Updated: Oct 12
There is a day that my life changed as a grandparent, as a parent, and as an individual. It is a day in history that cannot be changed…a day that I cannot fix. How can I as a mother or as a grandmother, not fix something? I could not fix what was permanent. Death is permanent. Grief and mourning are permanent.
The night of August 28, 2022, I witnessed (along with my husband) something that no grandparent should ever witness. Our grandson, just shy of 15 months old, lay motionless on a stretcher in an emergency trauma room following a tragic accident. We felt shock, despair, anger, disbelief, and quite a few more emotions.
We as grandparents don’t cry just once, we cry twice—once for the loss of our grandchild and then again for the pain being felt by our child. As grandparents, we suffered because the loss of our grandson, but we also suffered watching the pain felt by our child, our son. We cried for what he was going through then, and we still cry about what he is going through now.
The week after my grandson died was like living in a bad dream. That first night, our son, daughter-in-law, and their other two children went to my daughter-in-law’s parents, as they couldn’t go home. I was in shock and denial, and I didn’t know what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I didn’t want to add to the grief, so I basically let them know to call whenever they needed something.
The funeral for our little man was beautiful, but I was just functioning, not really thinking during it. I went through the motions, just doing what was needed of me. Our daughter-in-law was admitted to the hospital the day following the funeral. She remained there for a month and a half. She was a big worry to the entire family, as she was not coping well at all with the loss of her baby. No one is ever prepared to deal with the loss of their child.
For a time, our son had to be both Mom & Dad to his children, chose to visit his wife in hospital daily, and had to keep the household in check all while trying to grieve his son. As a family, we did everything in our power to help my son and my grandchildren through the time that my daughter-in-law was in hospital.
As grandparents, we put our own needs and feelings on the back burner. I remember not really feeling anything early on – my main concern was to get my other two grandkids. They were very quiet when they came to our house. We continued to be “parents," supporting our son and his family the best we could on a daily basis. The kids stayed with us or their other Grandparents while my son went to visit his wife or just so he could have some private space. It took some encouragement to get the children to start talking. They seemed comforted when they first realized that it was okay to talk about their brother. Over time, they opened up more to me. We laughed together, and we cried together.
Our living grandchildren are 3 years old and 6 years old, and their cousins are 4 years old and 16 months old. The youngest two were only 4 months apart. When the children come for a visit, they often refer to their brother/cousin, which we encourage. We talk about things he would do as well as gestures and facial expressions he would make. He is buried at the cemetery just down the road from our house, so we will go with the kids on walks to see him. They will talk to him and play or tidy up his site. They love to cut hydrangeas from my garden to take to him. He is visited by his entire family routinely. Keeping him alive in our memory is important to our entire family. He continues to be an important part of our family. He always will be.
I also realized (after a meltdown) that I, myself, needed someone to talk to. I realized that I had been strong for my son and his children, yet I had forgotten to take care of myself. This is a very common experience for grandparents after this type of loss. Our son’s family has gotten amazing support from some amazing people, but it felt like the grandparents were kind of forgotten about after that first week. There is a name for those of us in these situations, we are called the “invisible mourners” or “forgotten mourners” because our pain is secondary to the pain of the child’s parents, which means our grief often goes overlooked.
In my grief I experienced so many conflicting emotions: frustration, anger, and disbelief were daily feelings. I was angry with myself because I couldn’t make everything better. I couldn’t bring my grandson back, and I wanted that for his family so badly. I even said, “it should have been me."
For any grandparent who experiences this type of loss, it’s important that you don’t hesitate to reach out to someone for help – ask a friend, call your doctor, talk to someone. There is no shame in needing help. That’s the best thing I could have done for myself.
I will admit, it’s a daily struggle and good days are few and far between right now, but hopefully the good days will soon outweigh the bad. One thought that has helped me is that every morning I think to myself, “What can I do today to make him proud of his grandma?” I also find comfort by talking to my grandson quite a bit when I feel down or when doing something…wherever it may be. When I find a dime on the ground, I say “thank you,” pick it up, bring it home, and put it in a crystal bowl in my office. I am reminded of him whenever I look at that bowl.
While the grief never fully goes away, you have to live one day at a time until it starts to ease…no matter how long that takes. There is no standard timeline for anyone’s grief. Each one of us grieves differently, so be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself during this process. Take whatever time you need, while cherishing the one you lost. Little by little, you will find yourself taking tiny steps back to some kind of normalcy. Know that your life HAS changed. It will never be what it was before you lost your grandchild, but you will eventually find a new balance going forward. Know that you will never ever forget your loved one. They will always be part of you.
If you are interested in learning how to support bereaved parents, you can enroll in HHA’s Infant and Pregnancy Loss Doula (IPLD) certificate program. The next IPLD training weekend will be held April 28-30th, 2023. You can register to attend here. Alternatively, you can enable others in communities across Canada receive this training by contributing to the IPLD scholarship fund. You can donate here:
HHA also offers a six-week virtual progressive healing group called Our Babies, Our Grief for individuals who have lost a baby through miscarriage, termination, stillbirth, infant death or adoption. You can learn more about the program here.
Tammy Elliott is a death doula candidate with Home Hospice Association as well as a personal support worker.