By Calla Blawusch
Grandparents almost always hold a special place in the hearts of the grandchildren. They are the parents of parents. They love with wisdom and spoil us rotten when they’re around. They may take misplaced naps or say things we don’t understand, but as we grow older, we come to cherish experiences shared.
Of course, not everyone has the same relationship with their grandparents. Some grandparents may have health issues or live far away. Others may not be present for a variety of reasons. We must remember that grandparents are people, too. They are as emotionally diverse as anyone else.
That is one of the reasons why it is important for us to specially recognize grandparents who have taken on the role of primary guardian.
Most grandparents who are also active parents have stepped up to the plate due to hardship within their family. These men and women are unsung heroes. They must cross the many hurdles of raising children for the second time, battle aging, and attempt to close a large generational gap.
The two women featured in this article are grandmothers who took in grandchildren after losing their own daughters to domestic violence. I wanted to to speak with them about their experiences, honor their stories, and learn how they balanced healing with responsibility.
The first woman I interviewed was Vicky Atkinson. Vicky lives in Georgia and raised her grandson Aiden after her daughter Audrey was killed by her boyfriend at just 19. Vicky does not have custody of Aiden anymore–he lives with another family member–but she raised him for a number of years after Audrey’s murder.
The second woman I interviewed was Lisa Marino. Lisa has been the primary guardian of her grandson Caleb following the murder of her eldest daughter Sacha. Caleb is about to graduate high school.
As I listened to the stories of these two very different women, I was surprised by how much of the narrative overlapped. Both described their daughters as strong women who were great mothers and did the right thing by getting out of their respective relationships. Both expressed frustration with law enforcement and the handling of the domestic violence cases. Furthermore, they spoke of the lasting impact the tragedies had on the boys, even though both were too young to remember.
“When it happened, I was so mad at the police,” Vicky shared. “[Audrey] did what she was supposed to do with the restraining order and it still didn’t help. I know many police officers…and I think it has made an impact for them to hear her story. But they say until the law changes and becomes more strict their hands are basically tied.”
Through organizations like BTS, domestic violence has been brought to light as a serious issue. Many law enforcement agencies have started initiatives and trainings to help reduce and deal with domestic violence cases.
However, as Vicky and Lisa pointed out, there is still much more to be done. For these grandmothers, there will always be a lingering sense of fear and injustice.
“I remember when I had to explain to Caleb who his dad was,” said Lisa. “He didn’t understand the concept of biological father, but once he was old enough to get that…he asked me if [his dad] loved him. I had to tell him that no, he didn’t love him. He wasn’t capable of loving anyone.”
This heartbreaking anecdote is just one example of the struggle many grandparents face when raising young survivors. There is a tension between sparing the gruesome details to a young child and sharing an important and impactful truth.
During these interviews, I noticed a current of self-doubt underscoring the beauty of Vicky and Lisa’s openness and strength. Both felt the pressure to raise a child their daughter would be proud of, and noted that the healing process was difficult and nonlinear for everyone involved.
“When I went to the Angel Retreat, they talked about how having too many pictures can make the kids feel bad… and I had never thought about that,” Vicky said. “I realized I had like a shrine to [my daughter], so when I got back home I asked Aiden if seeing all the stuff made him upset and he said ‘yeah, a little.’ So now I have all the pictures of [Audrey] but I keep them put away.”
Resources and events like the Angel Retreat can be invaluable to survivors and families dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence tragedy. Lisa described it as “one of the best things I ever did,” and talked about how the BTS community has helped Caleb through some difficult times.
As I listened to Vicky and Lisa, I wished I could jump through the phone and give both of them a big hug. I wanted to tell them that they were amazing and that they did such a good job as parents and grandparents. In the face of tragedy, they performed the impossible: unconditional love. Their determination keeps the memory of Audrey and Sacha alive and their efforts with BTS are not in vain. It is stories like these that will continue to bring awareness to the topic of domestic violence, and their insight will help other grandparents in similar situations.