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.

For more help see Alan Wolfelt, “Help for a Grandparent Who is Grieving” at MADD Online:

© 2004. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.