The high divorce rate in the United States is requiring more and more boomer grandparents to be supportive of their family members if adult children divorce or separate. When this happens, boomers who are enjoying a peaceful, calm and stable retirement may find themselves having to offer financial and emotional support -- even housing while their adult child's family reorganizes.
This may cause unspecified emotional agitation and a feeling of déjà vu if they were divorced at some point in their lives. Grandparents who have divorce or separation in their own life history may experience memories and emotions of unresolved challenges triggered by current life events. When our emotional buttons are pushed, we don't always know why. But finding ourselves with band-aids ripped off old wounds to expose unhealed emotions can interfere with our ability to navigate in real-time.
What can you do if this happens to you?
Do not expect your adult child to be interested in hearing you reminisce about your divorce or separation. They are obviously preoccupied with their own life difficulties and will be confused by your need to share your past at a time when they are overwhelmed. As an alternative, write down what you are feeling. Discuss your thoughts with a supportive spouse or friend. By writing and discussing your feelings, you get them out of your body.
Consider creating a group of friends who come together regularly to discuss common feelings and challenges related to family issues. The topics may or may not be limited to separation of adult children, but the benefits of learning from others in a group setting have proven valuable over decades of social service application in our culture. Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, Narcotics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are just a few examples of successful support groups which have saved and changed lives. Whatever the environment, you don't need a formal organization to regularly bring your friends together over coffee, tea or wine in your living room for a compassionate chat.
Unless there are very clear reasons why you cannot remain on good terms with the Other Parent (OP) of your grandchildren, try to stay neutral in the separation. Remember, even when parents separate, the OP is still the parent of your grandchild. Having an open, communicative relationship with this person is important. When I separated from my daughters' father, my mother remained friendly and in touch with my ex-husband. That was her nature and her personality, yet there was a part of me that couldn't understand how she could do this when I was so hurt by and upset with my children's father. My husband and I replicated her approach in 2011 when we invited our grandson and our former son-in-law to come to San Francisco to attend a Giants baseball game with us. We paid for their trip and we cherish the memory of that weekend. We continue a friendly relationship with our grandson's father to this day. It is an important element to remaining engaged in our grandson's life and staying apprised of his well-being.
Practice good listening. Avoid the need to problem-solve when your adult children or grandchildren talk with you about the family changes. Good listeners just listen -- problem solving can come later. By staying nonjudgmental and offering I understand, or I know how you feel, your family members will feel heard, understood and validated. Being understood by a close family member (you!) is invaluable confirmation for an adult child or grandchild struggling through the life crisis of parental separation.
Keep your advice to yourself unless you are asked to give it. Unsolicited advice can be off-putting and shut down communication. Plus, do you want the responsibility if a family member follows your advice and things go terribly wrong? If you are asked for advice, explore alternatives together (ask: What are your options? What makes sense for you to consider?)to come up with a solution to the problem.
By all means, stay upbeat. You have gotten to the point in life where you are a grandparent, which means you have some life experience and a track record at solving problems. Write down what you did to cope in difficult life situations and give yourself credit for getting this far in life. Use some of those coping tools now to help you ease through unpleasant or sad feelings if or when they come back for a visit.
When you are with your grandchildren, remember your behavior sends the strongest message on how to successfully cope with life difficulties. If they have to move, feel free to tell your grandchildren about times in your life when you moved and how you handled the change. If you yourself are a child of divorce, share a little about your own life incident and how you got through it.
And finally, remember you are the tribal elder in the family with the context of longevity and endurance. You understand life difficulties are temporary and can be managed and survived. Wear your coat of experience and knowledge with pride and self confidence. Make no mistake, your family needs you and will welcome your calm wisdom.
This blog is a highlighted excerpt from a Grandparent Handbook to be published in 2014, I'm Still Your Grandma; I'm Still Your Grandpa .