A grandparent’s death has ripple effects on the family members who have had a relationship with them. For younger family members, it may be the first time they experience death. People can navigate through grief and bereavement by acknowledging these feelings, seeking comfort from loved ones, and working with a therapist.
How You Might Feel After Losing a Grandparent
Feelings of loss, sadness, helplessness, and anger can be overwhelming in the midst of trying to cope with grief after losing a grandparent.1 The five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but many experts believe these stages don’t proceed in a linear fashion.
Losing a Grandparent as a Child
Due to their limited life experience, young children have little or no understanding of death and what it means. As such, they grieve differently than adults. When it comes to time to explain death to a child who has lost a grandparent, using age appropriate language is key. A child whose grandma or grandpa died can experience a wide array of feelings.
After the death of a grandparent, a child might exhibit any of these feelings or behaviors:
- Worry that they’ve done something to cause the death
- Crying one moment and playing the next
- Anger at the person who has died (or someone else entirely)2
- Isolating themselves
- Clinging to a loved one
- Nightmares, interrupted sleep, or a fear of the dark
- Not understanding how to release their emotions
- Aggression towards people they are close with
- Acting in an uncharacteristic way
- Fear, surprise, or confusion, as influenced by the behavior and reactions of the adults closest to them
“If a child is old enough to love they are old enough to grieve. Often children are ‘forgotten grievers’ either parents assume they are too young to grieve, don’t know how to explain death or are full of grief themselves and don’t notice the grief of their own child,” says Dr. Sally Karioth, certified traumatologist and professor at Florida State University.11
Loss of a Grandparent Later In Life
Sometimes, people will minimize the magnitude of an adult’s loss because the grandparent has lived a longer life. The intensity and length of the grief can be directly related to the nature of the relationship between grandparent and adult child, as well as the frequency of their contact, and has less to do with age. Some grandparents may have assumed more of a parental role, intensifying the loss.
If you lose a grandparent later in life, these feelings and behaviors may emerge:
- Guilt over not spending enough time with your grandparents or not having the opportunity to say everything you wanted to before their death
- Being overcome by shock and confusion, leading to prolonged periods of sadness and depression that typically diminishes as time passes3
- Becoming more preoccupied with death and dying
- Swinging dramatically and swiftly from one feeling to another
- Avoidance of reminders of the deceased alternating with deliberate cultivation of memories4
- Emotions like depression and sadness growing and diminishing in different phases of the grief process
- Hopelessness and helplessness
How to Cope With Losing a Grandparent
People can navigate through grief and bereavement by acknowledging their feelings, seeking comfort from loved ones, and working with a therapist. It’s important to understand that uncomfortable feelings are not unusual or abnormal; however, if they linger or cause you to feel overwhelmed, seek counseling or additional support.
Here are 11 strategies to cope with the loss of a grandparent:
- Share your grief with other family members: When we share our sadness, fears, and joyful memories, we are ultimately able to give and receive more support5
- Attend a funeral and/or create a ceremony: Honor and share favorite memories, photos, and stories about your grandparent.
- Give yourself time to grieve: Focus on honoring your grandparent’s life before processing the inevitable changes to your family structure due to your grandparent dying. To help ease the anniversary effect, plan something special to remember them on their death anniversary.
- Ask for a memento: When you discover something meaningful to you (e.g., an item or a letter), ask family members if you can keep it as a cherished memory.6
- Consult a therapist who specializes in grief and loss: Find a therapist in a directory; you might also consider grief counseling.
- Practice self-care: Pay attention to eating and sleeping habits and practice positive self-care habits.
- Manage grief with religion or spirituality: Spiritual beliefs may help by lending larger meaning to a loved one’s life and death.7
- Avoid self-destructive behaviors: Don’t turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. Alcohol can function as a depressant that hinders brain and central nervous system function, making it harder to effectively process and understand emotions.
- Attend a grief support group: It’s helpful to talk with others who have experienced death and loss. Their support and mutual understanding can be a source of comfort.
- Journaling: Grief journaling prompts help people articulate their feelings in a safe, protected environment. Some people find that writing letters to loved ones who have died is also a source of comfort, closeness, and closure.
- If another grandparent is alive, spend time with them: If they’re the spouse of the person who has died, exchange memories and stories.
Helping a Child Cope With a Grandparent Dying
There are differences between how children and adults experience grief. Because these emotions may be expressed as angry outbursts or misbehavior, they may not be recognized as grief-related. Furthermore, because their needs are often intense and immediate, children typically move from grief reactions to a search for (and acceptance of) replacement persons.8
“The most important way to help your child cope is to show your emotions. We often think that we need to protect children and hide our emotions. However, it is important that you allow your children to see you crying because when we show our emotions, we are normalizing emotional expression,” says Dr. Elena Merenda, Assistant Program Head of Early Childhood Studies at University of Guelph-Humber & Director of Children’s Healing Studio.
It is also important to talk about death. Use simple, clear words like ‘death’ and ‘died,’ rather than ‘passed’ or ‘lost.’ You should also be clear in what caused the death. Instead of saying, ‘Grandma was sick and died’ you want to be clear in saying, ‘Grandma had cancer and died.’”12
Younger grandchildren don’t understand what death means and are not emotionally or intellectually prepared to deal with it. When explaining death to a child, avoid euphemisms like grandpa is “asleep” or “passed away.” That can be confusing and scary. Be sure to use a reassuring tone of voice, be honest and clear in your explanation, and don’t be afraid to share your personal experience with the loss as well.9
Dr. Karioth also explains, “Often children worry or become anxious when parents act differently such as weeping or sighing or changing routines, and it is important to explain that these behaviors are normal when we lose people we love. It is important to make sure to tell them they don’t have to keep their feelings to themselves to try and protect their parents. Talk about the grandparent who has died, look at pictures, tell funny stories, help the child make a monument of good memories, letting them know no subject is taboo.”11
Middle School Aged Children
For this age group, answer the child’s questions honestly and directly using age appropriate answers and the word “death.” Let them know it’s OK to feel sad or scared. Ask them what questions they have. They will look to trusted adults for cues about how to respond. Check back after the initial conversation to see how they’re feeling and what additional information and support they need.
Teenagers are more aware and understand that something bad has happened by watching adult behavior. Being honest and direct is recommended. Don’t give too many details unless the teen specifically asks. Allow them time to take in the information and check back with them to see how they feel and what other information they need.
Prepare them for a funeral, religious service, or memorial by telling them what will happen and who will attend, and articulate to them how it might feel.
How Should Religion Play Into Your Conversations?
If you and your family are religious, talking about an afterlife can be an important way to help your child grieve.
Dr. Merenda mentions, “If your family practices a religion and you have beliefs about an afterlife that you want to instill in your child, it is important to include religion in your discussions. Along with your medical explanation of death, you can include discussions about the soul and what happens to the soul once it leaves the body. Whether you believe in Heaven or reincarnation, it is important that you share this with your child. Often discussions about an afterlife will bring children hope because it provides an opportunity to stay connected with that loved one and the possibility of being together again.”12
Dr. Karioth notes, “If religion was a part of the child’s life and they had already been introduced to the concept of an afterlife then religion can be very comforting if it is presented in positive terms (i.e. ‘you will be able to see Grandpa again some day’). But this is not true if presented in a negative light (i.e. ‘Death is God’s punishment’). This is an area where it is important to take into account idiosyncratic teachings and ethnic responses to grief and loss. Children may have a stronger sense of spirituality than expected and the way in which they evaluate future life events. Mostly it is important not to force something on them that is not part of their belief structure.”11
Should a Child Attend the Funeral?
Funeral services are an important part of grieving and celebrating someone’s life. It can bring a sense of closure for anyone, including grandchildren.
Dr. Karioth encourages, “This question has pretty much been settled among grief experts. Generally if a child wants to go to a funeral they should be allowed but never forced. Start by examining what they understand about death. What is most important is how the child is prepared in advance. Knowledge is power.
They need to know grandpa won’t look the same or smell the same, explain how the room will look, that people will be both laughing and crying. If much younger than 4 or 5 it may not be preferred to bring them unless someone knows before time that they are responsible for taking the little one out if they become fussy. Generally look at how mature they are instead of just their age.
Children should be involved in the funeral planning if they want. They may want to put a favorite toy or picture in the casket. As an added note, you can have done everything right in preparing a child for a funeral and children may still plead to the parents not to die, especially now that they know that it is a possibility. Just follow your instincts but don’t make the decision for them, let them make the decision and if they don’t want to go take time to examine with them why not.”11
When Grief Turns Into Depression
When a loved one dies, it’s normal to anticipate a period of bereavement and grief. A major difference between grief and depression is that people suffering from major depressive disorder tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may turn away or shun support and assistance.10 Those with a history of depression may have a recurrence with the death of a loved one.
How to Find a Therapist
If you’re struggling to cope with the loss of a grandparent or are experiencing persistent complex bereavement disorder, it’s time to connect with a therapist or grief counselor. Doing so can also help you avoid or manage complicated grief.
If you’re ready to find a therapist, start your search in an online therapist directory. You can also ask people you respect and trust for their recommendations. It’s very possible a loved one has attended or is attending therapy and can give you insight on the professionals in your area. If you belong to a religious organization, ask your faith leader if they have recommendations.
Grieving the death of a grandparent is a process that takes time. It is important for children and adults receiving news of this death to be in a place where they feel loved. Tapping into therapy, grief counseling, or reaching out to family, support groups, and friends will help to begin the necessary work to face grief and initiate healing.