“The hardest thing about going through a loss with your children is the grief you feel for them, because you can’t do anything. I am conditioned as a mother to fix things, make things better, and I couldn’t.”
When parents lose a baby in pregnancy, childbirth or soon after, they are not the only ones hurting from the devastating loss. Grandparents and the baby’s siblings will suffer a tremendous sense of loss and grief too. Today we’ll look at how grandparents grieve and how they can best help their grieving children.
Grandparents may grieve for the grandchild they’ll never get to play with or watch grow. Along with the parents, they probably developed their own sense of expectations and dreams of, and for, the baby. They may feel shock and disbelief that what was heralded to be a family joy and celebration turned into a tragedy. There is no way you—grandparents—can prepare for this kind of grief.
Grandparents may have difficulty responding to this tragedy, struggling for just the right words (sometimes there are none). They may have been raised in a home where tragedies such as these were not discussed (read my last blog on how my parents handled their loss back), and they were taught to quickly put the loss in the past and get on with life. (Western society, particularly Americans, have a distinctly “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get on with life without whining” attitude.) Or they may be tempted to think they are helping by urging the parents to have another baby or counsel them that they should be grateful for the children they have.
Although these comments are certainly well intentioned, they are most likely to be hurtful and resented rather than helpful and comforting. Grandparents need to resist the urge to preach, offer pious platitudes, or tell the parents how they should feel or what they should do. Instead, they need to recognize that mourning is a painful but necessary process and that every person grieves uniquely and distinctively in their own manner and according to their beliefs and needs. The process is never easy for anyone, so we shouldn’t expect it to be easy.
Grandparents may wonder if they should their grief, or if doing so will add an extra burden to their bereaved children. Personally, for me, it did add an extra burden when my mother expressed her grief. Already weak from the blood-draining complication and surgery, and emotionally drained by my loss, I felt guilty and unable to support her. Having been brought up in a home where emotions were to be controlled, I also felt uncomfortable around her tears. But every family is different, and much of the reaction will undoubtedly depend upon your relationship with one another prior to the death of the baby.
Grandparents must not expect their grieving children to be your primary source of support. They need to find friends, other relatives, clergy, or grief support groups who will help them walk through your own grief. Being sustained in their grieving will help them provide emotional support to your children.
If they also suffered a pregnancy loss or death of a child soon after birth, they can be supportive when they share your feelings of loss, sorrow and pain. But they need to resist the desire to compare their loss with their child’s and talk about their loss in a way that might seem to overshadow their children’s. Sometimes they will just need to sit and listen without making comments. And above all, if they’ve have never experienced such a tragedy they must not tell their children they know what they’re going through because they’ve also suffered a loss. A grandparent’s pain differs from a parent’s; their hopes and dreams are different.
Another emotion a grandparent may contend with is guilt. Sometimes grandparents are upset that they have lived to suffer this loss, especially if, up to this point in their life, they haven’t suffered tremendous loss or pain in their life. They might experience what is known as “survivor’s guilt,” when they feel guilty for being alive when their grandchild has died. They may wish that they could have died in their place.
Grandparents should honestly share their feelings with their children or spouse to avoid feelings of guilt or resentment settling in.
If the baby died due to a genetic disorder, a grandparent may feel they are to blame if they were the ones who passed down the gene. Or even if they don’t know what the cause was, they may feel this type of guilt.
Then there are the grandmothers who suffer guilt because they had a full house of healthy children, carried each child easily to term, experienced smooth childbirths, had all their babies at home with midwives, or never experienced even a tinge of morning sickness or a miniscule—or major—problem.
What is most often helpful is if a grandparent is honest about their own unique grief as a grandparent and honest about their grief for their child who has suffered such a loss. They can take a cue from their grieving child: ask them if they’d like to talk and don’t if they do not; ask them if there is anything you can do, but don’t push or force them into making any decisions or feel slighted if they do not ask for help. They should not be offended by their children’s actions. Grieving is tough, exhausting work. Everyone will go through it at different paces and in different ways. That should be allowed to happen, without expectations. If you are a grieving grandparent, let your grieving children should know that you are more concerned about them than yourself and what you might be going through personally.
I hesitated to talk about my loss and pain because I feared that my feelings might be judged, and I wanted to avoid parental “advice” as much as possible. I felt weak, and I feared displaying emotion in front of my parents that would make me feel even weaker, or that would bring forth emotional displays from them. Unfortunately, none of us did a very good job of relating to or communicating with one another in our grief.
While I was still in the hospital, one of the first things my father said to me was, “Well, I don’t know if I’d go through that again.” I vaguely remember him going on about having one healthy child, with the implication that I should feel satisfied. At the time, I didn’t know if I could “go through that again” or if I wanted to try, but it certainly wasn’t the time to be making that kind of decision or discussing it. I know he was concerned for my life and feared my risking another pregnancy with the same, or a worse outcome, but sometimes parents need to bite their tongues and listen, and spend their time praying more about their responses and what their grieving children need rather than expressing their unsought opinions.
Sometimes simply helping with household tasks, caring for the other children, or just sitting and keeping a grieving child company is what is needed and most helpful. If you don’t live close and are unable to help in this way, recognition of the loss via a phone call, cards, letters or flowers will let them know that you love them and care. My husband’s stepfather—who lives across the country—called Chris and said, “I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say; I have no idea what you’re going through. Please tell Andrea how sorry we are.” That message and the follow-up card were more than enough for us to know that Chris’s mother and stepfather cared and shared some of our grief.
If your children gave their baby a name, be sure you refer to the child by that name. It will help confirm in your child’s heart that their baby was a precious and loved family member.
Grandparents need to be careful about voicing differences in opinion, especially about funeral arrangements, services, packing up baby things and clothes and getting them out of sight. As a grandparent, you will undoubtedly have your own views, but the grieving parents’ wishes and desires must be respected and made on their own. They must also make the serious decision about planning for another pregnancy on their own too. If they want your advice, they will ask. Wait for them to do so. If you want to help, ask first and see what kind of response you get.
Family get-togethers may be difficult for everyone. Respect the grieving parents’ decision to decline invitations to attend baby showers, special baby events, christenings, etc, especially in the early months following the loss.
Losing a baby grandchild will have a permanent effect on the involved families, but many families say they gained strength from one another as they rallied together to help one another grieve and confront the loss. Above all, be patient, kind, gentle and longsuffering with one another, selflessly, unconditionally loving your grieving children through this dark valley. And pray for God’s guidance for your words, being quick to listen and slow to speak.
NEXT WEEK: My poor coping methods continue…
Thanks for joining me.
Until next week!
(The opening quote was taken from A Silent Sorrow: A Pregnancy Loss page 261.)