My last memories of my grandmother are from my wedding in November of 2005. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking very much about her at the time because (1) I was getting married and (2) I was still coming to terms with the terminal cancer diagnosis my mother had received a month before. I like to believe that had known it was the last time I’d see my grandmother, I would have made more of an effort to remember everything about her or to say something even remotely meaningful…but who knows. What I do know is that I miss my grandmother and 10 years later I still grieve for her in very real ways.
You will likely experience the death of at least one grandparent in your lifetime and when you do it may cause intense pain and heartache. Although your grief will ultimately be unique to you and to the relationship you had with your grandparent, in the following article we will discuss a few of challenges common to grieving the death of a grandparent.
1. This may be your first experience with death.
On average, there are about 47+ years between grandparent and grandchild. With such an age difference, many people experience the death of at least one of their grandparents in childhood or early adulthood and for many, this will be their first experience with loss. Experiencing the death of a loved one for the first time can be confusing and scary and can lead to questions about death, death related rituals, and grief. Although grief is always individual, age can influence a person’s understanding and response to loss. If you’re worried about a bereaved child or young adult check out the following posts:
- Childhood Grief: The influence of age on understanding
- Helping a Teenager Deal With Grief
- Supporting a Grieving Child: The importance of modeling
If you are a young adult who’s recently experienced a death of any kind, check out the post: How do I find support as a grieving 20-something?
2. Your parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins might be grieving as well.
The death of any family member can have an impact on the family as a whole. A grandparent’s death is often felt very deeply by many members of your family. Depending on the circumstances, you may feel as though you have to prioritize the needs of others in your family before attending to your own grief and wellbeing.
There is a proverb that says “Grief divided is made lighter”. Personally, I think the word “divided” is a little misleading because I don’t think the proverb is meant to imply that anyone’s grief is any less. Rather I think it means that when we all grieve together – when we share our sadnesses, our fears, and our joyful memories – we are ultimately able to give and receive more support and comfort than if we were to grieve alone.
It would be ideal if all families could grieve together, however, we know that they often do not. Heightened emotion, grieving styles, misunderstandings, even fighting can make it hard for people to (1) support one another and (2) attend to their own needs. Also, your parent’s generation may set the tone for how they want your grandparent’s death acknowledged and grieved, which may be different from how you would like to cope. If any of this is true for you, you may have to work extra hard to balance your needs with the needs of others.
3. Your grandparent might have been more like a parent.
Families differ in their closeness, hierarchy, proximity, relationships, and overall dynamics. With such differences, grandparent/grandchild relationships obviously run the spectrum from you-are-like-a-parent-to-me type relationships to see-you-next-Christmas type relationships.
Many grandchildren have very close relationships with their grandparents and rely on them for a number of their social, emotional, or physical needs. When a close grandparent dies, the grandchild often feels like they’ve lost someone akin to a parent which is intensely painful and can cause many difficult secondary losses.
4. You may wish you had known your grandparent better.
Conversely, just because someone didn’t have a parent-like relationship with their grandparent, doesn’t mean their loss isn’t significant. Perhaps they love their grandparent dearly but never felt they had the opportunity to spend as much time with them as they would have liked. Some grandchildren lose their grandparent well before they are old enough to have a deep and mature relationship with them. When a grandparent dies, some people may be left with regret about unanswered questions and things left unsaid, as well as wishes about how they think the relationship “could have” or “should have” been.
5. Your grandparent might have been the glue that held the family together.
Often times, family members consider the eldest family member to be the patriarch or matriarch of the family. This person may seem like the family’s foundation and when they die the entire family becomes fractured and untethered. There are breakdowns in communication, no one knows who should host Thanksgiving, and people start wondering if maybe they should skip the annual family reunion because it just won’t be the same.
6. People may minimize your loss.
After the death of a loved one, people often long for others to recognize and acknowledge their pain. The person who has died is important, loved and really mattered. So when someone minimizes your loss it feels as though they are undermining the person’s significance and taking away your right to feel pain.
People minimize losses for a handful of reasons. Some may assume your loss isn’t significant based on their belief that it is the expected, natural order for grandparents to die first. Some may make judgments based on their subjective experience that grandparents are distant, non-nuclear relatives. While some may realize how much pain you are in, but offer the wrong words of comfort. For example, maybe you’ve heard this one…
This is something people love to say about grandparents, I guess because it’s often true. It’s not that helpful in grief, though, because being reminded of a person’s age does nothing to ease the pain caused by their absence in your life. There is never a point where you sit back and say – “I think we’ve spent enough time together. Yes, I have plenty of memories in my grandpa memory bank, so I’m okay with losing you now.”
Just remember, your grief is a reflection of your unique relationship with your grandparent and your individual ability to cope with this loss. You, and only you know how much pain you are in and how this loss ought to be grieved.
This list isn’t even close to being all-inclusive, what do you have to add? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience grieving the death of a grandparent.
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