Babies aren’t supposed to die. It goes against everything in the natural order of things. When it happens, it shakes the foundation of the entire family and often the close friends of the parents. I stand at the hospital bed of many of those families as a perinatal loss support companion. Time and time again, I see the devastation in the eyes of the grandparents, as they feel broken that their grandchild has died and helpless in the face of their child’s pain.
“What do we do?” grandparents will ask with agony in their eyes.
There’s a strong desire for grandparents to protect their children, to fix this broken, to make the pain better. Only, we all know there’s nothing that can heal this wound in a moment’s time. There’s no kissing away this “boo-boo,” no band-aid big enough to cover the oozing.
“I’m so sorry,” I will often whisper, “This is a double dose for you as a grandmother. You have your own grief for your grandbaby. But, also, that’s your baby (referring to the mom) in the hospital bed. She is in the worst pain of her life. And, you can’t make this better…you can’t protect her from this pain.”
1. Validation and Acknowledgment
As in most support situations, recognizing and validating a person’s struggle or pain helps to give it a name. It also helps them understand their own helpless feelings, to know that what they are feeling is a “common response” under the circumstances, and it helps them to know that they are not alone. Someone sees them. They need support, too.
2. Understanding Perspective
Grandparents may grieve differently than parents. That can make it hard for them to understand the choices of their children (the parents of the baby). They may come from a generation that doesn’t believe you should see and hold your baby or get pictures. They may or may not understand the importance of doing so. Grandparents often filter what they think is best through the lens of trying to protect their children, sometimes thinking that if they can just shield them from all of this, it won’t hurt so badly. Parents spend their entire lives protecting their children. It makes sense that in the moment when their children experience the worst pain imaginable that they would want to find a way to protect them.
Years ago, when I lost my twin daughters and later our newborn son, my mother struggled in the weeks and months after our loss. wanting me to get better quickly. It was very hard for her not to be able to fix my pain. She worried that I was not being healthy when my grief took some time. She needed to understand that my pain was a healthy response to grief, and I needed her to be patient and present with me instead of trying to fix me. Communication on both ends, and giving one another grace can help keep relationships intact.
3. Be Sensitive to a Grandparent’s Compounded Grief Story
The experience of watching their child give birth to a baby with a brief life or one who is born still may trigger memories of their own loss and missed opportunities. If you are present with a grieving grandparent, please be sensitive to their own stories. They may be processing grief that’s been repressed for years as they hold their grandbaby. Allow them an opportunity to process their grief for the child they lost as well as the grief they’re feeling for the loss of their grandchild and the pain their child is feeling.
4. Include Grandparents
Feeling helpless as your own child is hurting and grieving is crippling. If you are a parent, caregiver, support person, or even a family member reading this, include the grandparents. Include them in the care of the baby if you are in the room with the family. The baby’s mother is sometimes not feeling well or up for all the baby care…bathing and dressing of baby immediately after she gives birth (although if she is, please allow her and baby’s father to do this! Always offer parents the opportunity and give them the options to decide about baby care.). If the parents are open to it, include the grandparents in this healing time of memory-making. Parents can still bathe if they would like, and grandparents can help in another way. Perhaps applying lotion to the baby after parents bathe. When parents and grandparents are offered options and given the opportunity, baby care and memory-making will naturally and beautifully flow together.
If you are the grandparent reading, please understand if parents don’t know how to include you in this time. They have never done this before, and their own pain is bigger than anything else. They may react with so many different emotions, and because you are their safe person, you will likely see them all. Find ways to gently stay involved…ways to help they may not know they need, while also respecting the space of your grieving children if that’s what they require. Perhaps making a blanket, buying or making an outfit, offering to make phone calls or help with funeral arrangements, sending over some homemade meals or gift cards to restaurants they like for when they are feeling up to going out, and offering to watch their other children are all ways you can provide tangible support to the parents. As time goes by, know that it will mean so much to the child’s parents if you continue to find ways to honor and include the memory of your grandchild in family celebrations and when you are doing things for your living grandchildren. It is typically a comfort if you remember with them.
5. Allow Yourself Time to Grieve
Grandparents can be so concerned with the pain their children are feeling, that they don’t allow themselves time to grieve. If you are reading this as a grieving grandparent, know that you have your own grief that will need your attention at some point. Please have someone in your life to go to with your pain. Taking care of you is important so that you can continue to take care of your grieving child.
Grieving Grandparents, please know you are not alone. We see you, and the way you quietly carry the pain of grief for your grandchild mixed with the pain of watching your own child grieve for their baby.
Online Support for Grieving Grandparents
Walking With You Support Group – available for parents and grandparents grieving the loss of a baby or young child Grieving Grandparents There are also a few more Facebook support groups for grandparents if you search.
Books for Grieving Grandparents