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Coping with the Loss of a Grandchild

By Kimberly FowlerJanuary 29, 2018
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Grieving the death of a loved one is quite possibly the most difficult experience we can endure. The feelings of disbelief, helplessness and sorrow that often accompany grief are a natural and normal response to the death of someone we love.

While the death of anyone you are close to will be difficult, for grandparents coping with the loss of a grandchild, navigating the dark and unique road of grief may be decidedly more complex. Grandparents who are grieving the death of a grandchild are often “neglected mourners,” taking a back seat to the primary mourners – the parents and siblings of the child who died. When it comes to offering empathy and support, grandparents are often forgotten or are too focused on “staying strong” for their loved ones to process their own feelings.

A Grandparent’s Grief is Unique

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, renowned author, educator and grief counselor, when a grandparent experiences the death of a grandchild, they are faced with a unique grieving process, mourning the death on many levels.

Wolfelt explains, “when a grandchild dies, grandparents grieve twice. They mourn the loss of the child, and they feel the pain of their own child’s suffering.”

Grandparents are in the extraordinary position of playing two roles: that of mourner and protector. Dr. Wolfelt continues, “a parent’s love for a child is perhaps the strongest of all human bonds. For the parents of the child who died, the pain of grief may seem intolerable. For the grandparents, watching their own child suffer so and feeling powerless to take away the hurt can feel almost as intolerable.”

Grandparents who live at a distance and did not have close or frequent contact with their grandchild might also experience additional feelings of guilt and regret, or mourn the loss of a relationship they never had the opportunity to embrace.

The Search for Meaning

For people coping with the death of a loved one, the search to find meaning in such a tragedy is a normal and necessary part of the grieving process. This is no different for grandparents who have lost a grandchild. Dr. Wolfelt explains that grandparents – many of whom have already lived long, rich lives – may struggle with feelings of guilt.

It is not uncommon for grandparents to consider questions such as “why couldn’t it have been me, instead?” or “how could God let this happen?”

Searching for meaning in the death of a grandchild may naturally lead to more fundamental considerations, including:

  • How you will carry on living with this devastating loss in your life
  • The meaning and purpose of life
  • Your philosophy on life
  • Your religious and spiritual values

Talking to a trusted friend or professional – perhaps someone outside of the family unit – will allow you to express your feelings and help to relieve the heavy burden weighing on your heart.

How to Support Someone Who is Coping with the Loss of a Grandchild

Dr. Wolflet suggests considering the following tips when supporting a grandparent who has lost a grandchild:

  1. Avoid cliché’s: Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a grieving grandparent because they diminish the very real and very painful loss of a unique child.
  2. Be aware of holidays and other significant days: Visit the grandparent, write a note or simply give them a quick phone call during these times. Your ongoing support will be appreciated and healing.
  3. Be compassionate: Give the grandparent permission to express their feelings without fear of criticism. Don’t instruct, or set expectations about how they should respond. Never say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t.
  4. Listen with your heart: Listen attentively and try to understand. Don’t worry so much about what you will say, rather concentrate on the words that are being shared with you.
  5. Offer practical help: Preparing food and washing clothes are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care.

Whether you are coping with the loss of a grandchild or supporting someone who is, always be kind and don’t assume unrealistic expectations. There is no timeline for how long grief should last. Dr. Wolfelt suggests taking a one-day-at-a-time approach.

After all, “grief is not an enemy to be vanquished, but a necessity to be experienced as a result of having loved.”

If you had to go through the loss of a grandchild, what tips do you have for other grandparents working through this difficult experience?

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Kimberly Fowler