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The Forgotten Mourners

Why a grandparent's grief can be especially devastating — and lonely

Loneliness Depression with Hope of Guidance and Direction (Getty Images)

Prayer, contemplation and dreams can provide solace when dealing with grief — Getty Images

More than 160,000 American grandparents lose grandkids each year. Yet their grief is often minimized, even by family members. "Bereaved grandparents are sometimes referred to as forgotten mourners,'' says Polly Moore, regional coordinator for The Compassionate Friends (TCF), a nonprofit that assists bereaved families. "People think it is not 'your' child that died," so the pain must be less intense. And because grandparents have more life experience, they are often assumed to have better skills for coping with tragedy.

Frequently, though, the grandparents' pain matches the powerful bond they have with their grandchildren, who embody a family's legacy and even a kind of immortality. Just like parents who have lost a child, grieving grandparents often feel helpless, angry and frustrated, as well as heartbroken.

Here is some advice from grief experts on making this hard journey easier.

Discuss: How do you talk to your grandchildren about death and tragedy?

Express difficult feelings

Bereaved grandparents can write or talk to a friend or counselor, or find support from organizations such as TCF or the MISS Foundation.

Read up

Helpful books include The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman, and Grandparents Cry Twice by Mary Lou Reed. Online, try visiting the Dougy Center or Grief Watch.

Stay emotionally connected to the deceased

Prayer, contemplation and dreams can provide solace; the lost person's presence is still felt. "Love doesn't die, and therefore the relationship doesn't die," says Darcie D. Sims, director of the American Grief Academy in Seattle.

Let go of pain when possible

Some people feel guilty when their intense grief begins to ebb, fearing they're forgetting their loved one. But there's no need to cling to sorrow. Grievers should remember that the loved one lived, not only that he or she died.

Create a legacy

Family members can plant a tree, start a scholarship in the loved one's name or launch a new family ritual.

Expect a bumpy ride

Grief is unpredictable; it can revive old, forgotten pains, such as a miscarriage or the death of a parent. This is normal. The bereaved should honor these feelings as part of the process.

Take a breather

Grieving grandparents should give themselves permission to rest. They might visit a friend or a place that nourishes — a place where they don't have to be strong for the family. "Find what coping mechanisms help you most," Moore recommends. "It takes time and patience — there are no quick fixes."

Leah Dobkin is a writer and gerontologist who collects people’s stories, helps harvest their wisdom and transfers that wisdom to the next generation at legacyletter.org.

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