Grieving Grandparents

When a grandchild dies, as a grandparent, you are doing all you can to help your grieving child. But, you are grieving, too. Nadine Galinsky shares insight that will help grandparents give themselves permission to grieve as she shares positive coping strategies that will help you as you travel your own grief journey.

by Nadine Galinsky

Grandparents are masters of unconditional love. They are the ones we turn to when we have dreams to share or problems that need fixing. They know all the funny stories about Mom and Dad when they were children. As children, we are convinced that grandparents are all-knowing, wise and invincible.

If you are a grandparent whose grandchild has died, though, you know better.

All your wisdom and considerable experience could never prepare you for this. Nothing you say can console your grieving child, who is facing a parent's worst nightmare. And you, who have been a pillar of support for your family, struggle to hold your family together while your own pain overwhelms you. Yet friends and family often focus solely on the bereaved parents, leaving you virtually alone in your grief.

You're important, too

As a grandparent, you've spent decades caring for others, so it may be tempting to ignore your own needs. Grief, however, is exhausting on all levels. You may feel selfish by taking time to replenish yourself, but by doing so, you will protect your health and ultimately have more to give.

Allow yourself to acknowledge and express your feelings. Many grandparents feel inhibited about sharing their grief within the family. I'll never forget the grandmother I met in a restroom while attending a memorial service. Wanting to be "strong" for daughter, she had slipped away to shed tears alone. How sad that she felt she had to bear this pain privately. In most cases, the bereaved parents actually feel better when they see the grandparents express themselves, because then they can feel more comfortable with expressing their own feelings.

If sharing your feelings in the family is too uncomfortable for you or for other family members, then be willing to reach out for outside support. This could include a member of the clergy, a therapist, or a loving friend. Major support groups such as The Compassionate Friends welcome grandparents. If you are unsure of what is available in your hometown, call the nearest hospital and ask the social worker or chaplain. Your funeral home may also be able to assist you.

It may also be helpful to remember that any death is painful. No matter who died, your child would grieve. Know that your presence provides comfort and support to your family, who will often turn to you for help. You are valued and needed.

Take care of the basics as best you can: adequate rest, healthful food, and moderate exercise if you are physically able. If you notice physical symptoms such as chest pains or shortness of breath, make sure you have them checked out. Symptoms such as these are normal during grief, but could also indicate a serious medical condition, so don't write them off as "just" grief.

If you're a busy person, as many grandparents are, you may not believe you have time to grieve. Consider scheduling a "grief date" with yourself, just as you would any other appointment. During that time, do something nurturing for yourself; play music that moves you, write in a journal, light candles, and/or take a soothing bath. As feelings arise, allow them. Shed the tears, and scream if you need to.

One of the hardest things for us to do when we are grieving is to ask for help. We discover, painfully that not all of our friends are able to help us. However, some will, and are only waiting for you to tell them what you need. They may be afraid to bring the subject up because they don't want to upset you.

Talk about it

You may hesitate to bring up your grandchild's name, because you don't want to upset your grieving son or daughter. If he or she begins to cry when you mention your grandchild, those tears were already there. Allow the tears to come, because they will help, not hinder, the process. Sharing special memories keeps your grandchild's spirit alive.

Holidays or special family occasions may be particularly difficult; cards or calls on those days can be helpful. The bereaved parents may continue to observe the child's birthday. This can be a time for celebrating the life of the child who left too soon. Also, make a special point to call or visit the bereaved parents on the anniversary of the child's death.

There may be times when you say the "wrong" thing. Everyone's needs are different, and you may find that no words of comfort, no matter how carefully chosen, will help. Remember that other family members are immersed in their own grief, and may not even hear what you said accurately.

If you do say something that upsets your bereaved child, remember to be gentle and forgiving of yourself. Often, their upset is not about you, but about the pain of the loss. They may at times lash out at you because they don't know how to express their anger any other way. This makes your need for support double important, so you will understand that this is not a personal attack. Always keep yourself safe, however, and if you fear abuse of any kind, you may need to physically withdraw.

Focus on words like, "I'm sorry," or just be silent and listen. Avoid trying to cheer up the bereaved parents. That only sends the message that they have to hide their pain from you, which will create distance in your relationship.

As grandparents, you may be called upon to soothe you living grandchildren, some of whom may be very young. You may, for a time, become very involved in day-to-day parenting while the bereaved parents begin the process of healing. This is where your experience with children can really shine. By allowing your living grandchildren to express themselves openly and in ways appropriate to their age, you have the opportunity to teach them a great deal about grief, as well as to provide tremendous comfort. Even very young children grieve, and they may revisit their grief as they grow older and find themselves more able to express it verbally.

One grandmother shared a story about her young grandchild who, upon the death of her sister, reported seeing and speaking with deceased relatives. She talked a lot about death, even though she didn't seem to understand what death was. The grandmother just encouraged her to say whatever she needed to, because she knew that her granddaughter was exploring death and trying to understand it.

Avoid the traps

The bereaved parents and his/her spouse may find themselves grieving differently, and this can, at times, put strain on even the best marriage. You may be tempted to get involved, because you naturally want to protect your child from pain. Unfortunately, this can often backfire. Encourage your child to talk to his or her spouse, or to seek counseling if the situation is particularly difficult. Offer love and support, but allow the bereaved parents to find their own ways of healing their strained marriage.

You may also be surprised to find yourself grieving differently from your spouse. One grandmother was shocked to discover that after nearly 50 years of marriage to her best friend, communication shut down when she mentioned the grandchild who died.  Men and women often grieve differently, and you may find it helpful to know that if your spouse won't talk to you about the death or share feelings with you, this is not something to take personally. Chances are your spouse is trying to protect your feelings. If you feel unable to share your grief with your spouse, then once again, consider seeking outside support so that you can express your grief in the way that works best for you, and allow your spouse to do the same.

Some grandparents are prescribed tranquilizers or antidepressants after the death of a grandchild. While the decision of whether or not to medicate must be yours, be aware that even if you have lived long enough to become a grandparent without becoming addicted to alcohol or other drugs, you are still at risk. Make sure you are educated about the potential side effects of any drugs you are prescribed.

Remember, this is normal

All of the feelings that come with grief are a normal part of the process. Allow yourself time to heal. We all have in our minds a time frame, after which we think there's something wring with us if we're not feeling better. Again, be gentle with yourself. The death of a child is a death out of the order of things, and no grandparent ever expects to outlive a grandchild.

Some grieving grandparents, once they have had some time to process their grief, have begun to reach out to other grandparents. You can go online and look for chat groups by googling grieving grandparent groups and chat lines. The death of a grandchild is one of the most difficult losses you will ever have to bear. It is my hope that you are able to find the support, comfort and encouragement you and your family need and deserve.

Nadine Galinsky (Grieving Grandparents)–who has lost two children of her own–is the author of When a Grandchild Dies, honoring the unique grief of grandparents. Nadine is a writer and speaker, living in Texas.


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