My grandparents raised my mother and her siblings to be kind and compassionate. They emphasized the value of inclusivity and respect for others. My grandparents are no longer those people. Their political positions have shifted from a place of benevolence, empathy and grace to one of anger and bigotry. My mother and her siblings raised their children with the values taught to them by their parents. My grandparents won’t recognize that our views echo their words from a not-so-distant past. It’s impossible for my grandparents to engage in a single conversation without parroting hateful rhetoric or patently false information.
I love them and miss them so much that it hurts, but it’s hard to feel close to them now. I’m afraid each time I see them, and that breaks my heart. I can’t stand the anticipation, the nervous feeling while I wait for them to say something monstrous. And since 2016, they always do.
How do I maintain our relationship when all I can think about is who they used to be?
A Jewish Grandchild
Dear Jewish Grandchild,
Your pain is vast, palpable and real. Your grandparents have shifted from the warm and loving people you knew to virtual strangers espousing strange, hateful ideology. What can you do to transform them?
In my humble opinion – not much. The older I get (and this keeps happening on a daily, even hourly basis), the more I realize how powerless we are regarding changing other people.
We can praise and encourage attitudes and actions that we appreciate, and we can model behaviors that we hope others will emulate. Then we can hope and pray that they’ll get the message. But changing others? Dare I use the word impossible? And certainly, the older people get, the more set they become. I believe the only person I’m capable of changing is myself – and I think that applies to every one of us.
So, what recourse do you have? When visiting your grandparents, can you try to steer the topics away from subjects that are volatile? Look into your grandparents’ eyes and try to see the goodness, to feel their unconditional love. It’s still there, hiding perhaps, under a different veneer that has bubbled up to the surface.
Perhaps you can guide the conversations to “the good old days.” Where did they grow up? What did they do? What did life look like for them as children and as young adults? Do they have helpful advice for parents nowadays? What were some of their dreams? Did they achieve them? What were/are their favorite books, music, hobbies?
My suggestion is to continue visiting and working on this precious relationship. No one lives forever, and the older generation, especially your grandparents, is truly a treasure. Seniors have learned so much through life experience. There is a Torah commandment to stand up for anyone aged 70 and above – why? Because they have acquired wisdom and understanding, commodities worthy of our respect. It is our job to take the time to listen to them – and learn.
In summation, I suggest you try to take charge of the conversations and make them meaningful. If they bring up distasteful issues, try to change the topic. Generally, older people like to talk about themselves. And they certainly feel valued when asked for advice! Who doesn’t?
Does your grandmother knit? Ask her to teach you! Does your grandfather play chess? Take out the game board!
Some people can get difficult with age – I pray for that not to happen to myself! But if you are armed with the knowledge that a personality shift can be part of the aging process, you will be able to overlook it and still recognize the familiar light shining from your beloved grandparents’ eyes. They are the very same people who successfully raised wonderful parents who, in turn, succeeded in raising a warm, sensitive, loving child – you!
I wish you success in molding your visits into priceless moments of caring and sharing.
All the best,