Grieving for a grandparent: a counsellor explains how they help people through such a loss

Grieving for a grandparent: a counsellor explains how they help people through such a loss

William Prince of Wales and Catherine Princess of Wales accompanied by Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan Duchess of Sussex look at tributes to Queen Elizabeth II outside Windsor Castle Alamy/ Jamie Lorriman

Many of us feel touched by the loss of our queen, but that is nothing compared to the loss of a beloved grandparent. The queen’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have lost a wise and loving guardian. For most people their parent or parents are their main caregiver but grandparents can have a special role in our lives.

I know, from conversations with bereaved people, that the media coverage of the queen’s death has triggered many to revisit their own losses. If it means that they use the opportunity to explore the previously unresolved, that can only be a good thing.

Everyone’s grief journey is unique. But this is how I, in my practice as a bereavement counsellor, guide clients through the loss of a grandparent. No experienced bereavement counsellor makes assumptions, either about the relationship between the lost loved one and their mourning relative, or about the thoughts and feelings the client is experiencing in their grief.

The first step when I meet a new client, whatever their age, is to ask them to tell me, at their own pace, the story of the loss, including events that led up to it, such as a prolonged illness or sudden unexpected death.

The way they tell the story, in detail or rushed tearfully or in a matter-of-fact style, gives me important clues into their emotional state. Telling the story in a brief, dispassionate way is a signal that they are dissociating from their grief, for example.

For young children, their account helps me understand how much they have been told by the grown-ups. However, even a teenage or adult grandchild may not have all the information they need to make sense of the loss. Unlike their parents, they may have not been present at the death.

Adults who hurried to be at their grandparent’s (or parent’s) final hours, but did not make it in time, can be left with a profound sense of guilt. Making sense of, and finding meaning in, the loss is the most important part of grief resolution. This includes understanding and articulating our feelings.

Helping young children grieve

Even the youngest child grieves in some way. The intellectual and cognitive stage of the child makes a big difference to how a counsellor will work.

A toddler does not understand the permanence of death. A young child’s magical thinking, the egocentric stage of believing that their actions can result in unrelated events, can leave them feeling that they in some way caused the death.

The child that reaches an abstract stage of thinking about death, normally between the ages of 11 and 16, may still struggle with an emotional vocabulary. Even a baby can sense family stress and that their parent, feeling the loss of their parent, is emotionally distant.

The depth of a grandchild’s grief may not be fully understood by their family, because, understandably, they are wrapped up in their own grief. There are times when it is helpful for the counsellor to work in collaboration with the adult relatives. Counsellors who work with children often work with parents to help them support their child.

Parents and siblings of the deceased may have been expecting the death sooner or later, whereas to grandchildren, the loss may have come as a shock to their assumptive world. This means the personal world we know and take for granted: in this instance, a world in which grandma or grandad would always be there.

The seriousness of the grandparent’s condition may not have been communicated to the children, and what they do know may have been gleaned by overhearing snippets of adult conversation. It is not always easy to recognise a young child’s grief because it is often expressed differently to an adult, including anger, mood swings, and regression into the behaviour of a younger child.

Young hands grasp older hands
Grandparent loss is part of growing up. OHishiapply/Shutterstock

I also need to know the part the grandparent played in the grandchild’s life. Grandparents frequently pick up grandchildren from school, read them stories, teach them songs, help them with homework and take them on days out. The grandparent can be a role model for the children of single-parent families. A grandchild whose grandparent was a significant part of their life needs time to adapt and relearn a world without granny or grandpa.

Adults and teenagers

I have worked with young adults who regarded a grandmother as a surrogate for an absent mother. I have been told: “On paper she was my Nana, but in reality, she was my Mum.” As it becomes common for people to live into their 80s and 90s, there will be more adults bereaved by the loss of a grandparent. To a great extent, the emotions of adults are the same, particularly in the early weeks and months of grief.

A grandchild of any age can be left with disenfranchised grief, a belief that they have no right to the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing.

Once I am confident that my client understands what happened, can make sense of the death and has the vocabulary to express their emotions, we begin the process of adapting to the loss. No longer do psychologists expect people to let go and move on. Instead we encourage them to preserve memories, which helps to to develop a new, symbolic bond with their grandparent.

For older children it can help to go through old photographs and talk with them about past events. For young children we do this with memory boxes. These are boxes, which the child may want to decorate, filled with pictures and objects that represent their lost loved one, or their relationship.

Young children intuitively take time out from their grief, and to some extent adults do too, although guilt and social pressures may prevent this. It helps to validate the unique and creative ways older children and young people may choose to distract themselves from their grief, often with hobbies, films, computer games, or time on social media with friends. I let them know this is natural and doesn’t diminish the bond they had with their late grandparent.

Grieving for grandparents is a part of growing up, and for most of us, preparation for losing parents. The grief is always there. Effective bereavement counselling leaves the client aware that their grief will continue, but will become more manageable, and breaks the acute grief cycle of unresolved emotions.

John Frederick Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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