By Debbie Weir
When grandparents experience the death of a grandchild, they must grieve even as they help their own children cope with the loss.
Cathy Hefflinger and Barb Anderson understand grief. In fact, they understand a particularly debilitating grief many people never consider, few books have been written about and hardly anyone discusses.
It is a sorrow that cuts to the core of one’s being. An upwelling of suffering that brings frustration, helplessness, guilt and anger.
It is the death of your child’s child, your grandchild. It’s unbearable because it is two-sided—bringing with it the pain of your grandchild’s death and the innate urge as a parent to protect your own child from the pain of grief.
But grandparents who experience this double-edged grief don’t have to suffer in silence. They can be a tremendous source of strength for their children, while helping themselves along in their own healing journey.
Trying to take away the hurt
As a parent, you have an inherent instinct to protect your children from harm and pain. And throughout their lives, you do just that. You kiss away the pain of a scraped knee, wipe away the tears of a broken heart and arm them with love as they venture into the world.
But when your child is suddenly facing the pain brought on by the death of his or her child, it can leave you feeling helpless. It is a pain that you, as a parent, cannot fix. And at the same time, it is a pain that you, as a grandparent, are sharing.
Cathy and Barb, devoted parents and grandparents, understand this unbearable pain and helplessness. They live it and see it in their children’s eyes.
Just ask Cathy. On a warm June afternoon in 2002, Cathy’s daughter Teresa Bilow had her two little girls, Cassie, 8, and Abby, 5, buckled safely in the back seat. The three were headed to a family get-together when a drunk driver slammed his van into their car.
Teresa climbed over the back seat to get to the girls. Cassie appeared to be in critical condition, and Teresa attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her. Despite her efforts, Cassie died. Abby was airlifted to a nearby trauma hospital. She suffered a broken jaw and various cuts and abrasions. Teresa suffered a broken ankle and other minor injuries.
“Teresa told me, ‘Mom, as I held Cassie in my arms and felt her slipping away, time stood perfectly still,’” Cathy says. “Where are the answers to that? What are the comforting words? I felt absolutely helpless.”
Pain from both sides
According to Margaret H. Gerner, author of For Bereaved Grandparents, a supportive booklet published by the Centering Corporation, the overwhelming frustration and helplessness bereaved grandparents feel are caused by the knowledge that this is one pain that can’t just be “kissed away.”
Bereaved grandparents who watch their once carefree children struggle with sorrow and pain may wonder, “Where is my power now? Where is my bag of tricks that will make it all better?”
Barb’s son, Mark, his wife, Michelle, and their three children, Ryan, 2, Julieanne, 4, and Emily, 9, were sledding when tragedy struck. As Ryan was sledding down the hill, an impaired driver snowmobiling in a restricted area crashed into him. The whole family witnessed the horrifying crash.
“Ryan died in my son’s arms,” Barb says. “That memory is hard for him to live with, and it brings him so much pain. There seem to be no words of comfort when your son says, ‘If only I hadn’t taken him sledding that day, maybe he would still be with us.’ You feel so helpless because there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do that will make a difference.”
According to Gerner, a grandparent’s grief is like a fork with two tines—one representing the loss of a grandchild, the other representing the pain of your own child’s suffering. You must work through your own grief, and, at the same time, help your bereaved child work through his or her grief. The two paths are complicated because you have to deal with them simultaneously.
“I feel that grandparents suffer a double grief,” Cathy says. “Every day is new because you don’t know what to expect. Is Teresa going to have a good day or bad day? Will I focus on her today or will I focus on my grief today?”
According to Gerner, as a parent of a grieving child, you have the opportunity to help in ways no one else can—you can make a difference.
Listen to your bereaved child
Bereaved parents need to talk about their child, and they need someone who will listen and not feel uncomfortable.
It can be difficult to listen to someone who is ravaged with grief. And often, we can get too preoccupied thinking about what we are going to say to offer comfort. For many people, there is an overwhelming need to alleviate the agony of the grief. The motive is noble but the method is wrong. Rather than doing all the talking, allowing the brokenhearted person to talk can actually go further in helping to heal his or her spirit.
“I worry about my son because sometimes he doesn’t open up about his feelings,” Barb says. “He’s trying to be strong for everyone else. He seems more comfortable talking to me through e-mail and instant messaging. I’m fine with that because it’s possible to listen through other forms of communication.”
According to Gerner, if you really listen, you’ll understand, and listening is not filling every silence. Listening is the greatest gift you can give your child.
“Sometimes it’s hard because I want to step right in and take care of everything for Teresa,” Cathy says, “but it’s not my place. There are times when there are no words, and that’s OK because it’s more important to be there and listen.”
Talk about your grandchild
Gerner says that talking about your grandchild tells your child that you care. If tears come, it’s because they’re sad, not because their child’s name was brought up. It can be painful, but talking about the child is healing and therapeutic.
“We talk about Cassie all the time,” Cathy says. “You almost feel disoriented, but talking can help. You talk even though you know there are no answers.
“It also helps to remember that there is no timetable for grief. Sometimes there are too many expectations regarding how or when someone is grieving. Don’t expect too much of your grieving child, his or her spouse, or yourself.
“The hurt is so deep, you wonder how you’re going to climb out of it,” Barb says. “But you do, and you begin to see your child start to live again. That’s when you know there is hope with faith.”
Consider your needs and those of your bereaved child
A grandparent’s grief may not be recognized by his or her own child or others, but it is definitely there. It is vital for bereaved grandparents to give themselves permission to grieve and to focus on their own needs.
Grandparents often are referred to as “the forgotten grievers.” They think they should cope better, have all the answers, control the situation and be a role model. But these types of expectations are unrealistic and unhealthy.
Survival guilt and anger
No one expects to outlive his own children, much less his grandchildren. And, according to Gerner, reactions of guilt and anger often are intermingled. In fact, grandparents often experience survival guilt because it seems unnatural for a grandparent to outlive his or her grandchild, and they often express the wish that they “could change places” with the deceased child.
Then there are the haunting questions. “Why didn’t I baby-sit every time I was asked?” Why didn’t I spend more time with the baby?”
“Faith really helps to sustain me during the frustrating time of asking why,” Barb says. “There are no answers to those questions.”
Hope for a better day
Bereaved grandparents learn to live without their grandchildren, but there always will be the “might have beens.” That is absolutely normal.
“Cassie’s death has been absolutely devastating, but my daughter gives me inspiration,” Cathy says with admiration. “I try to be strong for her, but she is truly the strong one. Teresa and Mark are our guides and we follow them, instead of us trying to lead them.”
“Sometimes, I wish I could bring Ryan back, but I can’t,” Barb says. “You think the suffering will never end, but with time, faith and support, you continue to make it through each day.”
Each day, bereaved grandparents look for a little ray of sunshine to show on their bereaved child’s face. As time goes by and the healing process begins, a ray of hope will shine on your child’s face in his or her smile. There always will be a part of each of you that is gone, but in time you can learn to live with the part that is still there.
The above article was written by Debbie Weir, MADD National Director of Victim Services. http://www.madd.org It was reproduced here with MADD’s permission.