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, your child.
"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 at 27 weeks (Read Rani's story here)
One parent described the grief she felt after a stillbirth as like a bomb going off in her body. Read our page for parents on ‘Coping with grief’ to help you understand what your child might be feeling right now and in the future. You might recognise a lot of your own feelings and find comfort in knowing that these emotions and reactions are normal.
Your own grief is also likely to hit you hard. You are likely to have been very excited about the pregnancy and may have been thinking into a future with your new grandchild. It can take time and be difficult to adjust to this new reality, without your grandchild, and with the grief-stricken parents.
"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
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 and 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 their baby 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, and 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 take photographs/be in photographs 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 at 38 weeks (Read Keith's story here)
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 soon after and over the years. Or it might be that you have your own very 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.
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.
It might be that you can be a listening ear, someone to cry with (or on the phone to), or simply a reassuring presence. Try to be non-judgemental and to accept their decisions and feelings. We’ve put together some suggestions for supporting someone through a stillbirth here.
"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."
"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 at 40 weeks (Read Sarah's story here)
You might need to dig deep for extra reserves of patience in the future as your child goes through the grieving process. As you are family you are 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 and be patient, they may be so distressed that they have no mental space to consider your feelings.
You might be able to offer some practical help in the immediate aftermath of your grandchild’s death. Perhaps, if you live close by, you can help with jobs at home or with other grandchildren. If so, be aware that they will also value time alone to grieve. If you make a dish, you could leave it with them, or you might be able to mind other children 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 at night to the cinema or to see others, or retire to your room early.
Take your cue from the parents as to how they want to communicate the death to siblings. Some commonly used words might have unintended consequences. ‘Sleeping’ as a euphemism could make a sibling 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.
Look after yourself
It’s important that you look after yourself, particularly if you are offering a lot of support to your child. You might find it a good idea to have your own sources of support, such as a friend to talk to or another family member, so that you can grieve in your own right. This might then help if your son or daughter needs to lean on you.