Grandparents and the Death of a Grandchild: The Other Grieving Parents

I wanted to have a look at the impact of the death of a baby on the other set of grieving parents, the grandparents. I will state clearly from the outset that I am talking from my own experience and each and every family has its own unique dynamics, here I talk from my personal perspective and my own family experiences.

Like many mothers who experience a stillbirth or the death of a baby I relied heavily on the support of my family. When I was in hospital giving birth to Claudia, it was my immediate family who was on the phone letting my extended family, including the in-laws, know what had happened. It was my mother and my step father who looked after my two other children while I spent the only hours I could making memories with Claudia before she was transported to the hospital morgue, and although I told my other daughters that something was critically wrong with their new sister it ultimately fell to them, their grandparents, to tell them their sister had died.

The grief that a grandparent can go through is two-fold, hearing of the death of a much-anticipated grandchild is coupled with the emotions of having to see their own adult daughter/son handle with the death of that child. In my particular family situation a third factor compounded the grief for my own mother and father, the long-held memory of the death of their own unborn child at 20 weeks.

In my situation Claudia’s death was sudden and unexpected and what I found most helpful during the time immediately after Claudia’s death and subsequent birth was being able to be fully present for the short time she was with my husband and I. My children were in the safe hands of my mother and step father and they in turn kept my extended family informed about the situation. I was able to send a simple text to my mum, send a photo to my kids to let them know I was okay and tell them goodnight while I stayed in hospital.

Many of the things such as arranging Claudia’s funeral, talking to family and sitting down with the kids to explain why Claudia couldn’t come home were things that I needed to do as Claudia’s mum and as Eva & Leah’s mum, but there were a lot of instances when some extra hands on the deck were very welcome.

When I was in hospital Mum asked if it was okay is she came and said hello and goodbye to Claudia. As Claudia’s mum I appreciated this because for me it was an acknowledgment that she exists and is part of the family. She came to the hospital by herself to spend a bit of time with her and have a photo taken of her holding her much-loved granddaughter as a special keepsake of her own. My own time with Claudia was very limited but I was happy for her to have that time for her own personal memories. My father also came to the hospital while Claudia was with us, actually whilst the professional volunteer photographers were there, but the emotion of the situation was very difficult for him.
Like most parents, seeing your child go through anything painful, physically or emotionally is very difficult. I’m guilty of buying a lollipop or little toy after a doctors visit or a vaccination, or making their favourite dinner after a hard day at school. As a grandparent that pull is no different; the want to make the situation better for their child or to try to fix what has happened, it’s instinctual.

It’s important to be aware that this situation can not be ‘fixed’. The best thing that happened was that I was allowed the time and space to connect with my daughter after her death and that if and when I needed help I was able to reach out and find that assistance easily and I think that if a fantastic gift a grandparent can give their own child as they go through the process of the death of a baby.
From my own personal experience here are some of the ways my parents, the newly bereaved grandparents, helped me and my family navigate this stressful time;

Listen to your son/daughter without being overwhelmed by your own grief.

Many times I would talk to people about Claudia and I would feel that by the end I was comforting them in their grief. In the immediate time afterwards my personal grief was so profound I couldn’t take on anyone else’s.

Be present but don’t take over.
One of the best things my mother and step father did for us in the few days after Claudia died, was to look after our two girls; help them with their homework, make them dinner- all the normal routine things that would ultimately assist them, at the moment and in the future, in processing their own grief at losing a sister and help us keep our home as normal as possible which in turn helped our girls feel as little disruption as possible.

Be very honest with the other grandkids in an age appropriate way.
As grandparents, mine were on the same page as me when talking to the kids about what happened. They talked to our girls in the same language I used.” She died, her heart stopped”, “No we cannot bring her back”, “We are all allowed to cry because it is very sad and unfair, but it is just what happened and we can’t change it”. They didn’t complicate matters by bringing in confusing words about their own religious/spiritual beliefs. Always try to respect the way in which your child has chosen to explain the death to their children. ( I’ll go into this a bit later in another piece about siblings and explaining stillbirth)

Make it normal to not have to talk about it as well.
Sometimes I simply could not talk one more word about it, silence is fine, having an exhausted laugh about something irrelevant is fine too.

It’s okay to ask to look at any photos or mementos that are kept.
Ask if you can either look at them on your own or ask if they can be shown to you. As these are the only physical memories that exist of a child that died, it’s hard to trust them to anyone, even a grandparent. It’s not a personal affront to you, but a motherly protection of the memory of the child. If there are locks of hair or ink prints of hand/feet don’t touch them too much as they may smudge or become messy.

Ask if you can help with the household jobs.
Don’t just jump into it, as the routine of the home can be quite soothing for some bereaved parents, a sign that some things remain the same, (It is also something that a bereaved parent can have some control over – as in the death of a child was something that couldn’t be controlled but cooking dinner/ taking the kids to school/ cleaning the bathroom are all static and unchanged in life.) The help can also be much appreciated, so always ask.

If your grandchild has a name, use it in reference to them.

Don’t neglect your own grieving process as well.
Don’t be afraid to call or get in contact with a service that can offer you advice on how best to give support to your child through this stressful time and also seek support if you need an outlet and/or information on how you can best cope with the death of your grandchild.
These are just a few ideas about what I found helpful, there are many more. Every family is different and every death is different but as a grandparent, you may find yourself being a critical wheel in the emotional and physical grieving process of your child.

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