As grandparents you’ll not only be grieving the death of your stillborn grandchild, but you will also feel pain for the parents, especially your own child. It can be distressing to see your own daughter or son coping with the devastating loss of their baby. Grandparents have told us that they feel powerless to know what to do or how to help their child, however old they are.
"My mum and my dad... wonderful people. I love them more now than I thought possible. They are my security blanket. They make things be ok. This they can’t fix, but they help make it ok."
Sarah, who lost her son Joel. Read Sarah's story.
Your own grief is likely to hit you hard. You were probably very excited about the pregnancy and may have been thinking into a future with your new grandchild. It can take time to adjust to this new reality, without your grandchild, and with the grief-stricken parents. As a grandparent, you may also feel responsible in some way, even though it was nobody’s fault.
"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."
One parent described the grief she felt after a stillbirth as like a bomb going off in her body. It might help you understand what your son or daughter is going through by reading our page for parents about coping with grief or listening to other parents’ experiences of stillbirth in our Baby Loss Series. You might recognise a lot of your own feelings and find comfort in knowing that these emotions and reactions are normal.
Seeing your grandchild
There may be an opportunity for you to meet and spend time with your grandchild. In the past, parents were not encouraged to spend time with their child after the stillbirth, but now it is recognised that this can help with the grieving process. It is encouraged in most hospitals. Even if this was not acceptable in the past, it is important to accept different ways of doing things.
Many parents choose to see their baby and spend time with them after the birth. Some hospitals offer ‘cuddle cots’, which keep the baby’s body cool so the parents and family can spend more time with them. Some choose to bring their baby home with them and perhaps keep the coffin in the nursery.
If you are invited to come and see your grandchild, or if you are present at the birth, it is likely to mean a lot to the parents. Acknowledging the baby’s existence as a person is something parents have said is very important to them. If you meet the baby, it will add to their store of memories of their child. It also means that you can talk to the parents about the baby in future. Maybe you can look for resemblances to family members so you can talk about this later. Or you could offer to take photos or be in photos with your grandchild.
"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."
Keith, who lost his son Owen. Read Keith's story.
The funeral and commemorating the loss
Depending on when your grandchild died, and the wishes of the parents, there may be a funeral, blessing or commemoration.
There are lots of ways families can commemorate their loss – sometimes months or years later. Or you might 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.
Many parents name their baby. It can often help parents if you use the baby’s name when talking about them, or include the baby who died when people ask you about whether you have grandchildren.
How to support your son or daughter
Everyone is different in how they cope with the loss of a loved one. Be sensitive to your own child’s way of coping. It is important to remember that although we manage our grief in different ways, it is no less heartfelt for someone who does not talk about it. Their suffering is just as deep as someone who is able to talk about it. The most important things you can do are to listen, accept how they are feeling without judging or offering solutions, and respecting their decisions.
"My instinct was not as a grandparent but as a parent. All my thoughts were for Charnjit and Joe, 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."
Rani, who lost her granddaughter Zara.
It might be that you can be a listening ear, someone to cry with (or on the phone to), or simply a reassuring presence to show that you care. Try to be non-judgemental and to accept their decisions and feelings. We’ve put together some suggestions for supporting someone through a stillbirth, which might be useful for you.
"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 might need to try your best to be very patient as your child goes through the grieving process. As you are family, you are often the easiest person to snap at and you might find that this happens more often than you would like. Try to be understanding if it does. They may also be unable to react as they normally would to your offers of help or calls, and you may feel excluded. Try to be patient. They may be so distressed that they have no mental space to consider your feelings. If you’re worried about how your child is coping, try to encourage them to speak to their GP.
You might be able to offer some practical help immediately after your grandchild’s death. If you live nearby, you could offer to help with chores at home or look after other grandchildren, if they have other children. Try to remember that they will probably value quiet so, be aware that they will also value time alone to grieve. If you make a meal, you could leave it with them, or you might be able to mind other grandchildren at the park or in your house, instead of theirs.
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. Perhaps go out for the evening, or go to bed a bit early.
Take your cue from the parents as to how they want to communicate the death to their other children. Some commonly used words might have unintended consequences. ‘Sleeping’ as a euphemism could make another child worry about going to sleep themselves. Using words that have religious connotations, such as ‘angel’, is a decision parents should make.
Read more here about supporting siblings after the death of a baby.
Remember to look after yourself
It’s important that you look after yourself too, especially if you’re offering a lot of support to your son or daughter. As they shouldn’t feel that they have to support you with your own grief, it’s a good idea to have your own sources of support, such as a friend to talk to or another family member.
For some grandparents, the death of a grandchild can bring back painful memories of their own pregnancy loss. Until a few decades ago, parents often received very little support or empathy if they lost a baby. They may have been encouraged to have another baby or to carry on as though nothing had happened. If you went through a similar experience, going through this now with your grandchild can be very difficult. You may find that your grief and pain has been reawakened many years later.
If you are struggling to cope with grief, or it is bringing up difficult memories for you, and you feel you’d benefit from some extra support, talk to your GP. Or you could get in touch with Cruse Bereavement Support by calling their free helpline on 0808 808 1677.
More help and support
Our team of midwives are also here to support you. They have all had training in bereavement and will be able to talk to you about everything you are going through. They often receive calls and emails from grandparents like yourself. You can call them for free on 0808 0147 800 or email [email protected]
We also have a private baby loss support group on Facebook where you can talk to other parents who have lost a baby.
Other support organisations
- Child Bereavement UK has support groups, offers counselling and lots of online resources. They can help siblings through a bereavement.
- Cruse Bereavement Care offers six sessions talking to a trained bereavement volunteer.
- Sands is a support charity for anyone affected by the death of a baby.
- Saying Goodbye offers support, advice and a befriending service. You can also attend Saying Goodbye ceremonies across the country.
- Twins Trust is the Twins and Multiple Births Association for support with losing a multiple birth baby.