It can take a while before grandchildren are able to understand bereavement properly: but this does not mean that they don’t feel the emotions associated with the death of a loved one. For a grandparent, for whom the same death may dredge up a welter of adverse emotions – particularly if that death is of the grandparent’s own child – a period of bereavement involving grandchildren can be a difficult time. He or she may need to manage his or her own grief while at the same time responding to, and helping with, the grief of his or her grandchild.
How Grandchildren Understand Death
This is a complex and tricky matter. Grandchildren of all ages have an emotional response to death – but their response is led by their understanding, which varies as the age of the grandchild changes. A very young grandchild, for example, has no proper concept of time, eternity and absence: and so may experience emotional responses to the emotions of the grandparent, rather than directly to the actual death.
Grandchildren in the period between toddling and leaving primary school may have graded understandings of what death means. A grandchild of this age may believe that death is always caused by violence or aggressive behaviour; or that it can be escaped by a person smart enough to avoid it. These half-formed opinions about death may also include unfocused feelings of guilt, anger and fear: the same emotions the grandparent experiences, but without the underpinning of understanding.
Older grandchildren and teenagers develop a much more real understanding of death – but again may lack the emotional tools to understand their grief. It is the role of the grandparent, in these situations, to try to bridge the gap between the feeling and a way into understanding it.
Grief is Personal
Every grandparent knows that grief is personal. No two people experience the loss of a loved one in precisely the same way. Grandparents also know that the feelings caused by grief must be properly expressed and dealt with in order for the grieving grandchild to move on with life. The difficulty comes in diagnosing those feelings, and helping with that expression.
A grandchild may feel guilty – i.e. that he or she has been bad and in some way caused the death. Without the emotional experience to recognise this as a natural guilt feeling, the grandchild can become quite scarred by this grief experience.
Other common emotions are anxiety and rage – fear that a stable person, who looked after the grandchild, has gone; and rage that the event wasn’t prevented by other adults. Again, it is important that the grandparent recognise signs of these emotions in his or her grandchild, and gently try to bring them out in conversation.
Recognising Grief Emotions
It can be very hard to recognise grief emotions in grandchildren. Very young children can’t speak, and so cannot accurately convey their emotional responses except through crying – and because babies cry anyway, it can be hard to link crying with grief.
Teenagers are traditionally stormy and moody – so again it can be hard to separate grief emotions in teenagers from normal teenage behaviour.
In general terms, a grandparent can assume that a grandchild is exhibiting grief behaviour when he or she behaves in any way that departs from his or her norm.
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