“Unbearable” is the word Rivka Zelin uses to describe the pain of not being allowed to see one’s grandchildren.
Rivka Zelin is the alias the 61-year-old Toronto resident uses to protect her family’s identity in her role as leader of the group Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA) Toronto, which had its first meeting last June.
AGA Toronto is a support group for grandparents who are estranged from their grandchildren, usually because of the demands of their adult children.
It’s an offshoot of a group that was founded in Florida about four years ago and has since expanded to more than 40 U.S. states, as well as, last September, to Ottawa.
Zelin’s own son disengaged from his family and friends after he got married and doesn’t allow Zelin to spend time with his children. She saw the Ottawa chapter of AGA advertised in a newspaper there and, after speaking with the organizer, decided to start a group in Toronto.
The latter convenes twice a month at North York Civic Centre and provides a non-judgmental space where individuals can share their stories among those undergoing similar struggles, to draw comfort from, “see[ing] their own family’s story happening in other families,” Zelin said.
She explained that this sort of alienation typically involves an individual who bars his or her own parents from seeing their grandkids and doing things that grandparents “crave,” Zelin said, such as cooking for their grandchildren, babysitting them or taking them to see a show.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, Zelin said, but it’s often because the adult child has a personality disorder or mental health issue that causes them to cut themselves off from their parents, or the adult child has a partner who, due to a personality disorder or mental health issue, is extremely controlling and insists they sever ties with their parents.
She also cited instances where an adult child passes away and their spouse severs contact with the dead partner’s mother and father, or where there is a “high-conflict divorce” and one grandparent is pushed away and prevented from seeing his or her grandkids.
The alienation can happen at various levels, she noted, with some grandparents having zero contact with grandchildren; some being permitted to see their grandchildren occasionally; some not knowing why they’ve been cut off; and others only knowing vague details about their grandchildren.
In many situations, a sort of brainwashing effect can happen, Zelin said, in which a spouse or children are fed lies about a grandparent or grandparents.
AGA Toronto functions as a free drop-in and has a core group of 10 to 15 regular members, roughly half of whom attend with their spouse.
The majority of members are Jewish like Zelin, but she emphasized that there is no specific Jewish focus and that everyone is welcome.
Of the group, she said, “we don’t just sit with the pain… we seek to understand the concept of alienation, how it happens and what makes the pain of it so strong… We invite experts like lawyers, social workers or psychologists to come talk to us about what we can and can’t do, and strategize ways to remain strong and happy… The idea is that if our grandchildren do one day come around, we want to be strong and happy people that open the door to them,” she said.
The members also discuss the stages of grief that alienation can trigger and ways to transition from anger to acceptance.
“With anger, we may make the situation worse… So we learn how to remain serene and respond peacefully to difficult situations,” Zelin said.
The group also helps to lessen the sense of stigma or shame surrounding the alienation, Zelin said, explaining that people often assume a grandparent has been cut off because he or she did something wrong to the child or grandchild.
She stressed that none of the AGA members are in this situation, but the fear of being judged harshly often prevents people from discussing the issue with others.
The group is important, Zelin said, because it both gives those suffering a sense of belonging and support, and because its existence lets society know that grandparent alienation is a phenomenon that’s “very much alive.”