Grandparent grief is like a fork with two tines – one tine represents the loss of a grandchild and the other represents the pain of seeing your child suffer. Therefore, the grandparent has two tasks: to work through his/her grief; and to be helpful to the bereaved child. But although there are two tasks, you have to deal with them at the same time.
The first tine of grandparent grief is your own grief over the loss of a precious grandchild. Grief is the normal reaction to a loss and we actually experience grief throughout our lives. A pet dies. A friend moves away. Our children go off to university. We grieve for these losses, but don’t always realize that’s what we are doing. With a grandchild’s death, we face one of life’s most painful griefs.
We all deal with grief in different ways. Your feelings will be the same as those of other grandparents. At the same time, your grief and feelings will be uniquely and singularly yours. You may experience some of the following:
Denial – A protective mechanism that cushions the mental blow;
Shock – The thought that your grandchild is dead is almost impossible to face, so your mind temporarily shuts off that reality;
Sleep Problems – Accept the fact this is normal and temporary, and that the rest you get by lying quietly can be almost as helpful as sleep;
Appetite – Even though you may not feel like it, try to eat a well-balanced diet;
Constant Thoughts – In the early weeks, you may find yourself thinking of your grandchild and bereaved child a lot. It’s your mind’s way of sorting out what has happened;
Constant Talk – You may need to hear yourself say, out loud, what you are thinking and feeling. This helps you to see the reality of the death. Find someone to talk to;
Crying – You are living with a stressful situation- crying can help you to release the stress. Let yourself cry, you have every right!
Inability to Concentrate – Confusion is often present- muddle through it. Accept this reaction as normal and temporary, you will be less bothered by it;
Anger – Most people feel angry after a death, especially the death of a child. One safe way to pour out this anger is by writing it down – vent your feelings on paper, rather than those close to you;
Guilt – Most of us experience guilt, even where there is none. Guilt needs to be talked about – find a non-judgmental person to talk to or, use that faithful paper again and write it down;
Physical symptoms – Physical problems are common to bereaved grandparents. Let your physician know of your situation and get a check up. Your grief reaction will likely be different from those of your spouse or other set of grandparents. Don’t compare! Allow yourself to openly express your emotions. Lean into the pain of grief and allow yourself to experience it. In other words, allow yourself to be miserable when you need to be. That is called “working through” your grief.
Helping Your Grieving Child
One of the hardest parts of being a bereaved grandparent is knowing that at times you feel that nothing you do makes a difference. You may think your child will never “get over” this loss. But remember, the grief will not always be as intense and devastating as today and your help will be forever appreciated. The most important thing you can do is to understand your child’s grief. This is essential. Read The Bereaved Parent, by Harriet Schiff. This book will help you understand this unique, intense grief and will assure you that your child is not emotionally ill. Remember, there is no grief exactly like that which comes with the loss of a child.
There are a number of things that you can do to help your child:
Encourage Talking – Bereaved parents have a strong need to talk about what they think and feel;
Allow Your Child to Cry – It’s healthy and necessary, even as it is for you. Crying with your child can be therapeutic for both of you;
Talk About Your Grandchild – Talking about the grandchild tells your child you care. If s/he cries, it is because the child is dead, not because you brought it up;
Listen to Your Bereaved Child – The greatest gift you can give your child is to listen in a non-judgmental way;
Provide Physical Support – Your child may have other children and a job. Offer practical assistance to help alleviate the fatigue and stress of everyday living- but don’t take over;
Take the Surviving Grandchildren – Have them for a day or an afternoon. This allows the parent time and gives the grandchildren an opportunity to be away from the constant sadness that is likely to penetrate their home;
Physically hold Your Child – The need to be held is stronger during tears or an especially hard time. Your child may not be aware of wanting to be held, but you can take the initiative. It’s perfectly alright to offer your lap as well as your hand, shoulders, heart and tears.
…And The Grief Goes On
You learn to live without your grandchild, but there will always be the might have beens. The rest of your life there will be times when you see that distant look in your bereaved child’s eyes and know that thoughts of your grandchild are surfacing from the heart. It’s true that your child (and you) will live again without pain.
Your grief will lessen sooner than that of your child’s, but what doesn’t lessen is seeing your child in pain. As the parent of a grieving child you have a unique opportunity to cement a deep and lasting relationship with your child. You have the opportunity to walk with your child through the most difficult life experience he or she will ever endure. You have the opportunity to help your child in a very special way that will form unbreakable bonds.
It will not be easy – the process is long and hard. You may feel powerless, frustrated and helpless at times… but you can help.
Adapted from the book,
“For Bereaved Grandparents”
by Margaret H. Gerner.