LONDON — “Sometimes I might dream about the kids,” says Lorraine Bushell, referring to her three grandchildren to whom she is denied access. Apart from a chance meeting at the airport en route to Eilat for a holiday two years ago, she has not seen them since they were very young. The eldest — twins — will be 12 in July; the youngest is 5.
Bushell, 74, speaks calmly and candidly about the events that led to this lack of contact and her subsequent establishment of a support group in London for Jewish grandparents in the same situation. She is a busy woman, dividing her time between the Midlands where she runs a nanny agency and her home in north-west London, where we meet. I notice she plays with her hands in her lap as we talk, gently wringing them. Perhaps it is an outward sign that recounting the delicate story remains uncomfortable, regardless of the passage of time and the numerous occasions she has had to tell it.
She believes that the problem arose from a misunderstanding that began at the time of the twins’ birth. She describes being very excited about their arrival — they were her first grandchildren — although she later learnt that she had apparently shown too much excitement in the hospital. The children were in intensive care and when Bushell went to in to see them her daughter-in-law expressed concern that Bushell would infect them; she thought Bushell had a cold sore on her face. Bushell had seen doctors and been told it was nothing. It later transpired that it was skin cancer.
She recalls that from then on she “was never allowed to touch the babies,” whereas her husband would be asked to hold them. He had taken time off work to bring her daughter-in-law and the children home from the hospital but after that, Bushell says, they saw them rarely. On one occasion she went to the house in a distraught state, wanting to see the children.
“I had to put a foot in the door but it was shut in my face a couple of times,” says Bushell.
There were many attempts to resolve the situation, to make contact by phone and letter, but to no avail. They also tried counselling but it did not achieve any changes.
“She [her daughter-in-law] just doesn’t want me in the children’s lives,” she says simply.
She has intermittent phone calls with her son but she would love there to be resolution and harmony within the family. She has two other children from her first marriage, another son, who is accepted by her daughter-in-law and a daughter who is not.
‘Twelve years ago I couldn’t have even spoken to you about this’
“I wept and wept,” she admits. “Twelve years ago I couldn’t have even spoken to you about this. It is a living bereavement.”
Even seeing strangers with their grandchildren reinforced what was absent in her life.
“I felt a bit like a leper, so different from everybody else. I couldn’t understand how my wonderful son, who we’d been very close to, suddenly didn’t want me in his life.”
After approximately a year of anguish Bushell found out about a UK charity called The Grandparents’ Association and called their helpline. This proved to be a turning point for her as she spoke to someone who understood the pain she was experiencing.
Bushell decided to do a counselling course and then set up a non-denominational support group for the Grandparents Association in the Midlands. It has now been running for seven years.
Six months ago Bushell realized there was no specific support for Jewish grandparents in the UK so she took the initiative and set up a group. These regular meetings are run under the auspices of The Grandparents’ Association and take place at the Jewish Marriage Council, with participants sometimes travelling from outside the capital to attend.
It is unknown how many people are affected by similar circumstances, but Bushell has already been asked to run other Jewish groups across London, which gives an indication of need. Statistics are difficult to gauge and a support group is not for everyone.
‘People are embarrassed, it’s a bit like mental illness, you don’t really talk about it to many people’
“People are embarrassed, it’s a bit like mental illness, you don’t really talk about it to many people. This is something only spoken about to one’s nearest and dearest.”
According to Bushell, the issue of grandparents who are denied access to their grandchildren by their children or their sons/daughters-in-law appears to be as much of a problem within the Jewish community in the UK, as it is outside it.
It is also an issue in Israel. An article in Ha’aretz last year reported on the work of Sav Hash’ah, a hotline run by the NGO New Family, which tries to address these inter-generational rifts.
Bushell is unsure if there is an additional stigma attached to Jewish grandparents who are prevented from seeing their grandchildren, considering family is intrinsic within Judaism. But there is certainly concern that tradition and knowledge of family heritage can get lost as children may be deprived of learning part of their family history.
Religious milestones can pose specific challenges for some
Religious milestones can also pose specific challenges for some. As Bushell’s own grandsons approach bar mitzvah age, she is unsure whether she will be present at the event or not.
The role of rabbis is an issue that has been debated within the group. Some participants have expressed a wish for rabbonim to be more effective, even suggesting that the chief rabbi should give them a directive on how to respond to such cases. Others want them to act as mediators.
Bushell says she was once wished well by one rabbi and told that her work with grandparents was a mitzvah. She is clear, “This is not what I want to hear. It’s ‘how can we can help, what can we do? Let me talk to people, come to the group, put the word out. Let’s try to resolve this.'”
Bushell says there are often misunderstandings about the causes. Assumptions are that these issues arise out of divorce but this is not necessarily the case.
Sometimes it is sibling jealousy over money that leads to grievances or people speak out of turn, even innocently, which then takes root. Control can be a factor, she says, with one family member not wishing to have the other side of the family involved. But in her experience the animosity often occurs with seemingly little logic or reason.
Bushell wants UK law to recognize and accept grandparents as part of the wider family, as is the case in Belgium and France
She wants UK law to recognize and accept grandparents as part of the wider family, as is the case in Belgium and France. Currently court intervention is complex, expensive and can inflame familial tensions. She says that the role and rights of grandparents are given political attention from time to time but is doubtful that the present administration will make any legal changes.
Bushell is certain that coming to the group and listening to others is worthwhile. She tells of an 80-year-old woman whose grandson suddenly appeared at her house with a bag asking if he could stay.
But there are few success stories.
“All you can try to do is support people, make suggestions, listen to them, and hope that one day there will be a breakthrough.”
Choosing to be so involved has certainly helped Bushell but, “You still feel sad. How does this happen? It’s a tragedy for me, it’s a tragedy for the children. I adored my grandparents and my children loved my parents. To me it’s so alien. I can’t believe it has happened.”