Stephan Sigg’s grandmother was a central and inspirational figure in his life. As a child, he loved to spend time with her and tramp together around the countryside.
Visiting his grandmother, he writes, was like a trip to another country, even though she lived a mere 20-minute drive from his family home in the Swiss canton of St Gallen. With her, he felt like a protagonist in an adventure story.
When she died, Sigg was already in his 30s. His deep sorrow led him to write a recently published book whose German title translates as “Taking Leave From My Grandma”.
“At first I wrote down my memories of my grandma for myself, ” Sigg says. But after numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances, he realised that the death of a grandparent causes many people distress, though few talk about it.
While many children are strongly influenced by one or more of their grandparents, they usually concern themselves less with these relationships – at least consciously – than with their relationships with their parents or siblings.
“By sharing my memories, ” Sigg says, “I want to help other people to occupy themselves with their grandparents.”
How is it that grandparents’ stamp on their grandchildren is often as formative as that of the grandchildren’s parents?
“The parents are usually at an extremely stressful stage of their lives, having to reconcile work and parenting, ” points out family therapist Hans Berwanger. Grandparents, on the other hand, have all of this behind them, and so are freer and more relaxed.
They don’t have to demonstrate competence in child-rearing while trying to stay on top of a busy schedule. “This, ” Berwanger says, “is why Grandma and Grandpa are often the ones who comfort the kids and give them unconditional love.”
Particularly during adolescence, children can lean on a grandparent’s shoulder when they’re lovelorn, have problems in school or with their parents, or are otherwise troubled. The grandparents often accept them as they are.
Their death can leave a huge void in the lives of the grandchildren – and in the family at large.
“Grandparents often serve as the emotional fulcrum of the family, ” Berwanger notes. Family members who seldom see each other typically gather at their home to celebrate holidays. When the grandparents die, the family has to regroup.
Shared grief can bring the grandchildren, who are then often young adults, closer together with their parents. In many cases, a friendly partnership develops between them.
“When a generation passes, the following one automatically moves up to take its place, ” remarks family coach Anja Rathfelder. This means assuming responsibilities that used to be handled by the grandparents, such as organising family gatherings.
Though it may be years before they seize their new role, she says, many will find it quite satisfying. – dpa/Anja Meyer
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