again we were not allowed to attend the funeral. I remember asking my mum if I could see him before he died. I was not allowed. As a child you are powerless to insist that you see your grandparents.’
What can be done to heal this pain? The law seems inadequate to protect the innocent, be they grandparents or grandchildren.
Marjorie, from Bournemouth, says: ‘I’m sad to admit it was my own daughter who, months after a new man entered her life, suddenly cut contact, not only with me but also with her brother. I not only lost a daughter but our granddaughter as well.
‘She refused to partake in professional mediation. Months passed, as grandparents time is not on our side [my husband is in remission from cancer]. Our final attempts were met by our daughter making a claim of harassment against us, this meant we could not phone, email or try to stay in touch. Panic set in! What if they moved? Would our granddaughter forget us?
‘Fearful at never seeing our granddaughter again we decided, without legal representation, to apply to the courts for a contact order. This involved a nine-month ordeal of three court hearings, where we were made to feel we were on trial.
‘We had to prove we had played a large part in our granddaughter’s life. Thankfully, our granddaughter was interviewed and wrote a letter to the judge saying she very much wanted to see us and stay with us again. Eventually, in October 2013 we were granted an order of contact, we were relieved and excited.
‘Alas, we still haven’t seen or spoken with our granddaughter as our daughter is ignoring the order.’
So even the child’s heartfelt wishes were ignored.
There have been discussions about strengthening the law. In France, for instance, the law is clear that every child has the legal right to access to their grandparents.
In this country it is a gruelling process and enormously costly, anything from £5,000 to £50,000.
But it can achieve miracles. Dawn, 55, from Nottingham, decided to seek legal help after her daughter stopped her seeing her seven-year-old grandson. It worked and as a result she now sees him for seven hours every fortnight.
‘I look forward to those Saturdays, like a kid looking forward to getting sweeties,’ she says.
‘The moment I first saw him again, after 18 months, and he ran into my arms shouting “Nana!” It was so nice just to cuddle him and be with him.’
No all grandparents are perfect, of course, but for most their happiness is in the hands of the parents.
Forget the feuding adults, the most important casualties in these wars are always the children.