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Grappling With Grief When a Grandchild Dies

Sometimes grandparents are the “forgotten mourners”


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There’s plenty of grief to go around when a young person dies. ​

Parents, siblings and grandparents are devastated. Hopefully, friends and family rally around to provide support, but there are times that grandparent grief doesn’t get the attention it deserves.​

“The focus goes to the parents, so sometimes the grandparents end up ‘the forgotten mourners,’ ” says Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. “And it’s an out-of-order death, which adds complications.”​

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Actor Robert De Niro, 79, is experiencing that kind of bereavement. He recently lost his 19-year-old grandson, Leandro De Niro Rodriguez, to what Leandro’s mother told media were pills laced with fentanyl. De Niro attended his grandson’s funeral on July 8 and a 20-year-old woman was recently arrested in connection with the death. ​

One complicating factor of grief can be how close grandparents are with their grandchildren. Some may have had a distant relationship (which may fill grandparents with regret). Others may see each other regularly — even daily. In fact, in the U.S., one in 10 children lived with at least one grandparent in 2020, according to research by North Dakota State University. Both COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic have increased that number in recent years, as some children have been left without parents and are being raised by grandparents. ​

Doris Lapporte, 75, describes the loss of her 26-year-old granddaughter, Allie Kurtz — who died in a tragic California boat fire in 2019 — as something more than she can comprehend.​

“I’m not the same person I was before,” says Lapporte, of Skokie, Illinois. “Do I cry all day? No. But there isn’t a day where I’m not hurting, where I’m not thinking about her or talking to her.”​

Mourning for many

When a grandchild dies, grandparents often can’t focus fully on their own grief because their hearts are so broken over watching their child suffer.​

Feeling powerless to take away that hurt can feel almost “intolerable,” Wolfelt says.​

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Charlie Cote (left), with family members, died when he was 18 years old.
Courtesy Barbara Cote

Judith Zaleuke, 83, who lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, can relate. In 2005 she lost her 18-year-old grandson, Charlie — who was named after her firstborn son, who was named after her father — to cancer.​

“I wasn’t grieving for my grandchild when all of this happened — I was grieving for the parents,” she recalls. “I wanted little Charlie to know I was taking care of them. He was an old soul and I thought he would understand what I was doing. It wasn’t until quite a while after his death that I realized I hadn’t grieved for him.”​

“Quite a while” was actually about a year, Zaleuke says. She realized that she couldn’t fully mourn her grandson’s death until she talked about him with her son. ​

“I had been afraid to do that. My instincts were just so totally protective of [my son] and I didn’t want to seem selfish or stir up any emotional pain,” she says. “But he seemed relieved and thrilled that I wanted to do that. I just needed to know he was OK.”​

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The importance of mourning

In addition to missing traditional milestones, such as graduations, jobs, weddings, and the birth of children, grandparents may be hit with “a double whammy” if they’ve previously lost a spouse with whom to share the grief, notes grief specialist David Kessler.​

“This brings up the point that new losses bring up old losses,” says Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief and founder of grief.com, which includes a national directory of certified grief educators and an online grief support community called Tender Hearts.​

When Lapporte joined Tender Hearts, she was struggling with the fact that her typical in-person support system was nowhere to be found. She’d been surrounded by caring friends when both her parents died in a span of 30 days, but some of them disappeared after her granddaughter’s death, at a time when, in shock and disbelief, she felt unable leave her bed for nearly six months.​

“When it comes to a child, people leave,” she says. “No one calls because they don’t know what to say and are afraid it could happen to them. It’s a very lonely, scary feeling.”​

The support group made her feel less alone. ​

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Wolfelt says there are potential “fallout consequences” for those who neglect to get that necessary support, including anxiety, depression, addictive behaviors and difficulty in intimate relationships.​

“While mourning by its very nature is slow, recursive and requires convalescence, you will come from dark to light if you create support systems that allow and encourage you to openly mourn losses,” he says.​

Wolfelt advises steering clear of socially normative “buck-up messages such as ‘carry on’ and ‘keep your chin up.’ ”​

Lapporte agrees. “The most important thing we need is to be witnessed,” she says. Lapporte recently became a certified grief educator to help others in their healing. “We’re not broken, so we don’t need to be fixed. Sometimes we just need to have somebody listen to us.”​

The love continues

No matter how much time has passed, it can be healing to create a meaningful ceremony “to acknowledge the reality of the loss,” says Wolfelt.​

This gets at the difference between grieving and mourning, he continues. The first is about thoughts and feelings that happen internally; the second is an outside expression of those thoughts and feelings.​

For Zaleuke, she deals with her ongoing grief by keeping her grandson’s memory alive.​

“The pain doesn’t go away,” she says. “It’s not something you get over — it’s something you incorporate into your life. … You don’t stop loving someone simply because they’re gone.” 

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