When Your Grandchild Has Died
There has never been a grandchild born who wasn’t wonderful in the eyes of their grandparents. Grandchildren are a special gift. They are the children of your heart, the children you get to love without having to be responsible for their bedtime or keeping their room clean. When your grandchild has died, you are confronted with the loss of your heart and, at the same time, forced to watch the pain of your son or daughter as they grieve. Your brain and your heart scream, “It’s not supposed to be this way,” “It hurts too much,” and, “It’s not fair.”
Along with the loss of your grandchild, you have lost the opportunity to see your family continue through that child. The special place for that child in the family has been left empty and there is a terrible void.
What are you going to do?
You will need opportunities to talk about the death and the pain. Unfortunately, grandparents may not be recognized as grievers and you will have to seek out people who will hear your story. Telling your story to others will help you work through your grief and make you more able to help your child grieve their child.
Grief is very physical. It saps your energy, affects your appetite, keeps you awake or makes you want to sleep all the time. When you are tired and hungry, every emotional event, like seeing a school bus or hearing children the age of your dead grandchild, will hit you with greater impact. Taking care of your physical self is important: drink plenty of water, eat foods that contain protein and complex carbohydrates to give you some energy. Rest for short periods during the day; get some exercise even if it is only walking for 15 to 20 minutes daily.
Grieving is a complex process of the mind, body and soul. The mind seeks information about what happened as it tries to make sense out of the senseless. The ‘if only’ and ‘I should have’ thoughts can attack at any time and send you sliding into despair as you realize there is nothing you can do to change what has happened. Blame and doubt may become constant companions. Seeking information and talking to others about your ‘should have’ thoughts will help you use your mind to process grief.
You may begin to question your faith and find yourself asking what life is all about. It is normal to reevaluate what has meaning for you and what your values and virtues really are.
Do not avoid your pain with overwork, overplay or try to lessen the pain with drugs or alcohol. These things will only provide temporary relief. The pain will still be present and may be expressed as anger or despair. Use a journal, write a poem, read stories of others’ grief journey, paint a picture, create a story. These are ways to confront your grief and allow yourself to move through the process.
Create rituals to help you celebrate your grandchild. Other family members may help you think of ways to commemorate this child of your heart. Establishing a scholarship, donating toys or books, building a playground or planting a tree are all ways to share your grandchild’s life with others.
How long does grief last?
Grief lasts far longer than anyone expects. There are not time frames for grieving, although many may think you should be over it quickly. Everyone will grieve in their own way and their own time. Men, especially, may be tempted to be strong and not express their feelings. Different situations also affect grief: how the child died, your experience with grief in the past, the relationship you had with the child and your own physical well-being are just a few. It is also important to remember that your own pain is compounded by wanting to help your own son or daughter cope with their pain. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone has their own grieving and coping style. Each person in the family has a special relationship with your grandchild and will grieve differently because of it.
You will not get over the death of your grandchild, but you can learn to live and enjoy life again. There will always be moments of pain and sorrow as you remember the birthday, the anniversary of the death and as you mark the passing events you planned to share with your grandchild. Be prepared for these moments of grief and do not be alarmed as they continue throughout your life. The times of grief are also times to tell the story of this child. How you looked forward to them coming, what you hoped their life would be like, memories you have of seeing them and doing things with them. Grandparents do not stop loving a child because that child has died.
What about your relationship with your adult child who is grieving?
Remember when you could kiss it and make it better? You cannot do that now and nothing is harder than seeing your child in pain that you cannot control. This need to cure your child’s pain may tempt you to provide your child with unsolicited advice. It may also tempt you to encourage them to bury their pain or to somehow communicate to them that enough time and tears have passed. The best gifts you can give at this time are your ears and time to listen. Listen without judgment or advice. Your ability to do this can bring a deepening of the relationship between you and your child. Remember that each person and relationship is different and your child may not wish to talk with you. If this is the case, consider that your child may be trying to protect you, so just offer to be there and accept whatever they are willing to share. Do not try to force the issue.
Be willing to talk about your grandchild with your child. If the tears come, that’s okay. Tears, especially, can be very healing.
Grief is the price people pay for loving someone and you never have to apologize for that. You may both find it helpful to talk with someone who also loved the child. This is a way that you can add to your memories as you begin to transform your relationship with your grandchild from one of presence to one of memory.
What about the other children?
Children are often the forgotten grievers in a family. They are experiencing many of the same things you are, so share your thoughts and tears with them. Crying together can be a healing experience. You cannot protect them from the realities of grief, so keep communications open. Make sure your other grandchildren know they are loved and included in family decisions and rituals so they do not feel abandoned by you and the child who has died. These children need to understand their unique place in your heart and be helped to understand they do not need to try to fill the place of the child who died. They need to know they are special to you, too.
Love never ends. It lives on forever in your heart.