Pink ground roses with yellow centers surrounded by green leaves
Pink Ground Roses

A Grandparent’s Grief

Even though this house hasn’t been hers for at least five years, my grandma’s old house still awakens memories deep inside of me.

I remember the family dinners and her tiny cocker spaniel. Most of my fondest childhood memories are from my grandma’s old house.

Dylan Brown, My Forever Son
Tiny cocker spaniel puppy beside a stone wall. Gold-colored fur with white chest and white line in the middle of its forehead. puppy's head is tilted to the left. floppy puppy ears and puppy paws

The Family Table

I was with my mother when she purchased the sturdy, long, pine table. With two leaves, one for each end of the table, this table would be big enough for our small, close-knit family. My sister and her family, including her two children, plus my parents, plus room now for both Dylan and me.

A pretty, southwestern style, fabric-covered bench provided room enough for three grandchildren on one side of the long table. My parents sat at the ends of the table, and my sister, brother-in-law, and I sat in chairs aligned to our corresponding child (or children in my sister’s case) across the table. Dylan sat on the bench closest to his grandmother, and I sat across the table from Dylan, closest to my mother.

Pizza night, all of our holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter), summer picnic-style food get-togethers, New Year’s Day celebrations, elaborate formal dinners, and casual grab-a-plate-and-a-burger: our family’s everything happened at this table.

Homework when Dylan spent time with Grandma while I was teaching a late class, birthday galas through the years, special occasions when great-grandma was still here: all happy times, take-it-for-granted times. We laughed, relaxed, and enjoyed good food and family. Later, we would play card and board games on the table. This table. This family of ours. These then our children. Dylan my child. Dylan belonging to all of us.

A Double Loss

As a mother, I know the pain of losing my son. As Dylan’s grandmother, my mother knows the pain both of losing a grandchild and the pain of witnessing my grief in losing Dylan. As I write, it’s now been a decade of grief, and while I have come so far from those desparate days of not wanting to be here without my son, I am forever changed.

I have learned to move forward with my grief, carrying my son always wherever I am and wherever I go. But I bear the weight of having lost my son and my mother sees and knows this in me. She bears the weight of a double loss: a great and infinite grief in losing her grandson, and a deep, abiding grief in watching me change so much this past decade.

A Special Bond

In grieving twice, grandparents also grieve what might have been.

The relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild is very special and unique. When a grandchild dies, the grief associated with the loss is often so intense and painful, it leaves bereaved grandparents feeling hopeless as they experience what many refer to as a double loss. Not only do they mourn for their grandchild, they may also feel a sense of helplessness because they are unable to take away the pain felt by the parents of their grandchild, one of whom is their own child.

The Grief of Grandparents, The Compassionate Friends

And in so many ways, their connections change. Those who have not lost a grandchild talk easily and well about how proud they are of their grandchild, what he or she is doing, the trials and tribulations in their grandchildren’s lives. In this ordinary world (where the grandchild, by nature, outlives the grandparents), a grandparent belongs to the rich tradition and prestige ascribed to them. Grandparents belong both to their grandchild and to all the rest of their community. They share photos and accomplishments of their grandchild. And they feel proud.

How to Help Grieving Grandparents

“When a grandchild dies, grandparents grieve twice. They mourn the loss of the child and they feel the pain of their own child’s suffering. Sometimes we forget about the grandparents when a child dies. You can help by not forgetting, by offering the grandparents your love, support and presence in the weeks and months to come.”

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition

Alan Wolfelt has written several books dealing with a parent’s grief after child loss. He has also written about a grandparent’s grief: Healing a Grandparent’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Grandchild Dies.

Wolfelt offers suggestions about how to help grandparents who are grieving the loss of their grandchild:

Realize that a grandparent’s grief is unique.

When a grandchild dies, the grandparent often mourns the death on many levels. The grandparent probably loved the child dearly and may have been very close to him or her. The death has created a hole in the grandparent’s life that cannot be filled by anyone else. Grandparents who were not close to the child who died, perhaps because they lived far away, may instead mourn the loss of a relationship they never had.

Grieving grandparents are also faced with witnessing their child-the parent of the child who died-mourn the death. A parent’s love for a child is perhaps the strongest of all human bonds. For the parents of the child who died, the pain of grief may seem intolerable. For the grandparents, watching their own child suffer so and feeling powerless to take away the hurt can feel almost as intolerable.

Acknowledge the grandparent’s search for meaning.

When someone loved dies, we all ponder the meaning of life and death. When a child or young adult dies, this search for meaning can be especially painful. Young people aren’t supposed to die. The death violates the natural order of life and seems terribly unfair.

For grandparents, who may have lived long, rich lives already, the struggle to understand the death may bring about feelings of guilt. “Why didn’t God take me, instead?” the grandparent may ask himself. “Why couldn’t it have been me?”

Such feelings are both normal and necessary. You can help by encouraging the grandparent to talk about them.

Respect faith and spirituality.

Many people develop strong commitments to faith and spirituality as they get older. If you allow them, grieving grandparents will “teach you” about the role of faith and spirituality in their lives. Encourage them to express their faith if doing so helps them heal in grief.

Sometimes, however, faith can naturally complicate healing. The grandparent may feel angry at God for “taking” the grandchild. He then may feel guilty about his anger, because, he may reason, God is not to be questioned. Or the grandparent may struggle with feelings of doubt about God’s plan or the afterlife.

Talking with a pastor may help the grandparent, as long as the pastor allows the grandparent to honestly express her feelings of anger, guilt and sadness. No one should tell a grandparent that she shouldn’t grieve because the child has gone to heaven; mourning and having faith are not mutually exclusive.

Listen with your heart.

You can begin to help by simply listening. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that are being shared with you.

The grieving grandparent may want to share the same story about the death over and over again. It’s as if talking about the death makes it a little more bearable each time. Listen attentively. Realize that this repetition is part of the grandparent’s healing process. Simply listen and try to understand.

Sometimes grandparents, especially grandfathers, don’t want to talk about the death. They may have been raised to believe that talking about feelings is frivolous or selfish or unmanly. It’s OK; they don’t have to talk. Simply spending time with them demonstrates your love and concern.

Be compassionate.

Give the grandparent permission to express her feelings without fear of criticism. Learn from the granparent; don’t instruct or set expectations about she should respond. Never say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Think about your helper role as someone who “walks with” not “behind” or “in front of” the grieving grandparent.

Allow the grandparent to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he is feeling at the time. Enter into his feelings, but never try to take them away. And recognize that tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with the death.

Avoid clichés.

Offer practical help.

Write a personal note.

Be aware of holidays and other significant days.

“When a grandchild dies, grandparents grieve twice. They mourn the loss of the child and they feel the pain of their own child’s suffering. Sometimes we forget about the grandparents when a child dies. You can help by not forgetting, by offering the grandparents your love, support and presence in the weeks and months to come.”

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition

Out of Order

Grandparents who outlast a grandchild struggle with a death that seems out of order; they may cope with survival guilt, perhaps wondering why they couldn’t have died instead. Moreover, a grandchild’s death chips away at a grandparent’s assumed legacy.

Most of us hope to make a mark in the world, and the achievements of our children and grandchildren are a part of that dream. When one dies prematurely, that loss resonates through the generations, and like the bell in John Donne’s poem – “it tolls for thee.”

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT, Working through the Grief of Grandparents
Image

The Family Table

Even though this house hasn’t been hers for at least five years, my grandma’s old house still awakens memories deep inside of me. I remember walking to her house after elementary school and riding my bike over to play computer games. I remember the family dinners and her tiny cocker spaniel. Most of my fondest childhood memories are from my grandma’s old house.

Dylan Andrew Brown, My Forever Son

Our family’s table is now my own. The beautiful memories are all still there, interwoven in the stories we continue to tell about Dylan, his growing up years, the happier times–when we were all one.

We will be one again–someday–and inbetween the stretch of here and wherever forever is, I find comfort in the familiar table and chairs. But the bench? Well, my sister’s children are grown, and I just haven’t had the heart to use the bench as it always was at our table. I’ve repurposed it, tucked it against a wall where still it’s practical, a good place to sit and a good place to set groceries and what not.

But sometimes when I look, I still see Dylan, all his growing up years, all when we, as a family, were one.

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