The bond between grandparents and their grandchildren is special, though only few studies have explored this inspirational and important relationship.
First, let's dive into the research that highlights the impact of close grandparent-grandchild relations. Then, I will share candidly a personal story of transformation that was prompted by my relationship with my grandmother in order to showcase the infinite potential the bond between grandparents and grandchildren has.
90% of grandparents in an AARP survey reported that their role with their grandchildren is an important one and nearly 1 and 6 provide daytime child care services (1).
For grandparents who have had an active role in the rearing of their grandchildren, their relationship often moves from that of additional caretaker to that of a confidant and trusted advisor (2).
Moreover, studies such as this one published by the American Psychological Association are correlating a variety of outcomes with a strong grandchild-grandparent bond such as the ability of children to exhibit better social skills and fewer behavior problems. In addition, children experience a greater sense of self-confidence and competence academically, personally, and socially when they report having a close relationship with their grandparent(s). (3).
Why exactly is the bond between grandparents and their grandchildren so powerful? I can only speculate that it has to do with the way we think about our grandparents and vice versa.
Grandparents usually benefit from being seen as having a more objective role in the lives of their grandchildren, as they are one step removed from the daily household dramas that the nuclear family experiences from day-to-day. Therefore, grandparents can offer a safe haven, be a pillar of unconditional love and support, and share the wisdom he or she has accumulated throughout the years with more perceived neutrality.
And of course, it is not only the grandchildren that benefit from this kind of relationship. Here is my own story that involves the sickness and eventually passing away of my grandmother. It is a testimony to the inspiring power of nonjudgmental presence and unconditional love, which for me, seems to be at the heart of grandparent-grandchild relationships.
My grandmother was the only person who responded to my first blogs. She encouraged me and stated she really enjoyed to read them before anybody else even seemed to notice that I was writing them, including my own parents. She was also the first person to buy a ticket for a live show I was doing in my hometown after I released my debut album as a singer-songwriter.
When she first got sick, I was fortunate enough to have a flexible work schedule where I could make the 1.5 hour drive each way to spend at least one workday with her per week.
When I would visit my grandmother, we would spend the days talking, laughing, and even gossiping. I would make her food. If she was feeling particularly well, we would go out to eat for lunch. See, my grandmother had been diagnosed with lung cancer, which even though she had been a cigarette smoker for most of her life, surprised her.
So far, everything I have written may be what you would expect of a granddaughter. What I didn't expect is how the quality of our relationship would actually deepen during this time, along with my own understanding of the human condition. I would never have been able to anticipate the deep level of presence I effortlessly experienced while being with her. Of course, illness of a loved one can be stressful at times, but the fear of the future never once consumed my attention.
I was left with the experience of just being with my grandmother. Listening to her. Observing what was going on around me and inside of me. I started to notice how every person in my family: me, my mom, my grandmother, my cousins, and my aunts were dealing with this situation in completely different ways. One person's tactic was to try to control the situation. Another was to make sure all the details of comfort were attended to. What thing stood out the most to me from the beginning is that every one of us was doing the best we could given our current thinking: our current fears and our current worries.
Here is the most impactful part of this experience for me. My grandmother had lung cancer as we've already stated…and she was still smoking. So in between chemotherapy treatments, she would have a few puffs. The longer she was in treatment, the more she smoked.
Now. Notice your own reaction to that statement. Are you aware of the voice in your head that likely had an opinion about this or maybe one of your own memories came back up based on your own life's experience with cancer or a family member being ill?
Starting to gain an awareness of just how often our unconscious, internal dialogue is taking over the driver's seat of our lives and fueling our emotions and actions is a key to harnessing inspiration in our relationships. It is what can take an already great relationship to the next level. For with more awareness, we then have a choice to follow the impulses in our head or let them pass through and wait for the next thought to come.
Anyways…for me, I did have one particular moment of reactivity when my grandmother asked me to pick up a pack of cigarettes for her. This was near the end of her illness and tons of thoughts came to mind as to what the right or wrong decision was and what my actions would mean…would it make me a good or bad person if I did or did not do as she requested?
I then realized the frivolity of this thoughtstorm and how irrelevant it was to my love for my grandmother. I had gotten lost in “me-land”. When I realized I was making her illness about me, I came “back to the now”.
In place of the fearful, judgemental, or egocentric thinking, a new thought emerged. Smoking was only her way of coping. It was the thing she had done all her life when she was stressed out. Now, as she was dealing with her own mortality, it only made sense that this would be an action she would take.
I decided our relationship, my love for my grandmother, was more important than trying to push my opinions of what she should or shouldn't be doing. So, I did not try to shame her into quitting. Honestly, how I see it now is…that if she could have quit, she would have. Again, it all goes back to the quality of thinking each of us have in a moment that fuels our actions.
It is all too easy to imagine how you would make decisions differently than a loved one, but the thing is…you are not your loved one. You can never get into his or her head and see the world through his or her eyes. Deeply seeing the truth of this insight does encourage natural understanding and compassion.
[Little did I know then that there has been research to demonstrate that positive supportive behaviors like positive reinforcement and encouragement predicted better mental health, while controlling behaviors such as trying to induce/force change in a loved one predicted worse mental health and health behavior outcomes for the loved one (4)]
Anyways, to be clear, I was never trying to be non-judgemental or “unconditionally loving”. It was just a natural result of my interpretation of the events.
When it really hit home for me how much presence can impact loved ones is when I was away on a trip and my grandmother said: “When is Amy coming back? I really miss her. She has such a wonderful, caring presence about her. She really should study to be a nurse.”
What more could any of us want than that? To be a presence of inspiration, love, and support for our loved ones, especially in their most difficult hours?
All in the all, the illness and even the passing away of my grandmother was nothing like I imagined it would be. I had always been very close to my grandmother and even when she passed, I felt a sensation, that I guess we can call love…but even that word doesn't do justice to the feeling I experienced that day.
Overall, I was completely off base in predicting how I thought I would feel and be during the illness and passing away of my grandmother. I did not even experience the “stages of grief”, proving that there are no universal set of emotions a person will or won't feel, even when it comes to something as traumatic as loss.
I only highlight my personal story to point to the potential that exists within all of us. This potential does not only apply to the relationship between grandchild and grandparent, but can extend to any relationship.
[Mindful Moment] Is there a relationship in your life you feel inspired to rekindle or strengthen? I encourage you to take action today, it can be as small as making an intention to strengthen the relationship.
I encourage you to cherish the time you have with your loved ones because there will come a time when you won't be able to laugh, cry, or even debate with them.
(Read this next: 6 Ways to Use Yoga to Boost Your Child's Confidence)