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'Being cut off from a grandchild is like a bereavement'

Meghan Markle
Meghan Markle with her father Thomas Markle Credit: Tim Stewart News Limited

As Meghan Markle gives birth while estranged from her father, Lara Crisp, the editor of Gransnet, explores the painful issue of grandparent estrangement...

Seeing Prince Harry beaming over the arrival of his newborn son, there is no doubt the new royal baby is blessed with a loving family. But there will be one person missing from the celebrations: his grandfather, Thomas Markle.

As editor of Gransnet, the social networking site for the UK’s 14 million grandparents, I see first hand how the bond between a grandchild and grandparent can be one of the closest and most rewarding of relationships. And also one of the most difficult to bear if there is a family fallout.

Most of us have fond memories of our grandparents: sleepovers, treats, cuddles. Grandparents tend to be wise, they tell funny stories about when mum or dad were kids themselves and they usually turn a blind eye to having ice-cream for breakfast. They have time and patience to play and aren’t as tired or distracted by the juggling act that is parenting. They know we only get so many precious years and we would do well to spend them playing in sprinklers, rather than cleaning the oven.

But the sad truth is this idyllic scenario isn’t the case for many families, even duchesses like Markle. And while thankfully we don’t have our family dramas broadcast across the world’s stage, her heartbreaking situation has highlighted a family circumstance that is far more common than you might think, that of grandparent estrangement.

I see frequent conversations on Gransnet by grandparents who have been denied contact with their grandchildren, and a recent survey found 14 per cent of our users are estranged from their grandchildren. The stories people recount are heartbreaking: “I have gone from watching my grandchildren being born, spending nearly everyday with them...to nothing...this feels like a bereavement. I can’t sleep, eat or stop crying. My friends are getting fed up of me being this way because they don’t understand my pain.”

Prince Harry, announcing the birth of his son Credit: Getty

Often, as is the case with the duchess, the situation begins before birth. A falling out becomes increasingly strained, and by the time grandchildren come along the distance seems irreparable. Other grandparents, some who are heavily involved in their grandkids' lives, fall out with their children, and blame the parents for using their grandchildren as ‘bargaining chips’.

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of estranged Gransnet users blame their child’s partner for an estrangement, and one of the most fraught relationships is that between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. “My daughter-in-law is jealous of my relationship with my son and grandsons,” says one.

That’s not to say grandparents are always blameless. In some instances, it’s in the grandchild’s best interest for the relationship to be severed, no matter how vehemently the grandparent protests. Legally, grandparents do not have any automatic legal rights but they can apply for rights to see their grandchildren under the 1989 Children's Act, providing they have leave from the courts to do so.

So what can you do to avoid estrangement? With one in 10 of those who were estranged being banned from seeing their grandchildren before they are even born, our advice is to repair broken relationships long before children come along.

Sometimes, however, whatever you try isn't enough for a reconciliation. Our forums are full of advice for grandparents who, for one reason or another, have found themselves estranged. Three-quarters say they still send gifts, 17 per cent are saving money for them in a bank account and 12 per cent write messages. One user even wrote blogs, which her granddaughter found.

Patience seems to be key and sometimes it takes time for both sides to calm down. Perhaps, even if you still believe they are in the wrong, consider apologising so that you can move on for the sake of your grandchildren. Our survey showed that in an attempt to reconcile, 61 per cent have apologised even though it wasn’t their fault, at times with positive results. “On reflection, I could've saved myself a lot of heartache if I'd swallowed my pride and visited them a lot sooner,” wrote one. “It took almost a year and when I did visit they were (all) very welcoming.”

So perhaps Thomas Markle needn’t give up hope. Many of our users have managed to re-establish a relationship and reconciled with a happy ending. For babies and small children, it’s usually very straightforward. They are not bothered by arguments, one-upmanships or inheritances. They just want love. And as long as grandparents have their best interests at heart, it seems wrong to deny both sides this incredibly valuable relationship.

“Being cut off from our granddaughter was like a bereavement”

Jane Jackson, with her husband Marc

Jane Jackson runs the Bristol Grandparents Support Group and was denied contact with her granddaughter when she was seven...

“I’ll never forget holding my granddaughter in my arms just after she was born. She was this tiny bundle of gorgeousness and had these big blue eyes that looked up at me, full of expectation. It was such a magical moment. She was my son’s daughter, my first grandchild, and we quickly became very close.

“However, when she was seven my son separated from her mother and contact with her literally stopped overnight. It was like a living bereavement; the person is still alive but you’re in mourning for them. I thought about her every single day and big occasions like birthdays and Christmas were incredibly raw and reminded us of what we had lost.

“Having never experienced this, our friends didn’t understand the pain my husband and I were going through. I’m quite a proactive person and I didn’t want to continue down a black spiral of depression, so I wrote to my local paper’s letters page. I explained my situation and asked if there were any other local grandparents in a similar one, and would they like to meet for tea and cake. Seven grandparents replied. From that I started my support group and I’ve since been contacted by over 7,000 grandparents, which is quite a lot of cake!

“We are here to support grandparents, who can feel very desperate and powerless. I’ve lost three grandparents to suicide as a result of an estrangement, and those are just the ones I know about.

“It’s estimated that over a million children in the UK are denied access to their grandchildren, and there was a debate in Westminster last year about whether grandparent rights should be included in the Children’s Act or the Children and Family Act. But the current laws around grandparents’ rights aren’t fit for purpose.

“In France there’s a civil code that grandchildren have the right to a relationship with their grandparent, and it’s my dream to have this in the UK.

“Estrangement isn’t just due to divorce, however. It can be caused by arguments, domestic abuse, where an abuser may alienate the wider family, alcohol abuse, and bereavement. I’ve heard of cases of grandparents losing their adult child to accident or illness, and the other parent cuts off the grandparent because they’re a reminder of the person who has died.

“I wrote several times to my granddaughter and sent presents and cards, and Christmas decorations for her to open every year. I advise our grandparents to do the same, and to set up memory boxes, or to write journals and blogs.

“Our story shows there is hope: when our granddaughter turned 18 she tracked her father down on Instagram and got back in touch with him, and then us, and we’ve seen her regularly since. She’s grown into a wonderfully kind, caring and compassionate young woman and I couldn’t be prouder of her.

“But when I looked into those big blue eyes eighteen years ago, I never thought our story would turn out the way it did, nor did I expect to lose all those years with her. And even though my husband and I lost hope many times over the years, I urge my grandparents to try not to because you never know where your story will end.

“I was a teaching assistant for fifteen years so I know children. They’re astute and they learn not to upset their parents by talking about us. But our grandchildren keep us in their hearts, even when we’re not around.”

As told to Maria Lally