Making cookies with Nana, taking art lessons from Papa, and playing Uno with those fun-loving old guys—all that changed for most families when COVID took over life. Instead of tossing a baseball, Papa and grandson Caleb stared at each other on iPad screens. In families finally willing to get together, many little tykes asked: “Who’s that?” After all, two eyes above a mask don’t give much of a clue.

What has COVID done to grandparents and the precious children they adore? A close look shows some good, some bad, and some ugly changes. 

In too many families, a grandparent’s touch is only a memory. We should pause a few seconds in silent prayer for the children forever deprived of their cheerleaders. Susie, my acquaintance, died with COVID last fall, most likely infected by her beloved 16-year-old grandson. He survives emotionally because the family never mentioned the infection source. For other families, counseling for grandkids is ongoing.

Though not horrific, many results were bad. Memories never made in graduations, birthdays, concerts, and recitals are right up there with newborn babies turning into toddlers before they received one cuddle from Grammy. During our family’s own 18-month separation, our oldest grandson got his early-teen growth spurt and went from a silly, teasing boy to a rather serious young man with a driver’s license. Turns out FaceTime didn’t reveal what was happening. I still wonder where that other Leor disappeared.

The good relationships COVID brought, though few and far between, came when grandparents were able to step in and babysit or homeschool, as occurred with our good friends Becky and Duane. Former college professors in education and math, they along with Becky’s sister Laurie, a violinist, worked as a team so that the twins received a better semester in fourth grade homeschool than their classmates in Zoom School. Becky says the 20 hours of face-to-face instruction established a bond nothing else could have.

Now COVID restrictions remain in force in many places, many families are not back to normal. Until we can put this behind us, we must establish better ways of fostering the grandparent-child bond. Otherwise, the long-haul relational damage may be permanent.  

Good family health goes beyond the physical. Emotional devastation, for kids and adults, can be hidden like mold under a beautiful home.

The status of one widowed friend I’ll call Corrine concerns her friends. Not having a good vaccine track record, Corrine decided to bypass the jab and go into complete hibernation except for doctor visits. She joined the “family pod” and has avoided the disease as well as separation from the grandkids. But totally devoid of any social life, she battles depression.

Early in the pandemic, when we had fewer tools, everyone’s focus was to keep the grandparents safe because children didn’t seem to be threatened. Now with reports of breakthrough infections, fear is again a factor in the lives of grandparents and grandchildren.  

What might be some sand in the grandparent-gears going forward?

Government rules can damage family relationships. For instance, Australia, where civil rights are being trampled in the wake of COVID, the government jumped in with the “no-grandparent-sitter” law. Let us not believe the oft-debunked lie, “That could never happen in America.” We must always become activists against government regulations that threaten family unity.

Also, perhaps someone should take action concerning Grandma’s isolation. If she used to be fun and happy but now seems distant and anxious, children notice and don’t strongly engage with her. Is it time to encourage her getting back to Bible study with the totally vaccinated group? Can she still see little Brendan indoors without a mask? We want to take precautions but we also want to be sensible, relying on science rather than hysteria that hides behind science.

Our friends experienced the opposite dilemma. Their grown children dropped Timmy off with a bad cold even though Granddad has a serious immunosuppressed system. Their attitude was, “Why don’t the folks want to see Timmy? He doesn’t have COVID.” Being blamed for trying to stay alive was hurtful and caused an awkward refusal to keep the grandchild the next day. 

It’s interesting that those same parents, however, won’t let the other set of unvaccinated grandparents keep Timmy. If Grandpa’s anti-vax reason is stubborn personal preferences, perhaps this is the price he must pay. No matter what, maybe everyone can come up with some outdoor, distanced play dates.

Some parents are so fearful about their children that they blow things out of proportion, and grandparents worry about their emotional health , too.

We grandparents who were teens in the fifties and sixties, grew up and then raised our children before the cult of “safetyism” described in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Naomi Schaefer Riley reflects their view: “…American parents have developed an irrational obsession with eliminating threats to children, both real and imagined.” COVID, though not an irrational threat, is far below that of past childhood diseases. Only 0.01% of children who got COVID died from it.

It might help the mindset to get a perspective about the history of American childhood mortality. In 1800, 462 of every 1,000 babies born did not experience their fifth birthday. By 1900, 23% of babies did not live to blow out five candles. In 2020, that number had fallen to 2.1% and in 2020, only 7 babies of every 1,000 died before their fifth birthday. This year, only 317 children under 17 have died of COVID in America out of the 74.2 million living in this country

Charles Kalish, PhD, a developmental psychologist, holds the opinion that parents must weigh the benefits of the grandparent association with children against the health risks: “If the risk of [physical] contact is small and the benefit of seeing the grandchild is high, then parents have to accept a certain degree of risk…”

My husband and I endured the “grandemic” for the 18-month physical separation and made it to this point with relationships intact. One key was our teenage granddaughter, who loves to invite us through FaceTime into the mundane minutes of her life. Her brothers would often hear our voices and wander into her room for a short chat. Delightful!

Given the current restrictions that remain in force, the story is still being written for grandparents. Good communication will help us all look back and say, “We made it. They still think we’re the greatest grandparents in the world, and we KNOW they’re the best grandkids.”