The grandparent-grandchild relationship is very special. When a grandchild dies, the grief of grandparents is complicated because not only do they mourn for their grandchild, but they also feel the helplessness of not being able to take away the pain felt so intensely by the parents of their grandchild, one of whom is their own child. Both parents and grandparents have lost a part of their future.
Grief Is Individual
As with parents, grandparents often grieve differently from each other, and this difference may create a strain in their relationship. This does not mean one is right and the other is wrong. There is no one right way to grieve. Communication with each other remains critical. Knowing what to expect during grief may help bereaved grandparents as they grieve, as they try to understand their child’s grief, and as healing slowly occurs for all.
There are many elements to grief. But because grief is not necessarily ordered or rational, there is no logic or pattern to how it is experienced. However, when a grandchild dies, most grandparents feel a protective numbness in the beginning. Even though they may know their loved one has died, their minds want to deny it and the numbness allows this. They may find themselves talking to and about the grandchild as if he or she were still alive. They may “see” the child somewhere, only to realize it is another child. Denial of the death gradually disappears as grandparents realize that all are vulnerable to loss. The ache in their heart can become a nearly constant companion.
As denial lessens, grandparents feel much hurt and frustration. This can lead to anger directed inward and toward others. It may be focused on the spouse or even on the dead child. Their own grief-stricken children, whose pain they share, may become the object of their anger. They often are angry with themselves for not being able to stop the injustice that has devastated the family; they may feel anger with God.
Guilt, real or imagined, is always there, with the recurring “What if . . . ?” and “Why didn’t I . . . ?” As grandparents try to resolve their guilt feelings, anger often returns in full force.
Because grandparents love their children, they often are torn between this love and the fear of loving too much, lest they then lose a child or another grandchild. Grief over a death long past may resurface. Often, as in the multiple losses that may occur from an accident, the grandparents are grieving not only the loss of a grandchild, but also the death of a child in the same tragedy. Guilt may occur because the grandparents live on, while the young ones died.
Some depression is a normal part of the grieving process. Yet it may be so overwhelming to bereaved grandparents that they fear they are going crazy. Bereaved grandparents also worry about sanity and depression in their grieving child. Friends may burden them further by voicing their concern in this respect. Occasional thoughts of suicide are not abnormal when experiencing intense grief, but a focus on this aspect indicates professional counselling is needed.
Time Is a Slow Healer
The passage of time alone does not provide healing. How that time is used is what makes the difference. During grief, which lasts much longer than society wants to admit; talking with those who have had the same experience is useful. Grandparents may assist other grandparents in this respect. Some find help in reading about grief and the experiences of others, particularly grandparents. They may be aided in helping their children by reading about parental grief itself. Some draw comfort and strength from their religious faith, although that faith may be severely tested. Self-help groups, such as The Compassionate Friends, can provide needed support.
Those acquainted with grief speak of “grief work” and this is fitting, for grieving takes energy. Those who grieve are tired much of the time. Oftentimes today’s grandfather was raised in a home where tradition held that even after the death of a loved one, men didn’t cry. Men may not give in to tears, instead believing they must maintain composure to properly support their wives and children in their grief work. A grandmother, being the matriarch of the family, may try to suppress her own grief, also in order to support others within the family. Studies have shown the healing power of tears, and crying should not be suppressed as this is a natural part of the grieving process.
Resolution and Reorganisation
Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of grief is the question that grandparents continually face: “Why?” Friends try to comfort with answers. But for the bereaved, no satisfactory answer exists. Thus, grandparents must finally accept the unacceptable. This does not mean that they understand why death struck, or that they are forgetting the dead grandchild. So often bereaved grandparents and parents are told that they “must get back to normal.” But what is now normal for them will never be the same as it was before the child’s death. Life without that child must go on, and as healing occurs, it will.
Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, including the anniversary of the child’s death, may be stressful times. Allow time and space for your own emotional needs. A deeper appreciation will grow for those children and grandchildren who survive. A greater understanding of others who experience similar loss will emerge. Many grandparents and parents become more compassionate because of the tragic event that has touched their lives. Healing will help the bereaved accept the new understanding that has been forced upon them.
Love Remains as Healing Occurs
Grief is the price we pay for loving. Grandparents love both the grandchild who died and the grieving parents. As grandparents grieve and try to understand and support the parents, healing will take place. Just as love remains and will never leave, time will bring healing. Though they retain hidden scars, grandparents will recall the happy times they once shared with their children and their grandchild, and not just the tragedy and sense of loss they have come to know.