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A Grandchild’s Grief: When Grandparents Die

No one reading this article will question that the life of a grandparent can have a profound influence on the life of a grandchild.  But how does the death of a grandparent affect a grandchild?

According to Brian Yates, Ph.D. of American University, the death of a grandparent can have profound ramifications for a grandchild.  In a recent study, Yates reports that the most severely disturbed of 114 psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents were much more likely to have experienced the death of a grandparent during infancy than those adolescents who were less severely disturbed.  Dr. Yates concluded that 1 or more grandparents had died during the infancy of 4 of the 16 most severely disturbed adolescents, 7 of the 46 who fell into the intermediate range, but only 1 of the 40 who were least disturbed.

Two Stages

Dr . Yates and his associates hypothesize that the trauma associated with the death of a grandparent occurs in two stages.  First, the child directly experiences the grief of losing a grandparent to whom he or she has become closely attached.  Secondly, there is an indirect negative effect when a grieving parent is temporarily unable to provide the continuity of care and attention necessary for the child.

Dr. Yates cautions that these findings are preliminary, and may be only correlational, not causally linked.

A Life-long Bond

A more extensive report has been issued by Mary S. Cerney, Ph.D, of the Topeka Institute for Psychoanalysis. Dr. Cerney opens her report with the statement that, because grandparents can play such a large role in a child’s life, the death of a grandparent will naturally have a severe impact on the child. According to Dr. Cerney, the importance of a grandparent to a grandchild has its roots in the depths and complexities of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, and the many forms it takes.

Dr. Cerney states that most of the “bonding” part of the relationship takes place when children are quite young.  But she also found that, contrary to expectations, adolescents were quite willing to help grandparents in time of need.  Most researchers, she says, thought that adolescents would be too wrapped up in their own worlds to care about grandparents, but in fact the young people showed excessive concern when their grandparents’ health faltered or they encountered some of other trouble.

This discovery led Dr. Cerney to call for a re-assessment of the importance of grandparents to older children.  It also signaled to her that grandparental death is very important to children, not only in younger age groups, but in older age groups as well.

Illustrating this theory, Dr. Cerney cites the case of Jenny, a 16-year-old alcoholic.  Dr. Cerney says in her report, “Was it mere coincidence that Jenny’s alcohol problem emerged the same year her maternal grandmother died to whom her mother was so emotionally attached?  Jenny’s alcohol treatment at that time appeared to be successful, and no further problem occurred until a a significant relapse occurred 10 years later.  Was it again mere coincidence that her relapse, one brother’s drug overdose and another brother’s drug problem all occurred within a year following the death of the maternal grandfather, who was poignantly grieved by the mother?  Was it also a coincidence that is in this same family, another brother who was deeply attached to the father  suffered a heart attack the same year that the paternal grandfather, to whom the father was deeply attached, died?”

Children Try to Help Parents

What does this all mean?  Dr. Cerney is unsure, but she suggests the possibility that, in addition to reacting to their own grief, the children were trying to distract their parents from the grief of losing their own parents. Dr. Cerney also cites the case of Billy, a 9-year-old who became highly distressed when his grandfather died.  Billy’s grandmother had died when he was only 9 months old, so he had never developed a close relationship to her.  To help assuage his grief at the loss of his wife, Billy’s grandfather took an intense interest in his grandson.  The two of them became inseparable.  Billy “seemed to give the elderly gentleman the energy he needed to go on living.”

When it became known that the grandfather was dying of cancer, Billy’s mother tried to discuss the situation with all of her children, but Billy didn’t want to hear about it.  When the grandfather passed away, Billy was inconsolable.  He said he wanted to shoot himself with his father’s gun so he could be with his grandfather.

Dr. Cerney concludes that “Billy was filled with guilt and felt that he might have done something to make his grandfather want to leave him.  He couldn’t understand why he would want to leave him forever, since they had previously done everything together.  He then projected his guilt onto his parents whom he felt were also at fault.  Now he would punish them by shooting himself in the head with daddy’s gun.  The only way Billy could sleep was if he could take a picture of grandpa to bed with him.”

As time passed and Billy grew to accept the reality of his grandfather’s passing, he realized he could keep memories of his grandfather alive, and that realization helped him resume his daily life.

Grandparent’s Inflluence is Lifelong.

Dr. Cerney said in conclusion of her study, “The influence of grandparents upon grandchildren is not limited to childhood.  My work suggests that their impact is never diminished, even into old age.  The death of a grandparent usually permits children their first opportunity to experience the mystery of life and death.”

When a grandparent is dying or has died, children are frequently not told what is happening because they are considered too young.  But no child should be shielded from the knowledge that a beloved grandparent will be dying and leaving soon.  If not, children, with their active imaginations, may try to assume responsibility for what has happened.  This can be the foundation for a very destructive force in the life of the child and the individual he or she becomes.”

Death is part of life, and as grandparents teach grandchildren about life, so they should be allowed to teach them about death.


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