Children have been reuniting with their grandparents for the first time in three months as the Stormont Executive’s new “support bubble” scheme came into effect in Northern Ireland on Saturday.
With no social distancing restriction attached, grandparents are able to hug family members once again.
Victoria, nine, and six-year-old Robbie from Co Fermanagh, were able to embrace their grandmother Susan Hamilton for the first time in months when they held a sleepover at her home.
A delighted Ms Hamilton said: “I’m feeling very grateful for my health and to able to cuddle my grandchildren again.”
The children’s mother Sarah Benson said the past three months have been tough on the close-knit family.
She (Susan Hamilton) calls them her bubble buddiesSarah Benson
“When I told them they could go and see her they squealed with delight and jumped up and down.
“They sprinted out of the car and into her arms and they are still there today.
“There were tears all around from the four of us when we re-united – it was an emotional reunion.
“She calls them her bubble buddies; she is absolutely delighted to have them back and in her home again.”
Ms Hamilton lives alone in Ballinamallard in Co Fermanagh while Ms Benson and her children live 10 miles away in Bellanaleck.
Ordinarily they would see each other several times a week.
Ms Hamilton was on holiday in Canada when the restrictions were first announced in March and was worried she would not be able to get home.
“Mum got home but at that stage we couldn’t meet up properly.
“We picked mum up at the airport but she could only wave at the kids – she couldn’t hug them to say goodbye.
“At that stage we had no clue how long lockdown would go on for.”
“The past few months have been challenging and very difficult.
“The kids and I would normally see mum several times during the week or they would go over to hers for their tea at the weekend and she would help out with childcare.
Ms Benson says, while the family embraced technology for keeping in touch, nothing beats seeing each other in real life.
“We got mum on to WhatsApp so we would all be sending each other videos and photos and doing group calls.
“She would struggle with technology a bit so it was challenging but we made the most of it.”
“The kids would give her a WhatsApp call at night so she could say goodnight to them – it was a way of staying connected but it was tough.”
Ms Benson says she was overjoyed when she found out about the easing of restrictions.
“For me it was just such a sense of relief that the loneliness would end and she could touch her grandchildren.”
Ms Benson held her 40th birthday party in the garden a few weeks ago but having to stay apart.
“Every part of her ached to be able to hold her grandkids but she had to watch them from afar.”
For the past few weeks, Ms Hamilton had been collecting up Ikea boxes for the children to play with and planting peas and new herbs in her beloved garden.
“Mum would say the days dragged into each other but Sunday was the worst.
“She usually would have gone to church, then spent the day making Sunday dinner.
“Three months of sitting on your own and having meals on your own is just so tough and isolating.
“She said that was the most challenging thing for people living on their own.”
Looking ahead, Ms Benson says lockdown has given her family a new-found appreciation for the little things in life.
“We’re just looking forward to spending normal time as a family and going on wee day trips and doing all the kinds of things we took for granted before this.”