“Nearly everyone has his box of secret pain, shared with no one.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Those who deeply desire to be grandparents and don’t reach this life milestone often carry a sorrow they don’t share with others.
As I discovered when I became one of these people, there is no word to describe us. So I coined the term “non-grandparent.”
As a long- time nurse specializing in maternal-child health, public health, and nursing education, I aim to empower non-grandparents to acknowledge their grief, talk about their sorrow, and learn strategies for coping with daily living.
How do we begin to determine how many non-grandparents exist in the United States (U.S.)? We can look at some available statistics.
Infertility and pregnancy loss affects millions of U. S. families.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 6 percent of married women aged 15 to 44 (1.5 million) are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying; 12 percent of all women aged 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status, while 20,000 infants are born each year as stillbirths (CDC, 2019).
Approximately 9 percent of men aged 15 through 44 faced infertility or non-surgical sterility from 2006 to 2010 (CDC, 2019).
Additionally, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage (March of Dimes, 2017). These statistics validate that a tremendous number of people have an adult child with infertility and/or a history of pregnancy loss.
In addition to childbearing factors, people are non-grandparents for several other reasons.
Some of these are when an adult child decides to remain childless, is in a relationship with no plans for children, lacks a partner, is in a same-sex relationship with no intention to have children, or decides to postpone having children indefinitely due to educational or career pursuits.
Others are not able to enjoy being grandparents because ties to an adult child are severely limited or broken so that no relationship with a grandchild is possible.
Tragically, even a grandparent can become a non-grandparent when their only grandchild dies, at any age, from any cause.
My journey as a non-grandparent began in 2014. My daughter and son-in-law announced their pregnancy after infertility treatments, and I was joyously anticipating the baby’s arrival early in 2015. I pictured myself engaging with my grandchild in many ways, including playing, babysitting, and vacationing.
When they had a pregnancy loss in the eleventh week, not only were their lives shattered, but I also experienced a profound loss.
During the initial days and weeks afterward, however, I kept my sorrow to myself. I knew my daughter and her husband needed my love and support during this painful time.
Feeling that it would be selfish to disclose my feelings with them, I shared my grief only with my husband. He was hurting, too, so we supported each other.
As time went on, I continued to carry my sorrow as a secret in my daily life, and keeping this secret began to take a toll.
I sometimes found it especially hard to be around other grandparents when they spoke about their grandchildren. But I told no one.
Also, many of my family and friends were going through personal severe challenges, receiving grave medical diagnoses, losing long-term jobs, or facing the divorce of one of their children; the list goes on.
I believed my troubles paled in comparison, and I was sure others would agree.
After I discovered strategies that helped me speak up about my sorrow; however, I found that those who know and love me didn’t feel that my grief was less important than theirs.
They were moved to hear my story and to learn how the loss of my desired grandchild was affecting me.
They genuinely wanted to support me along my non-grandparent journey.
I was a non-grandparent for four years. There were times when I thought I would never be a grandparent. I had to learn to care for myself and engage in activities for self-fulfillment.
Our family was blessed in the summer of 2018 when our daughter and son-in-law adopted their daughter internationally. My life is now filled with the joy I anticipated in 2014.
However, my years as a non-grandparent and my memories during this time remain vivid.
If you are a non-grandparent, please know that you are not alone. Your grief and sorrow are real and justified, and you can learn to speak of them and to care for yourself in a grandparenting world.
You need to learn how to communicate your sorrow to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers.
Yes, even complete strangers ask if you have any grandchildren. This has happened to me more times than I can count. Maybe you can relate too.
If you are a family member, friend, neighbor, or co-worker, you now may realize that you know a non-grandparent or two.
Those that know and love non-grandparents need to be aware of the silent sorrow that is common in non-grandparents. They need to offer support to these non-grandparents.
I encourage you to share the information you read in this article with them. Telling them, you are there when they want to talk about their life circumstances is a good starting point.
A hug works too.
Silence is not golden.
With hope for acknowledging your sorrow to others – Mary Ellen