Downton Abbey's opening episode of season four was as full of relevant life lessons as ever. As a therapist, I found the episode's exploration of the essential role that grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren to be especially compelling.
When a family trauma or tragedy occurs, grandparents often possess a unique ability to step in and nurture, love and challenge in a way that parents often cannot. Parents are frequently too physically and psychologically close to a crisis to see the forest through the trees. Grandparents, however, often have wisdom and the ideal combination of both closeness and distance to make a transformational intervention.
As the season begins, grief is everywhere: the Granthams continue to grieve the sudden death of their beloved Sybil, and now they must also face the loss of Downtown's heir, Matthew Crawley. It has been six months since Matthew's fatal car accident, just moments after the birth of his and Lady Mary's son. In the aftermath of so much death, each character grieves differently. Sybil's devoted but determined widower, Tom, throws himself into the running of Downton's estate. Lord Grantham focuses on the land and on his desire to reinstate himself as Downton's primary decision maker. Matthew's widow, Mary, is entirely paralyzed with grief. Her face shows no expression. She stares off into space, speaks in monotone and rejects the help of others. She refuses to take any interest in her newborn son, George. Mary has lost the love of her life, and her grief has become so consuming that she has lost herself.
Tom tries desperately to pull Mary out of her grief:"It's time for you to come back to us... take an interest in something. It doesn't matter what. Poetry or carpentry. History or hats."
Tom even reaches out to Mary's beloved touchstone and butler, Mr. Carson, to enlist his help. Mr. Carson cares so much for Mary that he breaches the upstairs/downstairs etiquette and confronts her. He challenges Mary to take an active role in strategizing for Downton's future. Mary's harsh rejection speaks volumes about her dangerous and desolate state of mind: "You do not seem to understand the effect that Mr. Crawley's death has had on me... Whether you approve or not, I am sorry you feel entitled to over-step the mark. I suggest we don't mention it again."
Mr. Carson remains determined to shake Mary from her zombie-like state of grief and continues to over-step: "You're letting yourself be defeated my lady. I'm sorry if it's a lapse to say so, but someone has to." Lord Grantham tries, in his own selfish way, to help his daughter telling Mary, "You concentrate on feeling better. You mustn't worry about anything else." Furthermore, Lord Grantham begs the family to back off: "She is living a nightmare and we must all step back and wait for her to come through it on her own."
No one is able to make even a dent in Mary's grief and extreme isolation until her grandmother steps in and takes a stand. The countess of Grantham first urges Matthew's grief-stricken mother, Lady Isobel (whom the countess can't stand) to try to regain a sense of purpose by enjoying her grandson. When Lady Isobel hesitates saying she does not want to interfere, the determined grandmother replies, "It's the job of grandmothers to interfere!"
Next, when Mary runs from the dinner table and Lord Grantham insists that she be left alone to wallow in her sadness, Countess Grantham disagrees and takes action. The conversation that transpires between grandmother and granddaughter is a perfect example of how the emotional and psychological role of a grandparent can be life saving: "I'm your grandmother. I love you... Mary, you've gone through a hideous time, but now you must remember your son. He needs you very much."
"I know. The truth is I don't think I'm going to be a very good mother... Somehow, with Matthew's death, all of the softness that he found in me seems to have dried up and drained away. Maybe it was only ever there in his imagination," she replies. "My dear. There is more than one type of good mother. The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you. You must choose either death or life." (This episode further emphasizes the importance of grandparenting when Cora Grantham discovers that the nanny is verbally abusing her granddaughter. Cora fires the Nanny with grandmotherly elegance and efficiency!)
In my therapy practice I hear many examples of grandparents running critical interference on their family's behalf. A client whose father died in a sudden car crash explained that it was her grandmother's decision to move into their home that got her through. A client whose younger sister had a psychotic break with reality remembered that his parents were in total denial for months about his sister's illness. It was not until his grandparents came to visit for a week and saw how ill their granddaughter had become and insisted on action, that his sister was taken to get long overdue professional help. A client raised by an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father viewed her grandparents as her psychological parents. She explained, "I know that I grew up in my parents' home. But I spent each and every weekend with my grandparents—thank goodness. That was my true home. They gave me structure, constancy and unconditional love. It feels as if my parents were reckless older siblings and my grandparents were my true parents."
In my personal life, this phenomenon also rings true. When my daughter was diagnosed with type one diabetes, we came home from the hospital and my husband and I could not get our beloved and terrified six-year-old to take her first insulin shot. She screamed and cried and said she was too young to have diabetes and that it was too scary. Our hearts were broken. Thank goodness my mother was there and willing to insert herself. She swooped her granddaughter onto her lap and told her to imagine herself somewhere else. She took her time and gave her cherished granddaughter space and calm. She was the only one who could help her relax. We, her parents, were too scared and too shocked.
And the same goes for Mary at Downton Abbey. Following her grandmother's "interference", she sheds her black dress, is eloquent during Downton's business meeting and finds Mr. Carson to apologize: "I'm sorry to bother you so late. But I think you know why I've come... to apologize... I suppose you know that my grandmother agrees with you... I know that I've spent too long in the land of the dead."
Admittedly, much of my therapy practice focuses on the importance of setting limits and boundaries and psychologically learning to separate from one's parents. And yet this season opener of Downton Abbey reminds us that it is equally important to respect the unique and essential role that grandparents can play in their grandchildren's lives and their families' experience.
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