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.
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.
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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