The grief of grandparents
"We hurt twice. We hurt for our children because they are our children. Plus, we hurt for the grandchild we lost." –A grandmother
The burden of grief that comes to grandparents after the death of a grandchild is unique. The loss of the child so loved is devastating, but along with that loss is the added pain of the knowledge that your own child is suffering a loss, a hurt, that you cannot take away. As a parent you have no doubt comforted your child through many difficulties, perhaps have even taken on the responsibility of resolving problems occurring in their adult life. Now your child has had to face the loss of their own child, your grandchild, and you can only stand by, powerless to heal the deep pain that you see your own child experiencing. Always the person who has a greater store of experience and wisdom as the parent, you now feel helpless to ease the burden your child must bear during this time of grieving and eventual healing. In addition, you have the pain of your own loss, your own dear grandchild, for whom your hopes and dreams will now never be realized.
This can be a very difficult time for you. Sorting out your own feelings of grief and trying to find ways to be supportive and helpful for your son or daughter can be confusing and overwhelming. Even though your child is an adult, your feelings of nurturing and caring have not changed and you may forgo working through your own grief as you focus on the grief of your child. You may have many confusing feelings, about yourself as well as your child. You may feel angry, cheated, frustrated, powerless, or overwhelmed. You may see changes in your child that make you feel alienated, unloved, or intrusive when what you really want is to be helpful and supportive. Please remember that this is a very confusing time for your son or daughter too. They may lash out at you as you attempt to help or make suggestions about such things as funeral arrangements, care of other children in the home, or ideas about ways to assist in the healing process. On the other hand, your son or daughter may simply withdraw from daily living, become unresponsive and deeply depressed by the loss of their child. It is not possible to predict how a person will respond to a loss such as this and your own child may become as a stranger in your life, compounding the loss you feel as a grandparent. There is no set of rules to follow that will simply help everyone to begin the journey of healing and find a "normal" life again.
It may help you to understand that there are four phases of grief. The first phase is shock and numbness. During this time feelings can change very quickly. One minute your child may be in denial, the next minute filled with rage at the doctor, or overwhelmed by a feeling of panic that life is out of control. During this time your presence may be the only way to help; holding a hand, a caring arm around a shoulder, simply letting your child vent without trying to "talk sense" to them. This is not a rational time for your son or daughter and trying to deal in a rational manner with the chaos immediately surrounding such loss as the death of a child may be met with hostility and withdrawal. Simply "being there" for your child shows your love and as your son or daughter begins to accept the reality of what has happened they will be able to express to you ways in which you may be of help. During this first phase, you too will have confusing and variable feelings. The four stages of grief apply to grandparents as well as parents. You need to be aware that you too have needs and remember that others in your life who love you want to help you in the same way you want to help your child. Just as you reach out to "be there" for you child, others will reach out to you to "be there" for you as well. This is not the time to "be strong" and "hold up for the sake of your child". Realizing that you need support and that you are devastated and hurting is a positive step toward healing. You will also be a positive role model for your child in taking steps to ease your own pain.
The second phase of grief is searching and yearning. During this phase parents as well as grandparents experience a yearning for the child who has died and search to find some reason for the loss. Perhaps your son or daughter will replay again and again a list of "could haves" or "should haves" in an attempt to make some sense out or their devastating loss. This way of thinking can lead to a tremendous burden of guilt that only deepens the pain already felt. Grandparents often feel guilt, feeling they should have been able to somehow prevent the tragedy. Perhaps you are separated by miles from your loved ones and feel that if you could only have been there things would be different. Or, you may feel guilty to be the one left living while the beloved grandchild in your life has died. You may feel anger that you have lived long enough to be a grandparent and the young life just getting started has ended. All of these feelings are normal and it is important to remember that this is one of four phases of your grieving process, and it will end. Now is a good time to reach out to others who have shared similar losses so that you can know you are not alone. It is a time you can receive support and realize that, even though the loss is great, you too can find happiness and meaning in your life again, even as you hold the memories of your grandchild dear and close to your heart.
The third phase of grief is disorientation and disorganization. You may see many behavior changes in your son or daughter during this time. You may experience changes in your own behavior as well. Often feelings of emptiness and hopelessness are overwhelming. Routine tasks become impossible, social activities, especially those involving children in the age group of the one who has died, become unbearable and there may be a general withdrawal from "normal" every day living. This too is a phase that will pass. Some ways of helping your child might be to bring over a dinner, share together pictures and happy memories of the child who has died, take a walk together, or simply sit together and cry. As you comfort your son or daughter in this way, you too will be comforted in sharing together the child who is now lost to you both. No matter what changes you see in behaviors, now is not the time to be critical or judgmental. Although there are definite phases of grief, there is no time frame for the length of each phase. Your loving support is the greatest gift you can give at this time. It is also a gift you can receive from others who love you.
The final phase of grief is resolution and reorganization. During this time you will see changes in your son or daughter that you will recognize as healing. You also will feel the healing that has been happening in your life. Energy will return, appetite will be back, interest in those around you and everyday activities will blossom. This does not mean that you have forgotten your loss or that you no longer miss the child who has died. It simply means that you have reached the place in the journey of healing that the pain no longer is the single, strongest force in your or your child’s life. It is a time when your son or daughter will be able to share memories of your grandchild with you and smile, a time when you will feel the close ties that you once felt as a family before your loss. It is a time of hope, a sort of rebirth, for after such a loss you will never be the same again. You will see life differently, have different priorities, and perhaps have a deeper spiritual understanding of life’s meaning. You will carry with you the knowledge that death is a part of life, and the end of the earthly journey. All born to this earth make the journey; it is the length of that journey that remains unknown.
Nothing can ever completely take away the pain of losing a grandchild. The void in your life will always be there. What will change however, is the searing, numbing pain that is so much a part of your life early after the loss. You will be able to speak of your grandchild with a smile, go to familiar places and be comforted by happy memories rather than wounded by the knowledge that you will never visit that spot together again. You will find yourself reaching out to others as others reached out to you to assist you in your grief. You will become a comforter instead of the comforted. No one can say when or how long, but one day the world will seem brighter, you will feel the healing warmth of the sun on your back and feel that it is a good day to be alive. You will think of the grandchild you lost and count yourself blessed for that child’s presence in your life, no matter how short that time was. You will have become a seasoned traveler on the road to healing grief and although you would never have chosen the path you were forced to take through loss, you will know the satisfaction of having the courage to face your loss and perseverance to heal your grief.