Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Helping Grandchild Cope with Loss of Cousin

QUESTION: My granddaughter drowned 18 months ago at age three. Her cousin Emma, who is now three years old, asks daily, "Why did Ilana have to die?" She and Ilana both lived with us (grandparents), so they were very close. Emma is also concerned that my husband and I are old and will die soon. Emma and I have made a flower garden in Ilana's memory, but I'm finding it difficult to answer Emma's questions. Can you help me?

ANSWER: The loss of Ilana is more like that of a sibling, since both of your grandchildren have lived with you as their primary caretakers. As with any loss, your surviving granddaughter will continue to process it at each new stage of cognitive development. Since she was a baby herself when the tragedy occurred, she is left with many unspoken questions. She is only now capable of putting words to her feelings about what happened. Addressing the hole left in the family at this point is a necessary stage in the process of her grieving.

Talking with your living grandchild about her cousin's death will help her mourn. But it will also bring up fresh pain for you. Sharing your feelings of missing your granddaughter and being able to say "I don't know" when this is your best answer is a part of that process. Do not expect yourself to have all the answers. But do address any unresolved feelings about the accident that your grandchild's questions may stimulate for you. Consider seeking counseling to address any feelings of anger, guilt, or sadness that threaten to overwhelm you in any way. Getting help yourself may be necessary in order for you to help your living grandchild cope with her loss.

It is a little-known fact that the second year following a significant loss is a crucial period in a family's grieving process. All too often, the initial support from friends and family has lessened by this time, and the initial shock, which numbs some of the pain, has yielded to a deeper, more solitary sadness. This often results in greater depression in the second year. Seeking help and support through this second year can spell the difference between depression and healing.

Rest assured, your grandchild's worry that you will die is a natural one. Even the death of a pet can bring this anxiety to the fore for young children. The absence of her own parents as primary caretakers may intensify her concern, as she begins to notice that you are older than most of her friend's parents. Be prepared for this issue. It is at this age that children begin to recognize that aging and dying are somehow connected. Children worry about who will care for them if something happens to their primary caretakers. And the actual loss of a family member only makes this concern more real.

Reassurance is necessary. Consider making plans for Emma's care in your will, if you have not already done so. Tell her about these contingency caretaking plans, to help ease her fears. But at the same time, let her know that you expect to live a long and healthy life!

You are doing a great job by creating a flower garden to honor Ilana's life! This not only gives both you and your grandchild an outlet for your grief, but uses nature to help you hold and transform sorrow. Drawing pictures or helping your grandchild express her feelings through play is also an excellent way to support her healing. By the age of four, she may benefit from play therapy or a child's support group. Research the services in your area; for example, a local hospital may offer support groups for children who have lost siblings or other family members. It will help her to know that there are others who, like her, have lost loved ones and continue to live their lives.

You, too, can experience ongoing support through the organization Compassionate Friends, which can connect you with others in a similar situation to yours who may be able to help mentor you through this stage of your own grieving.

The premature death of a child is one of life's most difficult losses. Dealing with it may be a lifetime's work. Do not stay alone with this pain. Continue to seek help and support through this next year, and as needed in the years that follow, to help you heal.

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.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com