Common Grief Reactions
“Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised and reshaped.”1
Grief is a normal reaction to loss. Many things determine how you grieve. Not experiencing every emotion we read about does not mean there is something wrong with us. We are all individuals in our personalities, experiences, ways of coping and grief time-lines. Your feelings may be similar to many other grandparents. At the same time, your grief and feelings will be uniquely yours.
Noticing your own reactions
When a child dies, grandparents may feel a range of emotions and, like other members of their family, they hurt and suffer. With so much attention on the grieving parents however, you may find yourselves forgotten. It is helpful to acknowledge the intensity and the range of reactions you experience. You too will need understanding and information. You may have shared a special bond with your grandchild. You may experience the loss of your dreams and hopes for your grandchild’s future.
Grief involves a range of emotions such as sadness, regret and anger. Grandparents may feel regret that they did not spend a lot of time with their grandchild. They may feel guilt that their grandchild died before them. Grandparents may also be concurrently experiencing changes relating to their stage of life such as retirement, ill health, and death of friends and family. These may compound the grief experience when a grandchild dies.
If possible allow yourself to talk about your feelings with your partner, family and friends. Allow yourself to grieve; you have experienced a loss also. Your dreams and expectations for your grandchild were every bit as real as those dreamed by the baby’s parents.
It is not the natural order of things to bury your grandchild, allow yourself to feel the unfairness of your grandchild’s death. It is unfair.
The tool we use when grieving is memories. Perhaps your children have some photos you may be able to copy. The pain you feel is your pain, your partner will have similar, yet different feelings. Each individual grieves differently and men and women grieve differently. Communication will help with these differences. This also applies to your children.
Some typical grief reactions are:
DENIAL - This is a protective mechanism that cushions the mental blow of hearing your grandchild is dead.
SHOCK - Along with denial comes shock that sets in almost immediately. The thought that your grandchild is dead is almost impossible to face, so your mind attempts to shut off that reality. Shock can make us feel numb to the pain for a time.
SLEEP PROBLEMS – Most bereaved grandparents have difficulty sleeping for a time. Warm milk or a bath before bed, reading or using relaxation tapes, keeping a notebook by the bed to write out feelings and thoughts when you can’t sleep might help. It is important to accept that this is normal and temporary, and that the rest you get by lying quietly can be almost as helpful as sleep.
APPETITE – Adequate sleep and good nutrition are especially important for you because you are older. Grandparents often do not have the same physical resilience that your bereaved children have.
CONSTANT THOUGHTS – It is not uncommon to be constantly thinking about your grandchild and the death and your bereaved child, especially in the early weeks. This is not ‘dwelling’ on painful thoughts. Rather this is one way of sorting out what has happened and will lessen as you begin to heal.
TELLING AND RE-TELLING - Talking about your grandchild, your feelings and the death is most important. You may find that some friends are uncomfortable listening to your pain. The challenge is to find someone to listen to you.
Some grandparents find talking into a tape recorder helps. Others write to their grandchild who died, saying goodbye and sharing their feelings. However you do it, remember, talking is essential!
CRYING – Crying can help to release emotions but many of us have been brought up with the idea that tears are a sign of weakness. Remember, crying is not ‘breaking down’. Rather it is a gentle melting that lets the pain flow out of you.
INABILITY TO CONCENTRATE – This is a very normal and temporary reaction to grief.
ANGER – Most people feel angry after a death, even if the anger is not always rational. You may be angry at God, life, the doctor or any person you hold responsible for your grandchild’s death. You may even feel angry at your grandchild for dying.
GUILT - Almost every grieving person experiences guilt. It takes time and work to get through guilt. Guilt is often not logical. Ask yourself if you did the best you could with the knowledge, tools and abilities you had at the time. You may need to do this over and over.
Guilt needs to be talked about. Find a non-judgmental person to talk to in order to resolve your guilt. If this is hard for you, you might like to write out your guilt in a journal or letter. Talk to yourself, talk out what has happened.
Guilt is unproductive – it accomplishes nothing to punish yourself for the rest of your life for something you cannot change. Rather, you need all your energy to help yourself and your bereaved children get through grief.
Recognize that forgiveness (of oneself and others) is a vital part of the healing process.
“I found myself in a shopping centre. I became totally unaware of where I was – totally panic stricken. This happened at the oddest times and places. It would just creep up on me. It helped to know that this was a normal response to grief.”2
ISOLATION - Grief is an intense and personal experience. Every one grieves differently and at times you may feel isolated, lonely, misunderstood or unrecognised with your own grief. Different grieving experiences may also create conflict within relationships. Many grandparents may also live a distance from their children and understandably want to be there for them but it may be difficult for the family to have you stay immediately after the death of their child.
Managing the isolation
Bereaved grandparents are sometimes referred to as forgotten mourners. People may think that since it is not your child that died, the pain must be less intense. And because grandparents have more life experience, they are often assumed to have better skills for coping with tragedy. It is therefore not surprising that you may often feel isolated and misunderstood in your grief experience.
You may find yourself questioning how legitimate your pain is compared to the pain of the parents of your deceased grandchildren. You may believe there is no ‘place’ for your own mourning. Feeling like an ‘invisible’ griever can cause vagueness concerning what you are expected to be and how you should cope.
“The support group experience was so important to me because people validated my grief.”2
“There is nowhere else that I can speak of my grief over the death of my grandson.”2
Bereaved parents often cannot carry the additional weight of their own parent’s grief, so they may become more distant. You in turn may find it difficult to cope with the grief of your children, and so you may become silent. Often it is hard to find a way to support each other or speak of your grandchild or of your own pain.
“I can speak to you [another grandfather in the group], I can’t speak about this to anyone else, a grandfather is different.”2
“I used to be the head of the family. Since the death of my grandchild, I am no longer the head. Now I just get in the way.”2
The loss of a grandchild often results in numerous secondary losses. These can include the loss of support and connection, the ability to nurture and provide enjoyment, and the loss of a cherished role.
This may also arouse feelings of isolation and distance from your grieving child.
“I have begun to understand my daughter. I thought that I am the mother and she must come to me for help, but she distanced herself from me. Now I understand that she needed her space as I needed mine.”2
“I understand their pain [the parents]. They are trying to cope and we sometimes interfere. I am less angry and hurt by this now.”2
When a precious grandchild dies, it is quite common for sadness, grief, or anxiety to emerge at some point. While it might seem like depression, grief is actually quite different. Grief is marked by distress over the loss of another, and yet it may feel so overwhelming to bereaved grandparents that they fear they are going crazy.
Bereaved grandparents may experience additional stress, worrying about the emotional and mental wellbeing of their own child who is grieving. Friends too may voice their concern in this respect, and this can burden you further.
Feeling depressed and occasional thoughts of suicide are not abnormal when experiencing intense grief. Professional support and counselling may be helpful if these thoughts persist. In fact, counselling can often provide the most helpful support when you are grieving.
Your body grieves too.
The stress of grief can make enormous claims on your physical health. Physical problems such as weakness, fatigue, infection, colds, stomach problems, increased blood pressure and headaches are common to bereaved grandparents.
Be sure your physician knows you are grieving and understands that grief is normal. Remember that grief is a part of life, not a pathological or emotional illness.
Last reviewed: 29/11/23
- Extract from Ericsson, Stephanie. (1993). Companion Through the Darkness: Inner Dialogues on Grief. HarperPerennial, New York.
- Quote from participants of a series of Bereaved grandparent workshops held in 2015 at Red Nose Grief and Loss, Malvern, Victoria, and SIDS and Kids offices, Australia.