One of your most important, and sacred, roles as a grandparent involves cultivating your grandchild’s spiritual development. This is the role of “spiritual guide,” A most powerful role that can have a profound and lasting impact on the moral path your grandchild will take, and his relationship with nature and the numinous aspects of life. And because the limits of this role are boundless, if you are a stepgrandparent or if you have adopted grandchildren, you can fully serve as a spiritual guide to the young ones in your life.
Spiritual Aspects of your Relationship
The specific nature of your role as spiritual guide does not lend itself to description in clinical terms. We need another language to describe it. That is, because the spiritual aspects of the grandparent-grandchild relationship reach far beyond the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of human experience. It is easier to describe the smiles, the good times, the joy, and the warmth, the sharing -the sense of life’s true meaning – in emotional, sentimental terms, in poetry or literature.
Acting as a spiritual guide involves teaching your grandchild to harvest such fruits of the spirit as love, tolerance, compassion, reverence, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith and kindness. These tangible and intangible qualities are related to the deepest and most mysterious dimension of your relationship with your grandchild and find expression in the excitement and affection that you feel for each other.
One level of influence you can have with your grandchild is to teach him to weave qualities of the “self” with that which is beyond the “self.” Character traits such as honesty and reverence are of the self. Gazing at the heavens while contemplating the awesomeness of existence is an activity beyond the self. As is seeing more to life than meets the eye, the numinous dimension of existence.
You may wonder why this role as spiritual guide is especially important to grandchildren. After all, parents cultivate their children’s spirits too, teaching ethics, morality, and religious values. The answer is that grandparent’s teachings have an “extra” quality that supplements, not replaces, a parent’s teachings. This quality is less purposeful and relates more to the numinous because it has its roots beyond the every day in wisdom, experience, a long view of life and an ever-increasing awareness of one’s mortality.
As Carol, a 69-year-old grandmother said, “When I was a young mother, I looked at my children from a practical, protective, didactic point of view. Were they dressed correctly for the weather? Did they finish their spinach? Why was someone coughing? As a grandmother, I look at my grandchildren with wonder and see them as little human beings with their own unique characters. I wonder about what kind of human beings they will be when they grow up. I guess I am more philosophical now. These moments of observing from a distance were hard to come by when I was a busy parent. As a mother I was more concerned with the safety of their bodies and now as a grandmother I am more aware of their happiness and their souls.”
Elders and Children Occupy a similar place IN Time
Elders and children are closer to birth and death than the middle generation. They share a curiosity about a universe that the one has just entered and the other will shortly leave. In addition, grandparents and grandchildren inhabit a similar place in society, which reinforces their special spiritual connection, especially older grandparents and young children. Because they may be less involved in the purposeful, everyday world and have less responsibility, they potentially are freer to focus on the spiritual nature of their existence.
Being on the fringes of a busy society has, throughout human history, allowed grandparents to spend time with their grandchildren while the middle generations were involved with survival. As their physical abilities ebb, elders and grandparents become more relaxed and contemplative, their spiritual capacity expands to contemplate life’s mysteries. These are the same issues that children are preoccupied with. They believe in angels and monsters and are able to live in their imaginations. Grandparent’s can make their grandchildren’s dreams come to life. The stories that grandparents tell their grandchildren often contain themes of wonder and fantasy, and transmit spiritual awareness and knowledge of the meaning of life’s mysteries, hinting at worlds beyond what their grandchildren are exposed to in everyday life (Timberlake (1992, Joseph 1968).
Having seen a great deal of life and having attained more emotional and spiritual maturity than the middle generation, grandparents life experience accords knowledge in the ways of the world, enabling them to deal openly with issues such as life’s meaning and our mortality. They have the time, attention and natural inclination to savor their grandchildren as something sacred (see Chapters 2, “Ancestor” and 5, “Historian”).
Illumination and Transformation
Simply put, the spiritual aspect of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is about giving meaning to one another in a way that busier people don’t have time for. The spiritual connection bathes both grandparent and grandchild in a sea of love, health and vitality. When connecting spiritually, a grandparent and grandchild illuminate and transform one another. This description, although perhaps sentimental, is founded upon years of observing interactions between the young and the old. I have seen it!
As part of an intergenerational study to gauge how the young and the old affect one another, I brought a group of elementary school children to visit a nursing home. One of the children involved in the study was a perky 7-year-old named Annie. When we entered the sitting room of the nursing home, Annie noticed a wheelchair-bound woman slumped in the corner of the room. The woman seemed utterly unaware of what was happening around her.
“Look at that granny over there,” Annie said. “She looks lonely.” A nurse told Annie that the woman’s name was Mrs. Boyce, and suggested that Annie go over and talk with her. We approached Mrs. Boyce, and Annie squatted down in front of her, tilting her head so she could look into the woman’s eyes. “Hi!” Annie said with a smile. Mrs. Boyce shifted in her chair. “Hello, child,” she whispered. “I like your dress,” Annie said. “It’s cute.” She straightened Mrs. Boyce’s collar. “And this is pretty.”
A nurse called me away to ask for some advice about her patients (I felt comfortable leaving Annie with Mrs. Boyce in the recreation room under teacher and staff supervision while I went into the nurse’s office nearby). The other children were all involved with the residents, too. When I returned from the nurse’s office I noticed that Annie was not in the recreation room. A nurse told me that Annie had wheeled Mrs. Boyce back to her room. I hastened to the room, and there I found Mrs. Boyce sitting straight up in her chair combing Annie’s hair, the two of them chatting away. Mrs. Boyce’s affect and physical activity, indeed her very essence, was completely altered from that of only a short time ago.
This is an example of how spirit works between the young and the old. I recognize it defies scientific explanation. Nevertheless, it happens! While Annie was clearly enjoying herself, Mrs. Boyce had undergone an amazing transformation. There was now life in her movements, her eyes were bright, and she was full of energy. Something within her had been “transformed” by Annie. There is no medical explanation to explain Mrs. Boyce’s transformation, although studies conducted on intergenerational social programs show increased health, attention and vitality among elders who mentor children (Bower 1991, Caren 1991, Cerrato 1990, Ozer 1992). It is this mystical, spiritual, power that is generated between the young and old that illuminates and transforms them both.
TENDING THE SPIRIT OF YOUR GRANDCHILD
It is these hard-to-pin-down qualities of “illumination” and “transformation” which seem to be the true essence of your role as a spiritual guide. Your spiritual communion with your grandchild means tending the spirit of your grandchild and teaching the way to goodness and tolerance, kindness and understanding. It is a role that is so often ignored or overlooked in today’s society, and yet is so important as a powerful countervailing force to toxic social teachings that fill children’s minds with messages of violence, hate, intolerance and sadistic sexuality. Children, especially in todays “de-spirited”2 times, need to experience the spiritual dimensions of life. No other relationship is better suited to helping this happen. Since spirituality is linked to unconditional love and acceptance, the grandparent-grandchild bond has the unique capacity to remain in the dimension of unconditional love. It is one of the last repositories of this special human relationship.
Spiritual Language and Spiritual Action
You guide your grandchild in matters of the spirit with thought, language and action. When talking to your grandchild, use a language of the spirit. Words such as “kindness,” “compassion,” “understanding,” and “selflessness,” evoke spiritual thoughts and open your grandchild’s mind to another plane of existence.
By acting in a moral, ethical and honest manner, you are setting the example for your grandchild of a spiritually evolved lifestyle. Your grandchild will notice if you make a point of paying the correct price at the movies, for example, or sticking to the speed limit posted on the highway. This may be “picky” in the mind of an adult, but is a powerful message to a child.
Involve yourself in spiritual activities. Knowing that you volunteer at a hospital, attend a place of worship, respect religious traditions at home, demonstrate reverence for nature, help others who are less fortunate, demonstrate kindness, understanding, tolerance for diversity and compassion toward others, helps your grandchild recognize you as a guardian, and example, of spirituality in action.
If you are religious, show the positive aspects of your beliefs. Many grandparents in our studies allude to the “strength” they derive from their religious beliefs. With the parent’s consent, use the philosophy, language and rituals of your religion so that your grandchild may carry your religious torch on to the next generation. Discussing your own spiritual views and experiences serves to heighten your grandchild’s spiritual consciousness. You may want to show your grandchild how you use your spiritual beliefs for strength and understanding. This makes a powerful impression on children.
There is a tradition of grandparents passing on religious beliefs to their grandchildren. A 1993 survey I conducted with 100 middle-class Caucasian grandmothers found that 73 percent reported having learned religion from their grandparents, and 49 percent reported teaching religion to their grandchildren. Another 16 percent said that their children had chosen a different religion but allowed the grandparents to teach their own religion to the grandchildren. Only four percent said their children are of different faiths and do not want them to talk about religion with the grandchildren.3
Michael, a 40-year-old native-American, said he saw his grandfather “talking to God,” after Michael’s father was killed in action in Viet Nam. “I was a child when we found out that my Dad was killed. One night I was playing out back and I heard my Grandpa singing and talking to the Great Spirit, what you would call God. Grandpa didn’t know I was there. He was talking and crying and he was talking to my Dad up there too, hoping he was well. I was a little scared but I thought, ‘Wow! My Grandfather is talking to the Great Spirit.’ That night I looked at the sky and tried to find my Dad and I talked to him, too. I talked a lot and it felt good.”
Even though hard science can’t explain it, some researchers attest to the value of a spiritual connection. In a study examining grandparent caregiving (Minkler, Roe 1993) the authors noted that “prayer, reading the Bible, and turning to God were the most frequently cited means of coping” for grandparents raising their grandchildren. The Grandparent Study has also found that spiritual activity, especially prayer and meditation, are often cited sources of support for many grandparents. This is especially true for many of those involved in the Grandparents’ Rights movement who were deprived of access to their grandchildren. Many say they find their strength and perseverance through their spiritual and religious beliefs.
Many grandparents show a grandchild how to connect with the numinous in times of stress. When Rosie, 16-years-old, and three months pregnant, was abandoned by her boyfriend Manny, she was devastated. Her parents thought it would be good for her to get away for a weekend and visit her grandmother Consuelo in an adjoining town. Consuelo was known as a healer or “curandera” in the area, and was often called upon to minister to the sick. Consuelo took Rosie to early mass at the local church and told Rosie to light a candle to Our Lady of Guadelupe, Consuelo’s special saint. “You are never alone,” she told Rosie, “there are guardian angels that watch over you.” They lit another candle on Sunday morning. Rosie said she felt better about her situation and was no longer in as much anguish over Manny. Sunday afternoon she miscarried her baby. Rosie returned home, went back to school and resumed her life. “I learned from my grandmother that I’m never alone.”
Even if you do not follow a religious belief system, or you have no spiritual beliefs at all, you can still guide your grandchild to develop spiritual qualities. Take reverence, for example. Eloise, 55, is an atheist and a painter. When she is “stressed” she takes walks in the woods and sketches flowers. “The forest is my church,” she told her grandson Felix 5, “and it is alive.” One afternoon she took Felix out for a walk. He was throwing rocks against a tree. “Don’t’ do that, dear, you’ll hurt it,” she said. “The tree don’t feel anything,” said Felix. “Yes it does,” Eloise said. “The tree is alive.” Eloise walked over to the tree and hugged it. “Come on Felix,” she urged, “hug me, and hug the tree.” Felix hugged Eloise and then proceeded to hug the tree. “You smell better, Grandma.” Felix squeezed the tree as tight as he could. “I hear a sound.” Eloise answered, “It’s the tree’s heart, dear.”
There is a natural tendency for the young to give credence to what I may term as the “supernatural,” or spiritual powers of the very old. I saw this demonstrated many individuals, in many cultures. For example, the Native Americans I worked among give great credence to the “blessings” grandfathers and grandmothers have the power to give to individuals, babies, solemn unions or decisions. Varied religions have accorded Elders the “power” of blessing, which assure health and success–blessing marriages and religious rites of passage.
Children know the power of blessings. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of “My Grandfather’s Blessings” is a physician who treats people with chronic and terminal illnesses. In her lovely book, she describes how her grandfather blessed her when he finished praying.
“When Grandpa finished talking with God he would turn to me and say, “come Neshume-le.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long ago women I knew from his many stories-Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah- to watch over me.
Although the power of blessing may be driven by a specific belief system it nevertheless remains that, as a grandparent, your own approval (in the form of an invocation of God by a blessing) can carry significant clout for a child. Kami, 28 years-old, would not marry until she could return to India with her fiancée to obtain her grandparent’s “blessing” for her marriage. “They are older and wiser,” she said, “and I believe they know what is best for me. Ever since I was a child they would bless whatever I did if they agreed that it was good. My grandfather and grandmother would place their hands on my head and we would pray together. They blessed my idea of coming to the U.S to study. Now I want their blessing so I can get married to an American and live in the U.S. permanently. With their blessing I know that I am protected.”
When the spiritual connection between grandparent and grandchild is ruptured it can cause great pain and suffering for all those concerned. These wounds go deep, affecting the spirit as well as the psyche. The rupture of a close grandparent-grandchild relationship not only results in making both parties emotionally upset, it can go deeper, penetrating the spiritual layer of the person’s being. This further “de-spirits” them, leading in many cases to mourning and clinical depression. Yoki, 55-years-old, said, “My heart is gone,” after she was told that her grandson and his parents were moving to the other side of the country and she knew that would no longer see her grandson every day. The spiritual wounds are especially severe when parents (see Chapter 42, “Legal Issues”) intentionally separate grandparents and grandchildren.
Viewing the grandparent-grandchild relationship from the spiritual point of view offers compelling reasons why a close grandparent-grandchild relationship can be seen as sacred and should be protected, honored, and respected. To be an effective spiritual guide, take the time to ask yourself the following questions: What does spirituality mean to you? How do you use your spiritual beliefs in your daily life? What specific spiritual values, beliefs or rituals do you want to transmit to your grandchild? How are blessings related to these efforts? Are there any impediments to transmitting your spiritual values? If so, what can you do to overcome them?
Here are some guidelines to help you celebrate this special aspect of your relationship with your grandchild and to better serve as your grandchild’s spiritual guide:
- Take time to think through your own attitudes and philosophy concerning this role.
- Decide how you will implement this role in the most authentic way possible in the light of your own values, philosophy and experience.
- Make your beliefs and intentions to be a spiritual guide known in the family, by word and example.
- Coordinate what you intend to do concerning your spiritual or established religious practices with the parents
- Spend time alone with your grandchild in nature.
- Engage in a charitable activity with your grandchild.
- Share your own spiritual experiences with your grandchild.
- Listen to your grandchild’s conceptions of the meaning of life, nature, and God.
- Discuss the “fruits of the spirit” mentioned above with your family.
- Demonstrate spiritual values in action and language.
- Transmit religious beliefs when appropriate and with the parents’ consent (see Chapter 40, “Religious Differences”).
- Even those grandparents who profess no spiritual beliefs can teach goodness. Set an excellent personal example; teach generosity, kindness, and concern for others by engaging in charitable activities with a grandchild.
As your grandchild’s spiritual guide, you show her how to cultivate the fruits of the spirit by teaching ethics, morals, and values and by leading a spiritually conscious life. Because you are uniquely suited to connect with your grandchild in a contemplative state of mind, you both are naturally primed to marvel and evaluate the mysteries of the universe in a profound manner. By so doing you will illuminate and transform yourselves for the better.
Books on spiritual connections
Read more in GRAND about a spiritual connection with your grandchildren here