Grieving as a grandparent

A younger man and older man with backs to the camera approaching the front of a crematorium

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When a baby or child dies, the whole family grieves. Grandparents often need to care for their own child, while coping with the loss of their grandchild, yet there is little support available for them.

We’re very grateful to grandparents Alison, Ann and Loraine for telling us about their experiences and to the baby loss counselling charity Petals for sharing details of their grandparents' Facebook group.

Tell us a little about what happened to you and your family.

Ann: Our grandson, George, was born in 2016. Before the birth, my daughter and her partner knew there were issues. It seemed like every time they went for a scan, there was a new problem. But they decided to go through with the pregnancy. They were warned about the possibility that George would die shortly after birth.

But he didn't. He survived. He seemed to prove medics wrong for a while — he went through operations and did really well. Then suddenly he deteriorated. The day before he died I knew things weren't right, but I didn’t think then that we were going to lose him.

George passed away the following morning. He was five months old.

Alison: My daughter and her partner had been childhood sweethearts. They had, what you might call, a textbook pregnancy. Everything was fine until I got a phone call from my son-in-law telling me there was no heartbeat. My daughter delivered Penny the following Wednesday at 33 weeks.

We saw Penny a few hours after she was born. I'm so glad and honoured to have been there. We had time to read her a story, to sing to her and to touch her.

Loraine: My daughter was with me during the day and everything was normal, except for pain that she thought was Braxton Hicks. Later, I got a phone call saying that she was really in labour.

They found a placenta abruption and no heartbeat. My daughter was in agony and lost a lot of blood. I didn’t realise at the time how much danger she was in.

She had an emergency C section while I sat outside. The nurse brought out baby Ronnie — to look at him you wouldn’t have known he wasn’t alive — we went into a small room, where I could choose blankets to wrap him in.

Then I had to go back and tell my daughter’s older children, who were with their other grandparents, what had happened.

How were you involved in your grandchild’s funeral?

Loraine: It was lockdown and so we were only supposed to have six people there. But we said we were an immediate family of nine and they let us all come.

No florists were open, so I bought some flowers from the supermarket, and the people I work for said I could pick any flowers I wanted from their gardens. From these, I made posies for all of us.

Ann: Planning the funeral helped my daughter and her partner. It allowed them to do the last thing that they could do for George.

The day was a blur for me, but I remember my son-in-law carrying George in and people saying, ‘Oh my God, how is he doing that?’ But he did. He was strong and he did it.

Alison: My daughter and son-in-law arranged the funeral. They'd written a letter to Penny while my daughter was in labour about how their life should have played out, and they read that out. One of their close friends, who is a musician, sang.

Afterwards, we all went back to an ice cream café on a farm because they wanted something that would be relatable to a child. It was probably the hottest day of the year and it was beautiful.

What support have you found since then?

Alison: My daughter has had counselling from Petals but, from a grandparent's point of view, there's not a lot out there.

I'm grieving for two people — for my grandchild, and for my daughter and son-in-law's loss.

My daughter has immersed herself in different books about grief, which she's passed on to me. I also journal and I write a lot to Penny.

Loraine: I don’t feel there was any support available for me. I have a friend who has been through the same thing — she has been the nearest help to me.

My daughter got counselling from Petals, which was very good. There was a time when I wondered, ‘Will she ever be happy again?’

I believe there should be counselling for grandparents as well. There is nothing offered to grandparents. Some people are very kind, but they don’t really get it.

Ann: There was nothing offered to myself or my husband. The main thing I wanted to do was to support my daughter — I tended to push myself to the back a bit.

I met a close friend shortly after George died. We were in a café and lots of young mums came to sit near us, I just sat there and cried. I couldn't cope with it.

Time went on — I'd go to bed thinking of George, I'd wake up thinking of George. I would cry behind closed doors. I would talk to friends, but whether it's right or wrong, you get the feeling that they're thinking, ‘Oh no, here she goes again’.

I went to a grandparents’ group once. It was nice to be welcomed and to chat, but it was an hour and a half drive from where I live.

Later, after another bereavement, I had counselling from St Helena Hospice — they were absolutely brilliant. It allowed me to talk through my emotions. To my mind, counselling like that for grandparents is definitely needed.

The lack of support is something that I feel strongly about. Even after all this time, it still makes me very angry.

Have you found ways to support others?

Loraine: My hobbies are knitting and crocheting. I run a Facebook group where we make knitted items for three hospitals.

The bereavement midwife at the hospital where Ronnie died asked me for help. The previous year they had baubles with the names of the babies that had died on their Christmas tree, but many got broken. I suggested knitted glitter hearts instead and supplied all of these. I am proud and thrilled about being able to do that.

Ann: Writing has been a big thing for me. When I had counselling, they encourage you to write your thoughts in a journal.

I'd never thought of writing a book before, but there are no books out there for grandparents and there's no grief support. So I went about writing a book myself, called ‘Forgotten Grief’. That’s how I felt, and still feel, about my experience as a grandparent.

It was only very short, but it allowed me to talk about grief, my emotions, the lack of support for grandparents, and what I felt was needed. I donated the money from sales to St Helena Hospice.

Alison: As a family, we set up a Just Giving page for the charity Tommy’s. After less than a year, we’re at nearly £13,000. Penny's dad did the London Marathon a couple of weeks ago and other friends have done fundraising events.

To support them, I put on an afternoon tea. I asked friends and, within two days, it had sold out. We raised about £2,000 from that.

The fundraising has been a boost for me because it’s also an opportunity to talk about still birth — otherwise people just don't talk about it.

What helps you to remember your grandchild?

Loraine: I make a birthday cake every year and I get a birthday card for him. Where I work, they have named a part of the garden after my grandson, it’s now called Ronnie’s Garden.

Alison: I have photos and a memory box and talk about Penny all the time. I've got her name on a necklace around my neck. A colleague asked me about it the other day, so I said it's my granddaughter's name and she was stillborn. I'm not afraid to say that. That is one thing that my daughter has always said — she wants Penny’s name always to be included.

Ann: It’s obviously limited, but we do have photos of George. We still talk about him. On his birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, the immediate family get together and we do something. He’s remembered.

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Find out more about planning a funeral for a baby or child and about the baby loss counselling charity Petals.

(Photo credit: Good Funeral Guide)

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