Grandparents’ Grief is Unique
‘My grief, unique to me, but oh how unfortunately common.
I used to think about the legacy I was leaving my grandchildren when I died, what would they remember about me? I never thought I would have to remember them.
The hopelessness, the frustration, the rage I felt, that not one but two of my grandchildren had died before I got to know them and just as important, before they got to know me. How unfair of life to cause my beloved daughter and son-in-law so much hurt after the expectation of so much joy, terminating in heartbreak.
What could I do, what could I say, no words could heal the pain, but I needed to show somehow that I too grieved for and loved those my daughter and son-in-law had buried.
I have donated a plaque at our place of worship, I make an annual donation to the Treasured Babies’ Program in the names of Jake and Jonathan, I have donated books in their names at my Bridge Club. Has this helped, no not really, but it’s something.
Every year is another year I might get to see them again in a better place, this I have to believe.’
Written by Margaret, bereaved Nanna of Jake and Jonathan.
The death of a beloved grandchild is one of the hardest things a grandparent ever has to face. Your natural hopes and dreams for the future have been shattered and you have been faced with an almost unbearable tragedy. Grandparents expect that they will love and enjoy their grandchildren: the natural order is that they will die before their own children – and certainly before their grandchildren.
“When a baby or child dies it has an impact on the whole family. There is often a lot of attention on the grieving parents, who are the primary grievers and grandparents may find themselves forgotten at times.”1
“Not only could I not take away my daughter’s pain at the death of her 2 year old daughter, but I was also devastated by my own grief at the loss of my precious granddaughter.”2
Experiencing your own grief whilst simultaneously aiding your bereaved adult child characterises grandparents’ grief. Living with your own feelings whilst having to witness the torment and intense sorrow your own son or daughter are enduring -can be overwhelming.
Grandparents’ Grief: a Multi-layered Blow
When a grandchild dies, grandparents experience a dual sorrow. They cry for their lost grandchild and they also cry for the terrible grief they see their own child having to bear. This pain is something you cannot take away. This can be difficult to accept because as a parent you expect (and desperately want) to be able to take away your child’s pain.
A grandparent’s grief is like a fork in the road, going in two different directions. One road represents the loss of your grandchild and the other represents the pain of seeing your child suffer. Therefore, you have two tasks. The first is to work through your own grief and the other is to feel helpful to your bereaved child. There may be two parts, but you actually deal with them at the same time.
‘You grieve for your grandchild, you grieve for your adult child and you grieve for yourself. You may feel a loss or challenge to your own identity: at a time of life where there is an expectation of ‘settling’ into a grandparent role, suddenly you are faced with the inimitable task of being a parent wanting to support and protect your grieving adult child as the whole family navigates this upheaval that impacts all generations”.. 2
The one thing that would help your child feel better – to have their child back – is impossible. It is natural for you to feel useless, ineffective and hopeless.
‘As a mother and grandmother, there is nothing worse than watching your daughter carrying a casket containing a child that she grew inside of her. I was aware she had no strength to complete the task, and, as she stumbled repeatedly, I knew there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could be done to help her pain.’2 Mother of Marion and grandmother of Steve II, Marion & Steve’s stillborn son.
Marilyn’s twin grandchild, conceived by IVF, died at 36 weeks gestation. She speaks of the simultaneous experience of grieving the death of one child while celebrating the birth of another and how the mixed emotions were overwhelming and confusing. With the whole family in acute grief, Marilyn recounted:
“I couldn’t do anything. I felt useless and helpless. I didn’t know how to comfort my daughter and felt I couldn’t say what she wanted or needed. My heart was breaking because I couldn’t do anything. I’d go home and cry. I couldn’t stop her crying and I was crying. I realized I needed support too. I was lost. I was going in a daze, then I was connected to the SIDS and Kids Support group and we all shared that the hardest part was not being able to help our children and feeling useless.”
Last reviewed: 27/9/23
- Quote from participants of a series of Bereaved grandparent workshops held in 2015 at Red Nose Grief and Loss, Malvern, Victoria, and Red Nose Grief and Loss offices, Australia.
- Extract from Flores, Marion J. (2010). He changed our world. In Janel C. Atlas (Ed.)They were Still Born (pp 37-44). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield