Sunday, January 12, 2014

Grandparents: The Forgotten Mourners

Since I am now a grandmother (my husband’s daughter’s son), I can well understand the depth of grief a grandparent feels when a grandchild dies, whether it is auto related, from an illness or even a random shooting (like what happened at Sandy Hook or Columbine).

More than 160,000 American grandparents lose grandkids each year. Yet their grief is often minimized. They are the forgotten mourners according to Polly Moore, regional coordinator for Compassionate Friends. “People think, it’s not your child, so the pain must be less intense.” But because of the bond grandparents have with these children, they often feel helpless as well as heartbroken.

A grandparent’s grief is doubled. Not only is there grief for the grandchild but also for the parents of the child. How do you begin to console a son or daughter drowning in grief at the loss of their child, while you struggle with your own grief for all of them?

Getting through all the anniversaries that first year alone is very difficult: the child’s birthday, death day, Christmas, etc. The pain is unbearable, yet most struggle to move on. One grandmother said, “Everything I do reminds me of my grandson. I cry every day with my husband. We can’t comprehend he is no longer with us, but we try to live as normal a life as possible. It is my son and daughter-in-law I worry about the most now.”

A friend of mine lost a grandchild in a sudden death car accident and she tried everything she could to help her daughter deal with the loss, asked friends for help, asked organizations that dealt with such tragedies to speak to her daughter, but all to no avail. I even had lunch one day with the daughter and her mother. I tried to explain that time is a great healer, that she can’t expect to be better immediately, that some parents take as long as five years to heal and move on with their lives, as well as other helpful ideas for her, but all to no avail. To this day, more than 10 years later, she is still as bitter as though it happened yesterday. Her mother, my friend, is terribly worried about her, as she tries to deal with the grandchild’s death also. “It’s so hard to lose a grandchild, but even harder when you feel helpless and have to watch your daughter go through this by herself.”

Other grandparents try to hang on to the good memories and have kept certain items around the house to remind them of their wonderful grandchild. One grandparent said that her grandson, Jason, was a bright loving child who loved to cuddle with all his family members. “I loved holding him tight and telling him how much I loved him ‘up to the sky and down again.’ In his little boy’s mind, he used to try to picture how far that was and often asked me. I would just smile,” she said.

I read once that Vice-president’s Joe Biden’s advice to bereaved parents and grandparents was to rate each day from 1 to 10—and you may never get to 10. He said if you have a good day and make it to a 4 that day, at least you know you made it to a 4. And then you know you can do it again.

In a similar vain, my ex-husband, who struggled with our daughter’s death, had a friend paralyzed from the death of his grandchild, who used to make a list of what he wanted to accomplish that day. The first thing on his list was to get out of bed every day. When he could do that successfully for a while, he added another item to his list, and each day, week, or month, he kept adding things like: today I got out of bed, today I brushed my teeth, today I made breakfast and finally, today I went back to work. In other words, don’t try to accomplish too much at once; you won’t be able to do it. Good advice that my ex tried, and it worked for him.

Here is some advice from grief experts I recently read about in the AARP magazine to make this hard journey easier for all. I have added additional thoughts to this list.

EXPRESS DIFFICULT FEELINGS. Bereaved grandparents can write or talk to a friend or counselor or find support from organizations such as Compassionate Friends, MISS foundation, Alive Alone or Bereaved Parents USA.

READ ALL YOU CAN. Try “The Grief Recovery Handbook”, “Grandparents Cry Twice”, or any book about surviving the death of a child or grandchild. I have a great resource section in the back of my second book, “Creating a New Normal After the Death of a Child.”

STAY EMOTIONALLY CONNECTED TO THE DECEASED. Prayer, contemplation and dreams can provide solace; the lost person’s presence is still felt.

LET GO OF PAIN WHEN POSSIBLE. Don’t feel guilty when intense grief begins to ebb. You will not forget your loved one. There is no need to cling to sorrow. Grievers should remember that the loved one lived, not only that he or she died.

BUILD MEMORIALS. Start a scholarship or a foundation or plant a tree or start a new family ritual. Buy bricks in new buildings or even build a building in the loved one’s memory.

EXPECT A BUMPY RIDE. Grief is unpredictable; it can revive old, forgotten pains. This is normal and one should understand this is just part of the process.

TAKE A BREATHER. Grieving grandparents should give themselves permission to rest. Visit a friend or place that nourishes—a place where they don’t have to be strong for the family. Find what helps you the most. It takes time and patience. There are no quick fixes.