Helping Your Grieving Child
by Margaret H. Gerner
One grandmother told me: Timmie's death is tearing me up, but seeing my daughter, Terry, in such pain is much worse. She is so different. The sadness I see in her eyes haunts me. Nothing pleases her. She's not interested in anything. All she does is talk about Timmie. She tells me she just wants to die so she can be with him. She cries and cries and there isn't anything I can do to make it better for her. I don't know what I'm going to do.
I felt like Timmie's grandmother. While I knew what Dorothy's needs were, and I tried to meet them every way I could. There were times I doubted that anything I did helped. I wanted to "kiss it and make it better;" and I wanted her better now. Without a moment's hesitation, I would have gladly taken her pain myself. I missed my precious Emily, but the feelings of helplessness around Dorothy's pain were even greater.
This is the hardest part of being a bereaved grandparent. There will be times you feel that nothing you do makes a difference. You will think your child will never "get over" this. But remember, the grief will not always be as intense and devastating as today, and your help will be forever appreciated.
The most important thing you can do is to understand your child's grief. If you have never lost a child yourself, then read The Bereaved Parent, by Harriet Schiff or any other book you can get your hands on that will help you to understand the unique, intense grief that is part of the loss of a child. Be assured, your child is not emotionally ill. There is no grief exactly like that which comes with the loss of a child.
There are several factors that make parental grief unique:
Loss of Part of Self - The parent/child relationship is the most intense that life can generate. The child was literally a part of the parent at one time. When you lose a child, you lose a part of yourself.
Loss of Meaning - Children give direction to life. Rearing and providing for them becomes a primary goal. With a child's death, even if there are other children, this goal changes. Life seems meaningless.
Loss of Support - Expectations are that parents will lean on each other and support each other. Parents themselves expect this, but it rarely happens. Each parent is so debilitated by grief that neither has the energy to support the other. One mother said, "It's impossible to lean on a tree that is already bending." Loss of support takes many forms.
Different grieving styles can create problems in a relationship. One may grieve openly, with much expression. The other may grieve inwardly and quietly. It is difficult for parents with opposite coping styles to respect the other's way of grieving. The inward-griever doesn't want to see the constant crying and lamenting of the other. The open-griever doesn't think the other one cares or has feelings. This leads to wrong assumptions and misinterpretations of feelings.
Changes in sexual activities can create problems, too. One may want the warmth and intimacy that intercourse gives them, while the other may suddenly find sex repulsive.
Guilt and blame can also prevent support. One may blame the other for real or imagined wrongs. The one blamed may withdraw with intense guilt feelings. This can create a wedge that may take professional help to resolve, especially if, in fact, one was somehow involved in the death.
What Can We Do
Encourage Talking - Like you, bereaved parents have a strong need to talk about what they think and feel. Encourage talking. Never say, "You shouldn't say that." Allow them to talk about their child and about their child's death.
Allow your Child to Cry - Crying, even sobbing, is healthy and necessary. Repressed tears can lead to a host of physical ailments. Tears are helpful in getting out the pain and releasing pent up stress. Never say, "control yourself." Avoid worrying about what other people will think if your child cries in front of them. Your child is not there to take care of others. Remember, this bout of crying will pass, and while it may disturb you for awhile, your child will feel better. Crying with your child can be therapeutic for both of you.
Talk about your Grandchild - Don't worry that it will make your child cry. You don't remind her of her child. He is on her mind most of the time, anyway. Talking about the child tells her you care. If she cries, she is crying because her child is dead, not because you brought it up. Actually, the tears you may help to precipitate can be good for her.
Listen to your Bereaved Child - The greatest gift you can give your child is a listen. Few bereaved parents have someone who will listen to stories about their child or to how guilty or angry they feel. You can be that listener. Even if you have not had open communication with your child up to now, you can change that. One of the most talked-about subjects in groups of young bereaved parents is the lack of understanding from their parents. If you really listen, you'll understand. Your child needs you to listen and needs you terribly.
Non-judgmental listening. Our generation has been taught to:
"Control" ourselves, keep feelings inside, that the person who doesn't talk about the loss of a loved one and who doesn't cry is doing "well".
These ideas are wrong, and certainly not helpful. We now know that suppressed grief is unhealthy, both emotionally and physically.
At the same time, we have been taught to love, to help others, to grow and adjust. We've been taught to be creative and try new things. You can use these positive teachings in listening to and loving your child.
A lot of what your child may say and feel will seem irrational. Just putting these things into words helps them to realize how illogical these thought may be. Just let them speak and discover for themselves.
Physical support is important. you can certainly help your child in this respect if you live close by. The fatigue that is part of grief is debilitating. In many cases your child is maintaining a full time job as well as keeping a home. Many have surviving children to care for as well. Help with laundry, cooking meals, shopping, running errands. But ask first. Having someone suddenly take over your household can only add to the stress.
Take the surviving children for a day or afternoon. This will give your bereaved child some time. the grandchildren might enjoy it, too. This gives them an opportunity to be away from the constant sadness that is likely to permeate their home and have a day with a good grandparent. When they are with you, if they want to talk about their dead sibling, by all means, practice your listening skills.
Physically hold your child. We are willing to bet there are times when your child would love to crawl up on "mommie's" or "daddy's" lap to be comforted as in years past. Be aware of this and actually allow it in any way possible. Even a hand on an arm means a lot. The need to be held is stronger during tears or an especially hard time. Many times, your child may not be aware of wanting to be held, but you can't take the initiative, for sons as well as daughters. The real benefit is that you feel you are doing something to help, not just sitting back helplessly watching your child suffer. It's perfectly all right to offer your lap as well as your hands, shoulders, heart and tears.
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