Supporting Your Adult Grieving Child - What Can I Do? 

Phil Gelbart

“I am powerless, I am helpless.

I am frustration. I sit with her and I cry with her

I can’t reach inside her and take her broken heart.

I must watch her suffer day after day.” 1

(Margaret H. Gerner)

Understanding your adult child’s grief

The most important thing you can do is to try and understand your child’s grief and allow them to grieve as they feel they need to. Previous generations were taught self-control, to keep feelings inside: the person who did not talk about it and did not cry was ‘doing well’. We now know that suppressed grief is unhealthy. Their emotions and responses may be different to yours and the way they deal with their grief may also be different to yours. Our grief journey and how we respond will always be unique even though we may be grieving for the same child. For parents, the loss of their child is the ultimate tragedy and it can be extremely intense and overwhelming. Similar to what support you need –it is important that you listen quietly and uncritically to your child and encourage them to talk freely about their feelings. Try and be open to what they are willing to share, what they need and when.

You may find yourself needing to bear the brunt of the anger of the grieving parent. This can be because your child knows that you are there and will not go away. Your love as their parent is unconditional. Grief can strain even the closest of relationships. As one grandparent wisely stated “Grief is not a 100 meter sprint over in a short time: it is a marathon…”

“Whatever I did wasn’t right. She was very angry and projected her anger at me and onto me. I think she did this because she knew I wouldn’t run away. I haven’t ever lost a child and had a living grandchild. I didn’t know what to do…. She’s changed. Her husband has changed and I find that very sad.”2

Do not take anger personally. Anger and guilt are common and normal responses. Know that powerful and overwhelming feelings will lessen with time.

How long will my adult child’s grief last?

As with the grief of a grandparent there is no time table for the grief of a parent. The passage of time alone does not provide healing. How that time is used is what makes a difference. (eg. talking with those who have had a similar experience, counselling, reading about grief). It is not unusual for a parent to grieve intensely for well over two years. Parents commonly even grieve into five years or more, and importantly their child is never forgotten. Often they are denied the support of others who accuse them of hanging on to grief too long.

We cannot ‘fix’ our grieving child’s broken heart.

Our first response when our child is hurt is to comfort. When a grandchild dies, we cannot take away our child’s terrible anguish. We feel powerless and helpless.

“I missed my precious Emily, but the feelings of helplessness around my daughter’s pain were even greater.”2

Don’t be surprised if at first you cannot reach out to your grieving child. Remember that you are grieving. Be patient with yourself. Eventually you may be able to talk, listen and help. If you find that you can’t help specifically with the grief, you can send cards, tell them that you love them, and perhaps explain that you wish you could be of more help, but that you don’t know what to do.

“This is the hardest part of being a bereaved grandparent. There will be times you feel that nothing you do makes a difference. You will think your child will never ‘get over it.’ But remember, the grief will not always be as intense and devastating as today, and your help will be forever appreciated.”2

Saying the wrong thing

Grief can strain even the closest of relationships. Many bereaved grandparents find it hard to know exactly what to say to their grieving children. The rules change, almost daily. What is helpful to your children one day may make them angry the next! The following poem expresses this contradiction well.

YOU CAN’T WIN WITH ME3

If you say to me, “How are you going?’ with such sympathy and meaning in your voice, I reply, “I’m fine”, and brush you off because to talk about my loss with you today is just too painful.

If you see me and don’t mention the loss that is consuming my thoughts, I think you don’t care enough, or are too scared, to mention it to me for fear that you might upset me.

You can’t win with me.

If you say, “I’m sorry that your baby died”, it’s hard for me to reply to that. What do you expect me to say? I want to say “I’m sorry too!” or “It’s awful”. I want to scream, “It’s not fair!” But I won’t because I don’t want to upset myself today, not in front of you.

So I reply, “Thank you”. That “thanks” means so much more than that. It means thanks for caring, thanks for remembering, thanks for trying to help, thanks for realising that I’m still in pain.

If you don’t know what to say to me, that’s OK because I don’t know what to say to you either.

If you see me smile or laugh, don’t assume that I must have forgotten my baby for the moment, I haven’t, I can’t, I never will. Tell me that I look good today. I will know what you mean. I’m getting good at picking up unspoken cues from you.

If you see me and think that I look sad or upset, you are probably right. Today might be an anniversary for me or some event might have triggered a wave of grief in me. If you don’t say anything, I’ll think you don’t care about me, but if you do say something, it might make me feel worse. You could try asking if I want to talk, but don’t be surprised if I say no.

You can’t win with me.

Don’t give up on me, please don’t give up. I need your caring, I need your attempts, however feeble, however trite you might feel they are. I need your thoughts. I need your prayers. I need your love. I need your persistence.

I need all that but most of all I need to be treated normally, like it used to be before all this happened. But I know that that is impossible. That carefree, naïve person is gone forever, and I’m mourning that loss too.

So you can’t win with me.

Each person is different and unique in their grieving responses and how we can offer support will also vary. Each day can bring different emotions for our children and for you as a grandparent.

Helping my child - what can I do?

Be available to LISTEN frequently to your adult child.

Being there does not mean you will get it right! It is about being a support, someone who can be called upon and someone who can ask about their wellbeing, someone who won’t disappear when the funeral is over.

Respect your child’s way of handling the pain and expressing their grief. Be able to listen without commenting about what they should and shouldn’t feel.

“Be there to listen, talk about it, encourage your child to do so. Be honest – you don’t know why it happens, it’s not ‘God’s will’. Don’t say ‘Oh, you can try again’ or ‘Yes, I know how you feel’ because the truth is you don’t and never will know how they feel.”4

Try and recognise the parents’ needs.

This may include their right to talk about the child they have lost as much and as often as they want or need to. This can have a very healing effect.

Following such a shocking loss, bereaved parents may feel overwhelmed by their feelings and think that everything is out of their control. So taking time, slowing down and giving your calm, unhurried support to the parents can be very helpful. It’s a good idea if the parents themselves have as much control as they can manage in the circumstances.

Let your sorrow show.

You might say you are sorry. Admit your own helplessness and frustration. Cry if you feel like it.

Don’t be afraid to let your child see how much the death of their baby has affected you. You don’t always have to be strong for them. If you cry, you are really saying “I miss my grandchild too” – and that is important to them.

Allow your children and siblings to express as much grief as they are feeling and are willing to share.

Avoid thinking about what other people will think if your child cries in front of them. Your adult child is not there to take care of others. Crying with your child may be therapeutic for both of you.

Talk about your grandchild.

Include him or her in your conversations.

Offer practical support.

Practical help (such as shopping, cooking and cleaning) can be valuable - but be sure you ask before you do! Everyone’s needs and desires are different. Be sure the kindness you plan is acceptable beforehand.

A grieving mother once described finding some greasy little fingerprints of her child at the bottom of a wardrobe mirror – and never cleaned them off.4 It is a good idea to check if you want to touch your grandchild’s belongings.

Some grandparents speak about their attempts ‘to keep themselves together’ so that they are more able to help and some grandparents speak about not knowing what to do or say so they “back away from the emotional side” and focus on the practical aspects of support.

“My mum and dad are there to provide emotional support. His parents provide practical support. I know I shouldn’t and can’t expect the same, but it is hard.”2

“Luckily my mother and mother-in-law were around to take over the shopping, cooking and cleaning allowing me the space I needed just to exist. Everything was such an effort. If breathing had not been automatic I think I would have stopped that too.”2


Last reviewed: 19/12/18