December 13, 2009. The date will always be etched on Ken Ebbens’ memory. He can even remember what time of day it was.
That date marks the last time he and wife Valerie saw their youngest granddaughter, Mary*.
Every Christmas now stirs up memories of the little girl they lost, of the presents they’ve never been able to give her and the time they’ve missed out on.
They can’t help but wonder what she’s like now. What she looks like and how much she’s grown.
‘There was a family fall-out and unfortunately the parents decided to take certain courses of action which meant we were excluded,’ explains Ken. ‘Up until then we had been heavily involved.’
The 57-year-old from Landport, Portsmouth, doesn’t want to reveal more about the disagreement.
But as he explains why he’s helped set up a support group for other grandparents in Portsmouth affected by similar issues, it’s clear how much hurt losing contact has caused.
‘Both of us were very angry, both of us felt very hurt,’ explains Ken.
‘Val tended to go into herself. I tried to see where reason could come from, but things spiralled to such an extent that I walked away.
‘The bottom line is that it isn’t about me and Val. It’s about Mary. It’s about the children themselves.’
Mary was only six months old when Ken saw her last. Her parents have since moved away and all contact has been severed.
‘Every Christmas we can’t help but think back to what happened. There are the presents that never got there and then there are the missed birthdays.
‘The hurt is there. We can only box it away and stick it in a compartment as if Mary never existed.
‘You have to decide if you still wish to send presents and letters, but at that age there’s only one way to get to the child and that’s through the parents.’
He adds: ‘What it made me remember was my own nan. She died in 1985.
‘When I started not seeing Mary I started remembering all the time I had with my nan.
‘Mary won’t know what she’s missing, but I know how much my nan meant to me.
‘We’ve realised that we’ll probably never see her again. We have to be realistic.’
Ken and Val are by no means alone in their experience.
Around 100,000 children in the south have no contact with their grandparents following family rows, marriage break-ups, or other issues.
When it happened to them, the Ebbens’ tried to find a resolution on their own, but it was national charity the Grandparents’ Association that really came to their aid.
Ken saw a small advert for the association and got in touch with support worker Louisa Wearn.
She put them in contact with local solicitors who could give them a free half-hour consultation, as well as leaflets to guide them through their options.
The association was also able to offer support with another problem relating to a second granddaughter – this time an absentee father and the knock-on effect it was having on the child.
Ken was so impressed by the help given that he became a volunteer for the charity and in April set up the monthly support group for others.
‘What made me really value the Grandparents’ Association was Louisa – she’s fantastic at what she does,’ he adds.
‘What she was able to do was listen. They give you options. She never told us what to do. All too often, support groups think they know what you need.
‘I do give them as much time as I can. At the moment I’m helping her run the support group because they offer a service not many people know about.’
Up until recently, the association had an office based in the city, but now that the funding has dried up support comes via a network of volunteers.
With help from Louisa they meet others who need advice or just someone to talk too about what they’re going through.
Being denied contact with a grandchild can put a great strain on grandparents, with the stress and worry taking its toll on their mental and physical wellbeing.
Grandparents have no legal access rights and that’s something the Grandparents’ Association had hoped might change following pre-election pledges made by all three main political parties.
‘The government is talking more about grandparents but there are still no legal rights,’ adds Louisa.
‘The situation really hasn’t improved.’
Ken adds: ‘There are about a million children who are in a situation where they don’t see their grandparents.
‘One has to say that it’s not always one way, but the vast majority are where grandparents wish to see their grandchild but aren’t able to.
‘For me, the most important thing is that Val and I have a very similar approach to things.
‘One of the problems and something that people don’t always appreciate is that it can cause depression, bad health and relationships to disintegrate.’
Despite the help Ken and Valerie received, there’s been no reconciliation with Mary.
They backed off and have had to come to terms with the fact that the relationship might have broken down for good.
‘The Grandparents’ Association came along at a time when we were stuck for ideas, we’d hit a wall,’ explains Ken.
‘They came along and it was just the break that we needed to give us half a chance.
‘The fact that we never received the meeting with Mary had nothing to do with Louisa. She gave us an opportunity.
‘We’re satisfied that we’ve done as much as we can. I can look in the mirror at night and say “I’ve tried”.
‘If Mary ever makes contact I can say “This is how we have tried”.’
Ken’s happy to give up his time to try and help others.
He says it’s vital that grandparents don’t feel like they’re on own.
‘It’s so important that the Grandparents’ Association fills a little gap that seems to be missed by everybody.
‘I spoke to a couple last week and just by saying to them how many people are involved around the city he said “that makes me feel that I’m not on my own”.
‘That to me is one of the biggest problems.
‘One of the biggest issues with people in our situation is you think you’re on your own.’
He adds: ‘I do this because I feel I’ve been helped by people when I needed it. Now I can help people.’
*Name has been changed.
The support group set up by Ken Ebbens with help from the Grandparents’ Association meets on the second Tuesday of every month at the Mountbatten Centre in Hilsea, Portsmouth, between 1.30pm and 3.30pm.
If you would like more details, contact Louisa Wearn on (023) 9229 4726 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Grandparents’ Association also runs a helpline on 0845 4349585 plus a welfare benefits advice line on 0844 3571033 to support those grandparents who act as carers for their grandchildren.
And in Portsmouth there is also a weekly fun group for grandparents and young children at Paulsgrove Children’s Centre on Friday mornings, from 10am until midday, during termtime.
There’s also information on the association’s website – grandparents-association.org.uk.