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Coping With the Loss of a Grandparent From Coronavirus

From younger children to adults, mourning the loss of this special relationship is hard

By Diana Raab

Our current COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on the world. Older adults and those with underlying medical issues are at a higher risk of developing complications and possibly dying. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), eight out of ten deaths in the United States have been of those 65 and older, and about 40% of the United States population could be infected with the virus. More than one million Americans will lose a parent, and more than two million will lose a grandparent.

sad little girl
Credit: Adobe

Losing a loved one is difficult enough, but the pandemic has brought with it additional complications, especially in light of mandated social distancing and restricted public gatherings. In many ways, dealing with the death of a loved one is a twofold trauma — the fear of contracting COVID-19 coupled with the heartbreak of the loss.

Instead of memorials and funerals, the bereaved are finding new ways to grieve, using phones and laptops rather than offering love and support with good old-fashioned hugs.

According to David Kessler, author of On Grief and Grieving, “The rituals around death are so important for healthy grief . . . grief is a time of connection. We’ve always been able to be with the bodies to gather for a funeral. All that is gone.”

Remembering a Sad Loss

In 1964, when I was 10 years old, my grandmother who lived with my family died. I was sent to my aunt and uncle’s home instead of attending the funeral. My parents were ill equipped to help me grieve, so they told me that my grandmother had gone to sleep. They bought me a journal and told me to write in it in order to deal with my feelings.

For me, there was no closure until, as an adult I wrote the book Regina’s Closet, about my grandmother’s life and our relationship. It was also my way of giving back to help others who’d lost grandparents.

My parents were ill equipped to help me grieve, so they told me that my grandmother had gone to sleep.

Thankfully, parents today are much more transparent with their children. International happiness teacher and speaker Stella Grizont, who lives in New Jersey, lost two grandparents to COVID-19 within a week of one another.

She lost her own father at the age of six and believes we definitely feel the spirits of our deceased loved ones. Grizont shares this belief with her five-year-old daughter by saying that "her grandma and grandpa are no longer physically alive, but that their spirits always will be." This has brought comfort to her daughter, who now knows that her grandparents are still with her even though their physical bodies are no longer present.

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For Young Grandchildren, Be Honest and Direct

Young children sometimes have more difficulty dealing with death because they don’t have the emotional skills to cope. But how they’re informed about a death will affect how they deal with the situation.

The best way to tell children about death is by providing simple information using language they can understand. Ideally, the children should be told by someone close to them, and if possible, in familiar surroundings.

It’s important to be direct, since kids can handle the truth more easily than lies. And it’s best to use the words dead and died instead of saying that their grandparents “went to heaven,” “passed away,” “went on a long trip” or “are having a deep sleep.” Saying that last one may cause children to fear bedtime.

Children need adults to make them understand that their grandparent won’t return and that death is final. Because it’s a new experience, they need help coping with the death experience and may be afraid to let their parents out of their sight.

Their stage of development also affects how they grieve.

Between the ages of six months and two years, they don’t really know what’s going on and may respond to their parents’ sadness by protesting, crying and screaming. Between the ages of two and five, they may cling to other family members. Some may become demanding and show signs of regression, such as bedwetting or sucking their fingers, as their way of grieving. It’s vital that parents be comforting and nurturing, and sometimes professional help may be necessary.

Helping Children Cope with Loss

Grandchildren often have their first experiences with death either when a pet or a grandparent dies. Here are some tips to help them cope:

  • Maintain an open, honest, and loving atmosphere.
  • Encourage sharing stories about the deceased.
  • Organize video chats with family and friends.
  • Journal and write letters.
  • Remind them that life has stopped only for the deceased, and these individuals cannot return in a physical state. It’s important to relieve any sense of guilt about the deaths and to remind younger children that their grandparents feel no pain.

Whether they live near or far, children’s relationships with their grandparents are often very special. Most grandparents don’t play the role of disciplinarian; they just have fun with their grandkids. So when grandparents die, it usually hurts children profoundly.

Adult Grandchildren Can Nurture Memories

Like children, adults tend to grieve intermittently; sadness can erupt at unexpected moments. Many adults cope with the loss of grandparents by giving back.

For example, 31-year-old Emma Banze of Atlanta, who lost her grandfather to COVID-19, says she’s coping by keeping busy. She’s also writing a chapter in a book about issues facing older adults.

“I think this is helping me feel some control after witnessing a death where I couldn’t do anything . . . we were separated by distance and public health measures," Banze says.

Grizont claims that one of the most healing things she did was to create a newsletter where she talked about her grandparents.

Grizont also felt that she wanted to give back on a larger scale. She brought some life coaches together to start “The Hero Hotline,” which provides free counseling for health care professionals who care for COVID-19 patients.

Lisa Belton, of Toledo, Ohio, is coping with the loss of her 94-year-old grandfather — and honoring him — by being particularly painstaking about social distancing.

Another way to grieve is to nurture memories of your grandparents. Grizont says that one of the most healing things she did was to create a newsletter where she talked about hers.

“It helped me have a deeper appreciation for their lives and what wonderful human beings they were," she says. The family also participated in a 90-minute Zoom call where everyone shared moving stories about the deceased.

The death of a grandparent is more difficult during pandemic times because there’s less chance of closure, so anything you can do to help your grandchildren will be beneficial.

As Elizabeth Lesser says in her book Broken Open, “There is an art to grieving. To grieve well the loss of anyone or anything — a parent, a love, a child, an era, a home, a job — is a creative act. It takes attention and patience and courage.”

Belton was anguished by the thought of her grandfather dying alone in the hospital. She also realized how ignorant some people can be about COVID-19. She wants to remind people that “we are facing a war and the enemy is fierce. But all you have to do is stay home.”

Denial is real. By sharing her story here, she wanted to give everyone a taste of reality. She says, “Who knows, maybe I will stop someone from getting it and/or from taking it home to their loved ones.”

Diana Raab is a memoirist, poet, essayist, blogger and speaker, presenting workshops in healing and transformation. She has a Ph.D in psychology and is the author of 10 books, over 1,000 articles and poems. Her two memoirs are Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal and Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey. Her latest books are Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life and Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal. Read More
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