Support for grandparents after a neonatal death
Your grief for the parents
As a grandparent, you will be grieving the death of your grandchild, as well as feeling pain for the parents. It can be distressing to see your child coping with the loss of their baby. Grandparents have told us that they feel powerless to know what to do, or how to help.
“My instinct was not as a grandparent but as a parent. All my thoughts were for the parents, who had lost their child. I wanted them to know I was there for them, to support and love them, but also give them space to grieve. I didn’t want to add to their pain and sadness by them seeing my own devastation.”
You may have experienced grief before and know what it feels like. But it is very hard to understand the grief of losing a child if you haven’t experienced it yourself. It may help to read more about coping with grief after a neonatal loss for parents.
Your own grief
Your own grief is likely to hit you hard. You may have been excited about the pregnancy (and birth) and already planned a future with your new grandchild. This loss will probably be quite painful, and it will take time to come to terms with what’s happened.
“I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t take their pain away. All I could do was listen, console and comfort them.”
Seeing your grandchild
Some parents may ask you to spend time with the baby. This may be because introducing their child to their grandparent was something they had been looking forward to or because they want to recognise their baby as a person who lived.
Parents have also told us that this helped them create memories of their baby. They’ve been able to talk to the grandparents about family resemblances or take photos of their baby with the people they love. There will be a lot for you to think about in these early days, but try to follow the parents' lead.
“Both our mums came in to see Owen. They had no experience of this and it definitely affected them. But it meant a lot to us that they had a chance to meet him.”
The funeral and commemorating the loss
By law, a baby born after 24 weeks must be either buried or cremated. Depending on when your grandchild died, and the wishes of the parents, there may also be a service or a funeral.
There are lots of ways families can commemorate their baby now and in the future. You may want to join in with these or you may have your own private way of remembering and mourning your grandchild.
You might choose to talk about your grandchild openly with friends, or you might decide to keep this more private. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Read more about planning a funeral.
Supporting your child
When your child is in pain, all you want to do is fix the problem. It’s natural to feel a sense of helplessness, but all you can do is reassure your child that you are there for them. It might be that you can be a listening ear or someone to cry with.
Everyone is different in how they cope with the loss of a loved one so try to be sensitive to your child’s way of coping. Try to be non-judgemental and to accept their decisions and feelings.
"When my daughter was ready to talk, I listened. I think that helped. I’d been through a personal experience like this and I know how important it is to listen. She told me how she felt. She grieved and she talked. I comforted her and listened. I shared my own personal experiences that I hadn’t talked about before. It was emotional but she said she felt stronger afterwards.”
You will need to be patient as your child goes through the grieving process. As family, you are the easiest person to snap at and you might find this happens more often than you’d like. Try to be understanding if it does, but remember you need to look after yourself too. Sometimes you may need to give each other some space.
It’s possible that you may feel excluded sometimes, particularly if your child doesn’t want to talk about what has happened. You may feel excluded if they don’t ask for your help or don’t call you back. This can be hurtful, but it may be because they are struggling or even because they are trying to protect you from their pain. Try not to take this personally. All you can do is reassure them that you are there if they need you.
If you live close by, you could offer to help with jobs at home or with other grandchildren. But just remember that they may also value time alone to grieve. If you cook, maybe you could make some meals and drop them off at their house. Or if they have older children, maybe you could take them out to the park or look after them at your house to give the parents a break.
If you live far away and need to stay with them when you visit, try to give them time alone if you feel they need it.
Helping with siblings
Take your cue from the parents about how they want to communicate the death to siblings. Some commonly used words might end up worrying children. Talking about the baby ‘sleeping’ for example could make children worry about going to sleep themselves. Let the parents decide if they want to use words that have religious connotations, such as ‘angel’ or ‘being with God’.
Read more about talking to children about the death of a sibling.
Look after yourself
It’s important to look after yourself, especially if you’re helping to support your child or their partner. It’s a good idea to make sure you have your own sources of support, such as a friend to talk to or another family member, so that you can also grieve yourself.
More support and information
- Child Bereavement UK provides specialised support, information and training for everyone affected when a baby or child dies, or when a child is bereaved. It also runs an online forum for bereaved parents.
- The Compassionate Friends is run by and for all bereaved parents.
- Cruse Bereavement Care provides support, information, advice, education and training to help anyone who's been bereaved to understand their grief and cope with their loss.
- The Lullaby Trust provides specialist support for anyone after the sudden death of an infant.
- Petals provides specialist counselling after baby loss.
- Sands is run by and for parents whose baby has died, either at birth or shortly afterwards.
- Winston’s Wish supports children and families after a parent, brother or sister has died.