by Leah Dobkin
His animalistic howl shredded my soul, and literally brought me to my knees when I told my father that his 19-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Rose, had died. It’s been six years since her death. Life for our family was initially like a perpetual roller coaster inside a tornado within a tsunami. With a handful of years behind this tragedy, I am able to reflect what was helpful during that turbulent time.
Grief is messy. We don’t do grief well in our culture. We don’t understand the nature and process of grief. Grandparents’ grief, in particular, is often invisible and lonely. It’s a triple tragedy because grandparents grieve for their deceased grandchild, for themselves, and for their adult child’s unfathomable parental pain that they cannot “make better.”
Societal assumptions aggravate this triple tragedy. “Culturally, we often assume that a parent or grandparents grief is, or should be, time-limited,” says Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, Director, Graduate Certificate in Trauma and Bereavement at Arizona State University and the founder of the MISS Foundation, an international organization that aids families whose babies and children have died or are dying. She explains that grief symptoms are persistent for many parents and grandparents because of the very intense and complex nature of a child’s death. Society also expects that grandparents have more life experiences, and thus better coping skills to deal with death, and that grandparents have less pain from losing a grandchild since the child is one generation removed. Nothing is further from the truth.
Grandparents tend to have a special bond with their grandchild. Boundless love, unhampered by parental responsibility, and coupled with more free time, allows that relationship to flourish. A grandparent’s sense of legacy, immortality is wrapped-up in that precious child who might even be a namesake. The death of a grandchild unravels all the hopes and dreams a grandparent has for that child, and for the maturing relationship that will never be. The future is ripped away, and grandparents are left with a wounded family and a big gaping hole in their hearts.
Bereaved grandparents often express a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, frustration, anger, and survivor’s guilt. Grandparents expect to predecease their children, and most definitely, their grandchildren. When a grandchild dies, his or her death seems perverse, absurd and unnatural.
Furthermore, bereaved grandparents often feel like their role is to take charge, care for bereaved adult child and keep things going smoothly according to Polly Moore, a regional coordinator for The Compassionate Friends (TCF), an international organization providing support for bereaved families. “Bereaved grandparents are sometimes referred to as “forgotten mourners.” That means there are approximately 160,000 “forgotten mourners” each year who lost grandchildren.*
How to Heal
“Professionals call it grief work for a reason. It is hard and exhausting,” says the late Darci Sims, internationally recognized public speakers on grief (www.griefinc.com). She reminded us the we can’t get over grief, we can only live through it. So, how do you live through it? Here are some bereaved grandparents’ best advice on how to live through the grief.
The Nine Most Important Steps to Heal.
- Accept your emotions. They are not permanently part of you, they go through you. Ride them like a surfer on a wave. Give yourself permission to grieve. Take time out, even if it’s just for a few moments each day to let yourself grieve.
- Express your emotions either by writing, talking to someone (friend, family, grief counselor, support groups such as www.compassionatefriends.org and, or join an online discussion board dedicated to bereaved grandparents at http://missfoundation.org/forums. This step helps you feel less alone and crazy.
- Read about grandparents’ grief such as:
Grandparents Cry Twice, Help for Bereaved Grandparents, Mary Lou Reed
Forgotten Tears: A Grandmother’s Journey Through Grief, Nina Bennett; Grieving Grandparents, Lori Leininger, Sherokee Ilse;
For Bereaved Grandparents, Margaret H. Gerner
Other good sources of information:
- Continue your spiritual relationship with your deceased grandchild. They are dead, not lost. They are a part of who we are. You can’t possibly lose them. They hold us in our darkest hours, and in our dreams.
- Be patient and kind. Accept whatever you feel, or not feel; do or not do. In fact, everything is OK. Don’t compare yourself to others’ grief, or judge yourself or loved ones because everyone grieves differently.
- Don’t hold onto pain because you are afraid you will forget your grandchild. Someday, you will wake up, and remember that the child lived and not just died.
- Honor your grandchild: Some grandparents and parents plant trees. Others start scholarships or family rituals. Honor your grandchild in whatever way feels comfortable to you. The organizations listed in this article offer many meaningful opportunities to honor your grandchild.
- Be prepared for old grief to resurface. Grief linked to another time in your life might resurface, such as a miscarriage long ago, the loss of a parent or spouse. Embrace it all, or it will linger even longer.
- Give yourself a grief break. Visit a friend or a place that nourishes you. You need respite, where you don’t have to be strong for the family.
As much as you want to heal from your grief, your need to be helpful to your adult child and his or hers family, at this critical time, is probably even greater. Here are some suggestions from bereaved parents to help you help them. By helping your adult child, you might help yourself as well.
Ten Helpful Hints to Comfort Your Child
- Allow your adult child to speak the deceased child’s name, to talk about him/her, to tell his/her stories. Parents repeat their stories to help them adjust to their new reality.
- Share your memories and stories about your grandchild.
- Allow your adult child and his/her family to cry and grieve anyway they need to.
- Say, “You’re here for them,” then really be there. Offer practical help i.e. food shopping, time-sensitive errands such as returning a library book, nurture your remaining grandchild or grandchildren.
- Really listen, but allow for silence. A hug is sometimes more powerful than words.
- Anticipate, plan and strategize how best to endure the holidays and milestones with your adult child, especially Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, the birthday and the Anniversary of the death of your grandchild.
- Avoid platitudes such as It’s God’s Will. “She is in a better place.” “At least you have another child.” “God needed another angel in heaven.”
- Don’t say, “I understand,” if you never lost a child. Say, “Help me understand.”
- Don’t put a timetable on grief. There is no timetable.
- Don’t take expressions of anger personally.
- Don’t assume the second year will be easier. It is often more difficult because some of your shock and numbness dissipates, community assistance diminishes and grief sneaks-up on you at unexpected times. Continue your loving, and nonjudgmental support as long as it is needed because, unfortunately, parental grief is a lifetime companion.
Grandparents have to navigate around many emotional land mines after the death of a grandchild. However, there is also an extraordinary opportunity to strengthen family relationships while helping loved ones through theirs and your grief journey. “Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor is it a lack of faith,” said Sims. “Grief is the price you pay for love.”
Leah Dobkin is founder of LegacyLetter.org . To honor her daughter, Hannah Rose, she helps people write “Honor Your Angel” tributes letters and books about deceased loved ones. Ms. Dobkin’s next article will provide information on how to write a “Honor Your Angel Tribute Legacy Letter.”
*Source: “Grandparent Health and Functioning after a Grandchild’s Death.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2936719/
Please note: that this article is talking about grandchildren ages 0-14 years. Including older grandchildren will increase the number of bereaved grandparents.