The Grief of Grandparents

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 comfort.

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 today.

The The Grief of Grandparents article was originally published on the American Hospice Foundation website. © 2004. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Related articles:
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.

Photo by vancity197/StockXchng


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Comment by Jerry on November 11, 2012 at 6:40pm

Heaven Last night I dreamed of heaven and oh what beauty rare. I walked inside of heavens gates and guess whose standing there. It was my Lord and savior with his arms stretched open wide and then I saw my grandpa Murve with boyoh by his side. There was no age upon his face as he stood there in the light and yes my precious grandson his face all shining bright. He ran to me and once again was on his grandpas lap as we sit there OH so filled with joy from my shoulder I felt a tap.
It was Joshua our first grandchild he said remember me. so ever so gentle I bent right down and got upon one knee. I knelt and talked with all I'd loved and from earth I'd watched them go. Some lived old, others young, but each one had a glow. For age is only history in that fair and glorious land I was all caught up in the moment when Jesus took me by the hand. He said my child you must go back but you can come again. But when you finally get here child your life will just begin. There still some work for you to do before you come so stay. I know there's no tears in heaven but I just know one dropped today.        

Jerry Wayne Turner    11/06/12
In loving memory of Jesse Shane Turner (Boyoh) as we called him. He would have been 3 in Jan. 29 we lost him do to a house fire 10/05/12
Comment by Jerry on October 27, 2012 at 7:15pm

I lost my grandson oct 5th 2012 3 weeks ago yesterday. I got a call at 6:20 by my histerical daughter inlaw saying the home was on fire. My son and daughter inlaw plus our 4 year old grandaughter all got out but before they could get to Shane or Boyoh we called him the smoke took his life. He was a grandpas boy. He always walked in my door with his lips pooched out for a kiss then onto my lap he would go pointing to the computer wanting me to play his favorit gospel song. Even tho he would have been 3 this Jan. he would clap his hands and lift them up in the air and him and me just worshiped the lord together. I have been fighting cancer for almost 8 years and I just can't understand why it could not just have been me instead of him. I to try to be strong infront of the family. I have to be truthful and say I would gladly give my life for the Lord or my family. I don't think I am angry at God just more hurt that He would take him from us. I know where he is so we realy never lost him. That being said I guess I am a very selfish man for i want him back on my lap. I was a minister for years until my health got bad. I don't even know what to do or who to turn to. I do love the Lord but just am having a hard time talking to Him were it feels like He hears me.

Comment by Lori Ann Joseph on October 5, 2011 at 12:50am

I lost my grandson Jacoby On July 12, 2011 ten days after his 10 birthday.  I'm not only hurting

for losing my grandson, it also hurts to see my daughter going through such a difficult time. I

tell her everyday that she needs to pray and ask God to give her strength to get through this

but I'm still crying, looking at his pictures and talking to him daily. Yes, I am hiding my grief

from my daughter because I know what I'm going through and just looking in her face and at

her eyes and talking with her, I have to be strong for her and pretend that I'm doing well when

I'm really going through hell. Please someone tell me what can I do, it hurts so bad.

Comment by Ruth Brennaman on July 19, 2011 at 9:52pm
We just lost our precious 38 week granddaughter who was stillborn on July 14, 2011. I agree with the article when it says that we are not only grieving for the loss of our precious little one, but also for our heartbroken son and daughter-in-law. I hurt so deeply for myself, my husband, my children. My heart has been shattered into a million pieces, a big part of which will never come back. I am a person of great faith, but right now I feel as though my family and I have been abandoned by Him. Any words of encouragement would be greatly appreciated.
Comment by Elizabeth Roberts on June 23, 2011 at 6:49pm

Our twin grand-daughter, Tori, died Feb.1, 2011 after struggeling for 8 months with Hypoplastic left heart syndrome, @ Riley 's Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.  Her sister, Tina is thriving and the bitter/sweet joy of what should have been double, isn't.  I have NO one to talk to about my grief. The grief for my daughter and her family, myself, and for the other grand-children.  I have just started to enjoy life again, but I don't want to forget Tori.  It's like the grief keeps her real, so I am afraid to get too happy again. I just need someone to talk to about how I feel, without making everyone else miserable. 

Comment by Rita on September 16, 2009 at 7:43pm
I am not sure how to use this website. I went online hoping to find some online support group for grieving grandparents. I recently lost my only grandchild to SIDS, he was four months old. Is there anyone who has been through a simiiar circumstance that offer words of hope, encouragement.

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