What is Grandchild Loss?

The pain one experiences when their grandchild – an unborn baby, a living, breathing baby, toddler or older child – leaves this earth can feel unbearable. It can leave a grandparent grappling with one of the most unnatural, unfair, painful experiences one can endure.

As a grandparent, you are now placed in the position of grieving your own sense of loss, as well as helping your child cope with the loss of his or her child. This can be compounded when the child dies near or around the time of the birth of another child. Finding ways to celebrate the new baby and mourn the one who has died can be extremely difficult.

Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about.

Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives - whether or it is major or minor. Loss is universal. 

Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen, and uncertain.

There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses, such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings, overwhelming feelings, sadness, pain, or numbness.

You do not have to be "strong" after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don't cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.

No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.

Sudden Losses are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes, or suicides and that do not give us any time to prepare. These type of losses often shake us to the core, making us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many emotions and feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.

Predictable Losses, like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss. This type of loss also creates two layers of grief: anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss itself. 

One reason loss is so difficult is that it can be permanent. As humans, our lives are so fluid that the idea of permanence can be difficult to grasp. Further, if your life is structured around the person, object, or concept lost, it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns and routines. 

How to Cope With Loss:

Grief is one of the most common reactions to a loss. There are typically five stages of grief:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages may happen in any order, at any time, or not at all. Some people feel some but not all of the stages of grief. Because there is not a typical loss and each situation is different, it is hard to figure out what a "typical reaction" is. Some people feel:

  • Shock and disbelief - difficulty accepting what happened, numbness.
  • Sadness - one of the more common feelings experienced. This may also be emptiness, despair, loneliness, and crying.
  • Guilt - things you said, shouldn't have said, or wanted to say, not preventing the death.
  • Anger - feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Physical symptoms - aches, pains, headaches, nausea, changes in sleep or weight.

However you are feeling, it can be overwhelming and out of control. One way to manage intense emotions is to observe, describe, and label your emotions. Sometimes putting a name to your emotion can help you express it. Also remember that we experience emotions like a wave- the emotion will build, crest, and recede. 

Talk to friends and family who love you and make you feel good about yourself. Lean on people who love you and care about you.

Don't expect that you're going to "get over it." The only way to "get over" a loss is to go through the stages of grieving. There's no reason to try to be the strong one - just let yourself feel however you feel.

Write about it. Sometimes the act of writing down how you're feeling can help solidify those feelings and help you to grieve your loss.

Let yourself feel the loss. The only way to get through a loss is to go through the stages of grief. You can't bypass it, no matter how much you'd like to. Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them.

Talk to a therapist or grief counselor - someone who is trained to help you get through your grief.

Exercise - exercise releases endorphins, which are the "feel-good" hormones.

Don't minimize your own loss. If it was a loss, it was a loss. Losses are meant to be grieved.

Don't compare your loss to others' loss. It's apples and oranges. You feel a loss how you feel it, not how someone else feels it.

Be sure to take care of yourself. Go through your daily hygiene routines, get up, and do something.

IT'S OKAY TO BE SAD!

Forgotten Grief:

Grandparents are often forgotten because attention and grief are focused on the parents of the child. Grandparents grieving the loss of a grandchild feel a double-edged kind of pain. They feel the pain of not being able to make things better for their own child coupled with the pain of losing a family member. Grief can be complicated, and a grandparent may not feel as if they are allowed to grieve openly.

It's vital that grandparents allow themselves the opportunity to grieve - even if it has to be privately - to allow themselves to process the loss. Take the time and process the loss while focusing on yourself. You're not going to be any help to anyone if you don't allow yourself the opportunity to grieve. And remember, there is no timetable on grief and everyone grieves differently.

Whether your grandchild dies from an infection, is stillborn or a miscarriageSUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death of a Child)pediatric cancer, or an accident, the end result is the same: grief, questions, pain, emptiness, and often guilt – and the feeling of a limb being missing, because, well, it is missing.

Survivor's Guilt:

No one ever expects to outlive their own children. It's unnatural to bury a child. As a grandparent, you may feel full of guilt, remorse, and misplaced anger because you have survived while your grandchild has not.

Often, grandparents wish they could change places with the child who has died.

Grandparents may feel haunted by unanswerable questions: "Why didn't I spend more time with the child?" "Why am I alive while my grandchild is dead?"

Grief-stricken grandparents must learn to live their lives but always be haunted by the might-have-beens.

While these feelings come along with the new normal, each day can also bring hope and healing to the bereaved grandparent and their child.

Ways to Process this Tragedy:

  • Don't feel like you have always to be the strong one. It's perfectly fine for you to be sad and show that you're sad.

  • Go through the grief process. It's essential that you process this grief in order to be able to hold up your child.

  • Talk about the grandchild. Remember that you're not going to remind your child of the child they lost. They want you to talk about them. They want people to remember that they existed.

  • Remember that watching your child grieve and long for their child is going to be hard. Your remembering the birthdays and anniversaries of the child's death is going to help them heal over time. And by helping them heal, you will begin to heal. You want to fix them, but since you can't, helping them move through their life without their child is the next best thing.

  • Listen to your child. You cannot heal the pain they're going through, but you can be a shoulder to lean on, someone to wipe their eyes. It may be hard to hear their complicated grief, but they will need you.

What to Say or Not to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Child:

If you found this page because you have a friend or family member who has lost a child, thank you for caring. The fact that you want to know what to say to him or her shows how much you care. Below is a post that will give you some insight into what you should and shouldn't say. 

But You Can Have Another Baby:  What to say and what NOT to say to grieving parents by Jana Anthoine on Band Back Together

The Band Back Together resource page, How to Help Someone Who Has Lost a Child, provides additional insights and ways to help a loved one cope with the loss.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Stillbirth

Baby Loss

Miscarriage

SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death of a Child)

SIDS

Pediatric Cancer

Grief

Loss

Stages of Grief

Guilt 

Additional Resources For Grandchild Loss:

Grief Healing contains a comprehensive list of resources for more information about grandchild death and coping resources.

The Compassionate Friends is an organization that provides online and in person support for families who have lost a child, regardless of their age. They provide local chapter meetings, candlelight memorials, and grief support for siblings and grandparents.

First Candle has resources for parents, grandparents, and friends to help deal with the the grief of the loss of a child. They offer grief counselors 24/7.

CURE Childhood Cancer is a wonderful organization dedicated to helping families who are going through cancer treatments and diagnoses with their child. It’s a great resource for family members and other caregivers as well.

Grieving the Loss of a Child offers ways to grieve and remember children of different ages.

AARP offers groups for a variety of topics, and one is Grief and Loss. They touch on the loss of a grandchild but offer very important information about death in general.

Let Life In, an over 50 magazine, has an article with tips on how to help your child (and yourself) grieve the loss of your grandchild.

Grandparents.com offers a wide variety of topics with great insight into dealing with children, grandchildren, and beyond.