Readers Respond to Guilt-Ridden Grandfather

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Many readers responded to my column “Grandfather Is Guilt-Ridden about Grandson’s Accident” with an outpouring of empathy, encouragement and sharing of their own experiences. The responses seemed to reflect three major themes, with the first theme along the lines of the phrase made famous in 1510 by John Bradford, who served Henry VIII of England, as he watched some prisoners being lead away to be executed: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Parents and grandparents alike expressed great empathy for Donald’s grandfather as they shared the details of their own close calls when they were taking care of children or grandchildren. They recall with horror, even years later, what could have happened. One grandparent said, “Any parent or grandparent who cannot relate to what happened to Donald and his grandfather is either unbelievably lucky or delusional.”

A second theme emerging from readers’ responses referenced the idiom “in the blink of an eye.”  That is, events involving children and grandchildren happening so fast, literally in the time it takes to blink an eye (between 300-400 milliseconds, or 1/3 of a second, to be exact). One grandmother wrote: “Several years ago when I was watching my then-16-month-old granddaughter in the bathtub, I left her for no more than a few seconds while I ran and turned down the stove. In those few seconds she pulled a piece off a plastic toy, put it in her mouth and was choking. Fortunately, I was able to get it out of her mouth. I know what Donald’s grandfather is going through. Yes, he should have put the bowl of soup in a safer place. He made a mistake. I should not have left my granddaughter unattended. I made a mistake.”

A young mom writes: “I was at the playground with my toddler. I was watching him when all of a sudden he was wandering into the path of a swing with a big kid on it coming right at him. I scooped him out of the way, but if I had delayed even a second later…I cannot even bear to think about it. And I was watching his every move! Things can happen so fast. We can only do the best we can do. I think about this incident whenever I am tempted to take my eyes off him. No more ‘just one quick text’ for me when I’m watching him.”

A third discernible theme was a bit of a surprise. Many parents and grandparents who had brushes with potential accidents when they were taking care of their children or grandchildren said they never discussed them with anyone! They were fearful other family members would judge them to be negligent or irresponsible. Grandparents in particular were afraid the young parents would not trust them to be with their grandchildren alone.

Many described how they were able to re-channel their guilt constructively by treating their close calls as a wake-up call: They vowed to pay closer attention and be more mindful when they were in charge of their grandchildren. One parent wrote that what happened to Donald prompted her to clean out her garage as it was full of stuff that could injure her own and the neighborhood kids when they were getting bikes and toys. She said she would never forgive herself if her laziness was the reason that a child got injured.

With regard to Donald’s grandfather asking about support from other grandparents dealing with similar guilt, one reader wrote: “My guess is that some real support may come from outside the family…[he could] go for support to a minister or rabbi, check his church for a general support group, or even go to a group that is not designed for his situation — he will find kindness and forgiveness waiting for him…Please remind this grandfather that none of us goes through life without hurting someone else in some way.” Another reader suggests AARP’s Foundation GrandCare Support Locator. Although this locator focuses primarily on visitation issues, it does provide information for grandparents who want to connect to support groups for other issues. It could be a starting point.

Another reader suggests that Donald’s father not put time and effort into trying to find other “guilty” grandparents because everyone’s experience and family relationships are different. Yes, he may find comfort in talking with grandparents who were eventually forgiven and relationships were restored, but he may also talk with grandparents who were never forgiven and this will only make him feel worse.

I am pleased to close this column with an update from Donald’s grandfather: “Donald continues to improve both physically and emotionally…They have all moved back into our home. We (my wife, son and daughter-in-law) speak openly about what happened and about our feelings. I really thought that I would want to avoid speaking with any family member of the event, but I have found a tremendous sense of comfort in being open and honest about everything. It turns out that I was really the only one blaming me.

“As for my relationship with Donald, he is still a bit apprehensive with me. If I attempt to pick him up or hold his hand, he pulls away. However, if I allow him to approach me to read a book or sit beside me at a meal, he’ll do so without trepidation, as long as it is on his terms. This is just fine with me and I am grateful.

“Time is definitely healing. What remains is a tremendous sense of gratitude, a newfound closeness within our family and a heightened sense of awareness regarding safety in our home.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude and I feel the warmth of your readers’ sympathy and empathy.”

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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