Grandparents, family support and faith formation

Alison buried her face in her grandad’s cardigan and smelt the same aroma of soap she remembered as a child. Now, aged 15, she felt comfortable that at least some things hadn’t changed. But she also felt ashamed, that at her age, she still needed the reassurance of her Grandad’s presence through all that had happened. 
 Her Dad had just left home. He had never even said goodbye. Her Mum was angry, confused, saying things about Dad that left Alison upset and angry too. Her brother didn’t seem to care. There was nowhere to go except to Grandad. There, in his arms, she felt safe. She felt there that the family still existed. She discovered there some hope for the future.

Grandparents today
Alison’s story is not unusual. Grandparents are taking on an increasingly important role in caring for young people, and stabilising families in time of change. For example there are over 13 million grandparents in the United Kingdom at present. Each grandparent has an average of 4.4 grandchildren. The monetary value of their care for grandchildren, in the UK alone, amounts to over £1 billion each year. This kind of care has increased in the past two generations, from 33% to 82% of children who are now being cared for in some way by grandparents. The increased divorce rates, the growing number of single parents, in some nations, high house prices and the need for two incomes for each family, all suggest that the trend to increased involvement of grandparents will continue.

The good news is that grandparents have never been fitter, healthier, better educated or more mobile. Their life expectancy is higher than ever before in many developed societies. The amount of time grandparents can offer to their children’s families is a hidden treasure created by longer retirement. Some grandparents are bridging the gap with recent technology – the number of grandparents with mobile phones has increased, and the use of email means that young people can have direct access to grandparents even from the other side of the world.

Their role
Bridging the gap across the generations is one of the vital roles that grandparents offer. One writer has described the role as a gift between two people at opposite ends of the life journey. The real value of grandparents lies in their presence rather than their actions. Simply being there is enough. They become friends with their grandchildren, as advisors, storytellers, confidants. They can help to heal the inevitable tensions between parents and  their children. Being a grandparent is no easy task. It is a vocation with very different demands from parenting. Grandparents are not usually the primary support for their grandchildren. They have to wait for their role to be offered to them. They have to bite their tongues many times as they see parents making different choices to their own. They have to watch big mistakes being made, and be humble enough to help pick up the pieces. They have influence but little day-to-day authority. They feel deeply connected, but may not be consulted. They offer stability to others, but may not feel secure themselves. Grandparents live out a vocation that weaves the threads of family through generations, but that weaving is often in the background, beneath the surface of the busy life of young families.

The spiritual dimension
The spiritual side of a grandparent’s role can often be over-looked. As they look to the last third of their life journey grandparents have much to reflect upon. Looking back at the experience of life puts them in touch with a longer view, a wiser outlook and a richness that can be offered to younger generations. 
 The frustration of their role lies in having to wait for the right moment to share such wisdom and richness. That too is part of the spiritual challenge grandparents face, waiting patiently for those rare, almost magical moments, when they connect across the generations with their grandchildren. Those moments are spiritual experiences that can make the waiting worthwhile. The relegation of grandparents to the family substitute bench, the acceptance of a support role, the need to wait for moments to share wisdom and support, all demand humility and acceptance from grandparents. Those qualities then weave back into their own spiritual journey, and join grandparents to a deeper human journey shared by all the family.
The need for grandparents to reflect and to pray for their children and grandchildren is huge. Their ability to make sense of their own lives in terms of the Gospel, in terms of the cross and resurrection, is the best way to hand on faith to their grandchildren. 
 Patterns of wisdom, practical help, patience and spiritual depth are still needed today from grandparents. Children, growing into our increasingly fractured society, need these rocks of common sense, humour and spiritual depth more than ever. In our Christian churches ,such older members have a respected role, living out a Gospel faith with patience, courage and wisdom on behalf of the young. 
 Children like Alison, in her Grandad’s embrace, will be forever richer, wiser and healthier because of their goodness.

God bless all grandparents.

David O’MaIIey 
 Chaplain, Thornleigh College, Bolton, UK