Skip to content

The Duality of Grieving

Staring into the void left by the death of a grandchild.

It is one of those perfect autumn days of sunshine and balanced temperatures, neither too hot nor too cold. Not a breeze stirs through the cul-de-sac of this quiet Los Angeles neighborhood, where Pinney and Ilean Kanter sit at a kitchen table and remember their granddaughter Elisa.

While the day glows with promise, Ilean's eyes fill with tears. Pinney, a retired aerospace engineer, is tense with emotional pain as they talk about Elisa, a bright and active 13-year-old, who died suddenly of an undetected heart ailment last June. "He never breaks out in tears," Ilean says of her husband of 53 years, "but I know that he is crying inside. I know what he's thinking. It's in his voice."

Elisa was their only grandchild. The Kanters babysat her as an infant, took her on trips as a little girl and opened their home to her as she grew into a teenager. One moment she was alive and seemingly healthy, a straight-A student and an accomplished writer and musician, just three days away from a trip to Israel—and the next moment she was gone. The suddenness of her death intensified the loss. When she died, the world they knew evaporated.

"I went to the hospital and rubbed her arm," Ilean remembers, sobbing softly. "I kissed her three times. I couldn't believe it. I still can't. I'll never get over it."

In the days following Elisa's death, the Kanters helped Elisa's parents—their daughter, Debbie, and their son-in-law, Leslie—experience their own grief. They cried together, Ilean says, her eyes brimming with remembered tears, and talked about the love and joy that Elisa brought into their lives. Ilean and Pinney listened while the parents talked, emptying themselves of the sadness that filled their new loneliness.

"We supported Debbie by just being there," Ilean says. "What else could we do? I took her shopping, anything she wanted. I tried to make her laugh when we talked about Elisa. She was the sweetest kid you'll every meet—when she was a little girl she called the escalator the alligator…"

As Ilean talks, a small terrier named Daisy that they bought for Elisa curls up on the floor near them, a reminder of the little girl they had helped raise.

Now, still less than a year after Elisa's death, the Kanters, both in their 80s, continue to deal with their own grief a day at a time.

Ilean makes it a point to talk with Debbie on the telephone once or twice a day. Elisa becomes a living presence when they reminisce about her, Ilean says. "Debbie feels cheated and so do I. Why did God take her so soon? I tell Debbie how lonesome I am. I don't want to upset her, but it's the way we both feel. She must know that she isn't the only one suffering."

Indeed, grandparents often are the forgotten grievers. Standing in the background, trying to be strong for their own son or daughter, grandparents are called upon to play the difficult role of parents to their grieving children, while also staring into the void left by the death of a grandchild. How should they act? What should they say to a son or daughter who has just lost the most precious possession?

"The death of a grandchild ranks high on the scale of human grief—but it is rarely acknowledged," writes Helen Fitzgerald, training director for the American Hospice Foundation, in an online essay. "Grandparents are usually left to cope as best they can." The death seems out of order, she adds, and forces them to confront their own mortality. Why didn't they die first? Who will now carry on the family name? "The loss," Fitzgerald writes, "resonates through the generations."

Even when the lost grandson or granddaughter is a young adult, their deaths are no less tragic. "It's still the loss of a loved one, and the pain is still as great," says Dr. Lillian Carson, grandmother of six and author of The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference.

Grandparents themselves react to the loss of a child in many different ways. "It's definitely a new life for them following a grandchild's death," says Laura Reno, the public relations director for First Candle, a national nonprofit organization dealing with infant death, that runs a 24/7 bilingual telephone crisis line to help grieving relatives through difficult periods. "You can never again be the same."

At First Candle, trained counselors determine callers' physical and emotional states and attempt to ease them through the days that follow the darkest moments of their lives. They listen, offer advice, then follow up through mail and e-mail. "You can get through it," Reno assures, "but you'll never get over it."

When golfer Jack Nicklaus's grandson, 17-month-old Jake, drowned in a family pool in 2005, the six-time Masters champion turned to golf to assuage his deep grief over both the loss of Jake and the pain endured by his son. He was quoted in the media as saying he felt ill watching Jake's parents, Steve and Krista, suffer. He called the child's death a "double whammy" for a grandparent, adding, "That's just not supposed to happen."

Nicklaus at first declined to play in what would be his last Masters tournament a month later, preferring to spend time with his grieving family. "That's the most important thing right now," he said at the time, "and I think it will be the most important thing for a long time." He changed his mind later at the request of his family.

Former Secretary of State James Baker III handled his grief over the drowning death of his 7-year-old granddaughter, Graeme, by campaigning to make others aware of the danger of the suction power of backyard pools and spas. Graeme, a twin, was trapped in the bottom of such a pool.

For the Kanters, the key has been remembering the vitality of Elisa's life. Their granddaughter remains a presence in their home, as they talk about her in the manner that only long-time marital partners can, filling in for each other the details of Elisa's life.

To further cope with their grief, Pinney prays and Ilean talks to a photograph of Elisa, taken on her graduation day from secondary school—a pretty, dark-haired girl brimming with the energy that would have propelled her into adulthood.

"I say, 'Hi, sweetheart. I love you. I miss you,'" Ilean shares. "I don't want to sound too nutty, but I talk to her as though she is really there.

"She wore her first high-heeled shoes for graduation. She loved to have her hair and her nails done.

"We needed more time with her."