Grandparents as carers after a bereavement
Every 22 minutes, a child in the UK is bereaved of a parent. Around 480,000 children under the age of 18 in Britain have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.
And, for some of these young people, both parents have died. Other young people may have been living with one parent with little, if any, contact with the other parent. This contact may falter and even fail after the death of the other parent.
Many such children, already struggling with the death of their parent or parents, are taken into looked-after care. However, some find themselves looked after by other members of their family and, most often, this is by their grandparents. In these circumstances, a grandparent will try to provide continuity, stability and a family life for their grandchildren.
It may sound like an ideal outcome for a family facing such sadness – however, it is a decision that comes with many challenges for all involved.
Grandparents may have very different ideas about how they wish to spend time in the future and adjustment to the role of ‘parenting’ their grandchild or grandchildren can be tough.
Children may have to move to their grandparents’ home, leaving behind their familiar house, their specially decorated bedroom, their school, their best friends, their after-school clubs and everything that makes them feel secure.
Additionally, there may be real financial pressures on grandparents; and almost inevitable difficulties over differing parenting styles. One grandparent told us:- ‘We couldn’t have done anything else when our daughter died – but I so long to go back to being a fun Granny rather than a firm parent’.
These difficulties can be compounded if there is only one grandparent to take on the role without support: or if there are difficulties and differences between the two sets of grandparents.
Since 1992, we have worked with many families in which grandparents have taken on the caring role after the death of one, or both, parents.
Obviously every family is unique but certain issues and challenges are commonly raised, including:-
- Own health anxieties – what will happen if anything should happen to them?
- Difficulties in accessing state help – often a child or young person has to develop extreme symptoms before NHS or Social Services will offer help
- A degree of stigma – feel different to other parents and, equally, the child feels set apart by having grandparents rather than parents attend school functions
- Ambivalent and mixed feelings, including:-
- Desire to make things OK for their grandchildren
- Time – suddenly there is no time for planned retirement opportunities
- Money – suddenly there are more demands on limited income; may have to give up working if still employed
- Loss of grand-parenting role for that of parental role
- Some resentment - loss of planned future
- Feeling powerless - wanting to ‘make it better’ for the grandchildren while being powerless to change what has happened
- Own grief – not feeling able to grieve their own loss while supporting the child and being excluded from grief support on offer
- Their own children (particularly if still teenagers) may feel some jealousy; the family structure changes.
- Generational differences in care – ‘my mum let me stay out till 11!’
- A sharper generation gap when grandchildren reach teens
- Possibilities for conflict between both sets of grandparents
- Potential conflict with a surviving parent who may cause difficulties or may be inappropriately idealised by the children
- Legal issues around guardianship etc
We have been focusing on situations when grandparents have assumed the parental role after the death of one or both parents.
Supporting at a distance
However, Winston’s Wish also hears through our helpline from many grandparents struggling to offer support to bereaved children in other circumstances. They may, for example, have been living close to their grandchildren and have been involved in regular routines such as collection from school or driving to and from clubs. After the death of one parent, the other may move the children to a different part of the country – or a different part of the world. Grandparents are then anxious about the opportunities the children may have to remember and talk about the person who has died, and may be concerned for the multiple changes the children face. In addition, they have their own feelings of loss – not only of their child but also of contact with their grandchildren.
Help and support
So what support is available to grandparents who are caring for a bereaved child or young person ?
Our helpline on 08452 03 04 05 (Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm) can offer information, guidance and support to anyone who is in this situation and would like to talk things over.
Also take a look at the rest of this website for resources and information about supporting bereaved children and young people. And also look at the pages for young people
ParentLine Plus on 0808 800 2222 can offer advice on parenting issues.
The Grandparents Association www.grandparents-association.org.uk has a wealth of information for grandparents.
The challenges are many but it is important to acknowledge the potential for joy for all concerned. Grandparents have told us that it keeps them young or with a younger outlook ('I get the chance to play in the soft play area!') and that being so busy can help, although not lessen, the grieving. In particular, they talk about feeling that part of their child lives on in their grandchildren.
“We make mistakes, I get confused over whether I’m Mum or Nan, they don’t quite know how to explain me to their friends. I realise that sometimes inside my head I’m bringing up their dad rather than them and have to remember that the world is different now. When I have a bad day with the children, I know I can ring the helpline and try to put it all in perspective. I’m making memory boxes and a photo album for each of them so they can remember the special relationship they had with their dad. I knew him for 42 years after all and they only had him for such a short time. But we also have such good times together and every time I look at them, I remember my wonderful son and think how proud of them he would be”.
It happened to us
The following stories tell a bit more about experiences of bringing up grandchildren after a parent has died. All are based on real calls to the Winston’s Wish helpline (08452 03 04 05) although names and some situations have been altered to preserve anonymity. Talking their situations through with a skilled and experienced practitioner helped all these grandparents continue to support their grieving grandchildren and develop positive ways of living while always remembering the person who has died.
Jane and Richard
Jane and Richard have worried about their granddaughter, Lucy (now aged 16), since her father left the family home 3 years ago. He had hardly been in contact since (no birthday or Christmas cards) and only rang once when he heard that Lucy’s mother had secondary liver cancer. Jane moved down to help in the final stages of her daughter’s illness and she and Lucy had the chance to talk about the future. Lucy said she would have liked to live with her father and, in particular, would have liked him to want her to do so; however, she accepted that this was unlikely to happen. She now lives with Jane and Richard, 200 miles away from her old school and old circle of friends. She attends a local college where she’s studying for AS levels but has lost much of her interest in learning. She says she’s ‘fine’ but seems angry and depressed. She spends all her evenings on MSN ‘chatting’ to her old friends. Jane and Richard don’t want to push her too hard but are worried that she is becoming isolated and are worried about her college work.
Nancy and Bill
Nancy and Bill were babysitting for their 2 grandchildren on a family holiday to Wales while their daughter and son-in-law went out for the evening. There was a serious car accident, their son-in-law died instantly and their daughter died after a week in intensive care at the local hospital. Nancy and Bill had to explain what had happened to the children (Jamie aged 4 & Lee aged 6) struggling to communicate that their father had died and their mother was about to die to children who had little understanding of what death means. They also had somehow to juggle care of the children who still expected to be having a holiday with their deep concern over their daughter and trying to support their son-in-law’s parents. It was a time of great stress and some confusion and 6 months later, Nancy and Bill are still struggling to accept that they are now the full-time carers for their energetic grandchildren. Bill took early retirement and they moved down to live in the parents’ house for a while. Now they have to decide whether to sell their own lovely home and make the move permanent or move the boys away from their school and friends. Nancy says she doesn’t feel she’s had the space to grieve for her daughter and worries that the children will forget their parents too quickly. Sometimes the boys are very naughty; Bill tells them off but Nancy feels they need more cuddles than firmness. Although she and Bill find themselves exhausted and increasingly at odds with each other over the right way to proceed, talking it through really helped and made Nancy feel more positive about the future.
Kate rang us in considerable distress. She had been looking after her three grandchildren, who lived nearby, in the last months of her daughter’s – their mother’s – life. The children are John (11), about to go to secondary school with his friends from primary school; Jake (9), diagnosed with ADHD who receives some support from a learning support worker at school; and Josie (5) who is rather shy. The children had found their mother’s illness really difficult – Josie had struggled to understand what was happening; Jake had responded to the tension by being more difficult than usual and John had retreated into endless computer games. Kate had done her best to involve and inform them about what was happening to their mother, to prepare them for the future and to give them her love and support. It was hard for Kate since her husband had died the year before and she could hardly bear to lose her daughter too. One thing no-one doubted was that the children would continue to live with her after their mother had died and that life would continue its course.
Their father, with whom they had had no contact since he had left to live with someone else when Josie was one year old, turned up at the funeral, loaded the children into the car and drove off with them to his home about 180 miles away. Kate has been able to speak to them only twice on the phone in the last fortnight. Their father is adamant that they now live with him. Kate recognises that he has a right to say this but is appalled by the impact on the children.
John has left behind all his friends and will have to start secondary school with no one he knows and without preparation. It had previously been a struggle to get support for Jake and he had only recently begun to trust his learning support worker and settle into learning – this process will have to start all over again (if Dad has the energy to fight for the help). Josie has always been shy and a little clingy – she desperately needs cuddles and reassurance from people she knows and opportunities to talk about and remember her mother. However, the children’s father says he doesn’t want any of the children to talk about their mother since he wants his new partner (whom the children had not met before) to fulfil the role of mum.
How can a loving grandparent maintain contact and offer support from such a distance. Kate grieves for her husband, her daughter and, in some ways, for her grandchildren too. She has considered moving 180 miles away from her established life, friends and routines to live nearby her grandchildren. But she is still not sure that her son-in-law will allow contact.
For now, she has sent some books to the children and is obtaining three memory boxes to fill with them if and when the time comes.
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