The Loss of a Grandchild
When a grandchild dies, you have to cope with a double load – your grief for the baby and the suffering of your own child.
One grandmother wrote:
It is always sad when someone dies, but the death of a baby is especially tragic because it comes when a new life was expected. A grandparent-to-be usually looks forward to a special relationship with the grandchild, but if the baby dies, that relationship is lost.
‘She was my first grandchild,’ said one woman, ‘and I’d longed to hold her before her parents even met.’
The death of your grandchild may revive memories of other losses in your life. At the same time, your grief may be overlooked as the focus is mainly on the baby’s parents.
As a parent, you feel pain when your child suffers. You may feel helpless because you cannot protect your child from sorrow. You may perhaps feel shut out if your child turns to someone else in grief.
You may experience many emotions that may seem ‘wrong’ but are, in fact, completely normal.
Anger – may be directed at health professionals, the other side of the whānau/family (in-laws), God, or even the baby for causing such distress.
Guilt – may arise because you fear the baby may have inherited a problem from you, or because you had bad thoughts about the pregnancy, or because you feel your reactions and feelings are inappropriate.
Conflict – you may have been taught to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ or ‘not to talk about these things’ and find it hard to accept or understand the way grief is approached when a baby dies today. Perhaps you have different religious beliefs, and explain things in different ways.
Things to do when a baby dies
- If you live close enough, go to the hospital and see the baby’s parents.
- If it is possible for you to see the baby, do so. This will be helpful to you in mourning your grandchild. It is also likely to help your child if you have shared memories of meeting the baby.
- There may be ceremonies – a baptism or blessing, funeral or memorial service – and it may be helpful to attend.
- If you feel you can, offer to help with practical details that often fall to the partner – registering the baby’s birth, helping to arrange the funeral. Try not to be too hurt if your offers of help are rejected.
- Your child has probably been given leaflets, which you can read. They may help your grief and also give you an idea of how the baby’s parents feel and how you can help.
- Continue to visit, phone or write and provide love and support.
- It will help your child’s grief and your own if you can talk about the baby using the baby's name.
- In many cases, parents have a photo of the baby – don’t be upset if they choose to share it and display it. Perhaps in time you might like a copy.
- If you are emotionally close to your child, you can provide great comfort, but you can also cause great pain. Be careful about using comforting phrases, which may come easily to your lips. Don’t say ‘You can have another baby’ or ‘At least you have the other children’, as this can be very hurtful. Their baby who died was wanted for him or herself. Other children will not be a replacement.
- Try to accept their emotions as valid and not offer platitudes, however well intentioned they may be.
- Don’t feel you have to be strong. Children usually value knowing that their parents care, and that their baby is missed by others.
One young mother said:
- It will take your child a long time to recover from the death of their baby – probably longer than you expect. Even when the first grief has passed, the sadness will last for years, with anniversaries and special occasions being particularly hard. Parents and whānau/ families need to learn to live with their grief because the loss will never disappear. As well as sorrow, the parents may feel anger and guilt, and they may find it difficult to be with other whānau/families who have babies. Try not to condemn these feelings; they are part of the grieving process.
- Be aware of holidays and special dates (the due date, the day the baby died, the day the baby was born) and try to remember them. Talk to your son or daughter and their partner about what they need for those days, rather than make a decision or do something for them.
- Future pregnancies will be very anxious times, and a new baby may be greeted with very mixed emotions. A new baby will not replace a baby who has died but will become another whānau/family member.
Your own losses
Finally, be aware that experiencing this loss of your grandchild may remind you of other losses you have experienced in your life. For some, this may include the loss of your own baby or babies. Feelings you had at the time of your previous loss/es may resurface. This is very common. Grief is not something that ends, or that we ‘get over’. Some say that grief comes in waves. While the loss you are remembering may have been many years ago, there are still feelings that may lap at your feet like a gentle tide and others that may swamp you like an unexpected wave. Take things gently and slowly – both for yourself and for your son or daughter and their whānau/ family.