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Grieving the Loss of a Grandchild

QUESTION: I recently lost my granddaughter due to stillbirth. I am really grieving over the loss. What coping and healing measures do you suggest for our family? I also worry about my grandson who is 10 years old and doesn't talk much about his baby sister. Is there anything I can do to help?

ANSWER: The loss of a child, particularly at birth, can be especially difficult because this kind of grief is so poorly understood. Although family members did not spend years knowing and being with this little one, their hearts are full with dreams and anticipation that remain unfulfilled. This precipitous loss leaves an emptiness that is difficult to express because there is little visible evidence of the child's presence on earth.

The healing power of family ritual is essential for creating a space to hold this grief. A ceremony that allows for the marking of this child's place in the family may help facilitate the flow of emotions. A family ritual may involve religious or spiritual elements, including nature's help in some symbolic way, such as planting a flower garden or tree in honor of life. Such a ritual marks the importance of this life event and can help a family with healthy expression, rather than repression, of feelings.

Remember, too, that individuals grieve in different ways. It is not uncommon for parents to grow apart from one another, rather than pull together in the aftermath that follows the loss of a child. This sometimes is a result of not allowing for differences in how people grieve. Women may desire a more outward display of emotions, while men may grieve more privately. Misunderstandings can occur -- for example, when a grieving mother feels her husband is not mirroring her sorrow. She may feel alone in her grief, believing that her husband is not as affected by the loss, or that he has gotten "past" it more quickly than she. Depression can set in, and spouses can become disconnected from one another.

As a grandparent, you may be in a position of offering wisdom during this pivotal period. If you see the strain of this life event driving spouses apart, rather than together, consider lending a compassionate ear to each party separately. This could be a crucial juncture to encourage communication, helping a couple to come to terms with their shared pain and their differences in coping. But this is not the only place you may lend a helping hand! You may also be a compassionate observer for understanding the effects of the family loss on your 10-year-old grandson.

It is not uncommon for surviving children to feel guilt about the loss of a sibling. How a family processes this event can make the difference in a child's adjustment. Provide opportunity for your grandson to express his feelings about this family loss. Especially, allow him to vocalize unpopular feelings, which Mom and Dad may have difficulty hearing at this time. He may be angry at the inevitable withdrawal of attention by his parents during their preoccupation with the death of his sister. And because he did not have the same dreams as his parents, or know his sister in any tangible way, he may not feel the depth of sadness or even quite understand his parents' grief. He may even feel less worthy to his parents, who seem to so value this ghost of a person rather than himself!

Acknowledge the way in which your grandson's life is touched by the loss of his sister. But do not expect him to grieve with the same intensity. Support his normal activities and his joy in life, even while his parents mourn. His silence may indicate confusion about his feelings, or guilt because his feelings do not exactly match his parents' sorrow.

Support groups for parents who have lost children can be a godsend in giving parents a place to express their ongoing grief and be more emotionally present for their surviving children. As a grandmother, you can help by researching support groups in your area -- in addition to being there for your grandson's range of feelings and helping parents to accept the differences that may arise in the grieving process.

But do not forget yourself! You, too, need to express your pain. Whether you choose to turn to family or friends, do not bear this alone.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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