By Margaret Gerner
In our involvement in the grief over the death of our child, we fail to realize that grandparents also grieve. Although not in the same way or to the same extent we do, they do grieve. Their grief is two-sided, one for the child who is dear to them and the other from their own child who is suffering.
Just as the parent does, the grandparent loses their future. One of the joys of the grand-parenthood is the knowledge that through grandchildren they achieve immortality. It is expected that their name will be carried on through them. At the death of their grandchild, that branch of their family tree is cut off. What should have been will not be. In cases of an only child, there will be no future generation. Just as for the parent, the family of the grandparent will never be complete again. They, too, feel the empty place at family gatherings.
Feelings of guilt can be strong for the grandparents. Survival guilt is the strongest. It is never expected that a grandparent will live longer than the grandchild. Grandparents usually feel that they have lived a long and full life. The dead child was denied that. “Why not me” is a phrase most have uttered. The fact that they are still alive while a young child or young adult is dead is difficult for many to bear.
Grandparents feel angry just as parents do. They can be angry with God for taking the child, or even for not taking them. They can be angry at the doctors or nurses, feeling that they didn’t do enough for the child. They can be angry at the person they feel is responsible for the child’s death.
Sometimes the death of a grandchild brings back memories of their own child who has died in the past. This can be a painful revival of the grief they felt was over or that they had buried. This is a fairly common experience for grandparents since the deaths of children occurred more often before the days of advanced medical technology.
In addition to the grief over the death of their grandchild, there is the sadness and pain of seeing their own child in such torment. Seeing one’s child in pain and being able to ease that pain is extremely difficult for grandparents and leaves them with feelings of helplessness and frustration.
Many try to take over necessary tasks, such as cooking or caring for surviving siblings. These chores may seem so mundane to grandparents that they do not perceive themselves as being helpful to their suffering child. If grandparents are sick or incapacitated and cannot be of help to their child, they may feel guilt. In today’s mobile society, many times grandparents must travel great distances to be with their child. If that travel is not possible, this can also be a source of guilt.
Many times grandparents feel that by not showing their grief they are providing physical and emotional strength for their child. This is a mistake. Suppressing their grief can be as damaging for grandparents as it is for parents. This can lead to grief and create problems for the grandparents. In addition, this may be seen by the bereaved parent as a lack of concern.
We bereaved parents must consider the needs of the grandparents and at the same time be open and honest with them about our needs. We must let them know how they can help us, but at the same time we are aware that they, too, need help. Mutual sharing of feelings between bereaved parents and grandparents will be helpful to both in the recovery process. The sharing not only of painful feelings but also happy memories of the child with grandparents can be helpful to both, and it can also create a deeper relationship in the family.
Reprinted from The Compassionate Friends Newsletter, Orange coast Chapter, 7-95