By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
There is no bond greater than
the bond between parent and child. When a child dies, the pain of
parental loss is near the top of the scale of human grief, and
there is an immediate outpouring of sympathy and concern for the
bereaved parents. But other grieving family members, including
siblings, are often seen as secondary players who must provide
support to the distraught parents. Among these forgotten grievers
are the grandparents.
In many families, the relationships between grandparents and
grandchildren are every bit as profound as those between parents
and their children. The death of a grandchild also ranks high on
the scale of human grief – but it is rarely acknowledged. There are
few books or support groups addressing the grief of grandparents,
and bereavement counselors who specialize in this kind of grief are
rare. Grandparents are usually left to cope as best they can.
When a grandchild dies, the anguish of grandparents is doubled.
Their grief for a son or daughter suffering this tragic loss only
compounds their pain at the loss of a beloved grandchild.
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.”
Many families are fractured by divorce, violence or mere
inattention, and struggling single parents are hard pressed to
provide the consistent and unconditional love that children need.
Grandparents fill the role of the enduring presence, the ones who
are available and who can be depended upon for affection and
support. The deep, nurturing love shared by many children and their
grandparents is a bond that is extraordinarily painful when broken
by death. It is a grief out-of-sight, but nonetheless powerful.
If you are a grandparent who has lost a grandchild, you have every
reason to grieve deeply. Life is complex, and many of our
fundamental questions have no apparent answer: Why do such bad
things happen? What is the meaning of such pain? For now, your task
is to mourn the death of this child and to take care of yourself as
best as you can. If you want help, look for a book that addresses
parental grief and substitute “grandparent” as you read. Perhaps
your local hospice, faith community or mental health center has a
support group for grieving grandparents. If not, ask them start
one. There may be other grieving grandparents among your friends
and neighbors, and you can share your common grief and mutual
Above all, be patient with yourself, and:
• Don’t try to suppress your grief. Stoicism won’t work.
• Select the relatives or friends who give you comfort, and tell
them how you feel.
• Don’t accept a comparison of your grief to that of others; grief
is unique to each person.
• Take time off from your grief occasionally. Go visit a friend or
take a short vacation at a place that you love.
• The loss of a beloved grandchild is a severe blow, but avoid
thinking that life has no more to offer. Some of the world’s
grandest music and literature were created out of personal tragedy.
Find your own expression of your loss and your search for meaning –
see if you can create your own requiem. It is important that you
find ways to fill the void in your life. The worlds of literature,
music, and art are can be sources of great comfort in a time of
grief. Think of the great works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and
Beethoven; what comfort they can bring! If you have always wanted
to paint, take some classes and dedicate your efforts to the memory
of your grandchild. Sign up as a volunteer for a local hospital or
food bank. Helping others can strengthen the nurturing identity
that has been injured by this death. By putting your pain to work,
the good that comes from it can heal.
When a great loss hits us, we are numbed and life seems meaningless
for a while. But with the passage of time, we again begin to see
that life is still worth living, not just for others but for
ourselves, as well. Just as you loved a grandchild, there are
others – friends, neighbors, and even strangers – who await your
love. For all its cruel twists, this life is still the only one we
are given. You have every right to be a survivor and to make the
most of each day and each year. I suggest you get started
If you or someone you know is grieving, please consider this
35-page guided journal by the American Hospice Foundation:
Your Personal Journey Through Grief: A Guided Road Map Toward
Learning and Healing
The Grief of Grandparents article was originally published on
Hospice Foundation website. © 2004. American Hospice
Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable
How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?
The Physical Stress of Grieving
Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
Helping Children Through Grief
Writing a Condolence Note
You Know You’re Getting Better When...
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Adolescent
Helen Fitzgerald is a
Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include
The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide,
The Mourning Handbook and
The Grieving Teen. She has
appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was
previously the director of training for the American Hospice
Foundation. You can ask Helen a question about dealing with grief
and loss by visiting
Ask Helen on the American Hospice Foundation website.
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