Recent news of Jimmy Carter’s grandson dying has left me speechless. Regardless of whether you are a grocery clerk or a former president, life reminds us that we are all equal when it comes to disease and death.
Jeremy Carter has been taken by cancer at the age of 28.
The article below is written by a Romanian psychology student as a research project on grief particularly experienced by grandparents. It may give you an idea of what Jimmy Carter is going through at the age of 91, ironically himself being declared as cancer free only 2 weeks ago.
This article is based on research that helps to describe the mental state of a grandparent and to educate other family members on how to help the elderly to continue living their lives.
When a grandchild dies, the grandparents feel that they lose a part of themselves due to the association of the grandchild with immortality, and it results in a deeper grief for the grandparent.
Death of a Grandchild, Emotional Responses of Grandparents
Many grandparents live with emotional and physical aftermath when their grandchild dies, and it is an irrevocable loss for them that results in emotional responses that we are going to study in this article.
No less than 160.000 grandparents have to deal with this experience in the United States alone, and it is a universal tragedy for them no matter of ethnic origins. The leading causes of death in children were congenital malformations, prematurity and its complications, and sudden infant death for infants; there were also unintentional injuries for children from 1 to 4 years old and unintentional injuries and cancer for children aged 5 to 14 years old.
According to recent studies, grandparents reported feelings of anxiety, depression, bitterness, exhaustion, helplessness and disbelief due to the death of the child before the grandparent. Also a high usage of alcohol and sleeping medication was stated to be used by grandparents who lost a grandchild, because of the severity of pain they experience. Even thoughts of suicide were stated due to some studies done in Poland and Eastern Europe countries.
A big issue for grandparents who lost a grandchild is that the loss affects them at a time of age when they are vulnerable to health problems and also in a small percentage mental health. The purpose of this article is to study and describe the mental and physical health of grandparents and help them minimize the health risks and maximize day to day functioning.
A grandparent is an important family member because they provide social and emotional rewards to other family members and help to shape the future of their families. As an example, grandparents provide full-time custodial care for their grandchildren because of the absence of parents during a week-day for example because of work or business issues.
Studies revealed that considerable negative effects on grandparents occur when their grandchildren are separated due to loss of contact with their grandchild because of a divorce or geographic separation.
Grandparents have an influential role and can span a large part of an adult’s life, and they enjoy, play with and indulge their grandchildren without the responsibilities of parenting and discipline, and thus create a strong emotional bond between them. In the vision of the grandchild, grandparents are seen as role models, teachers, advisers, and sources of inspiration so they enjoy the time spent with them because of the grandparent’s personalities and activities they share together. This provides feelings of being valued and useful, adding a purpose to their life.
Grandchildren can also mean an opportunity for grandparents like continuation of the family line. Most grandparents see their grandchildren once every 1 or 2 weeks because of the distance (being one of the major factors). Grandparents have a wide variety of activities with their grandchildren such as eating at home or going out to eat, reading to or with them, shopping, cooking, going to parks and playgrounds, gardening with them, attending religious activities, going to sport events, school events and helping with school work.
Parenting roles are adopted by grandparents and include teaching family values, entertaining their grandchildren, taking them to cultural events or giving treats or gifts. Financial support is also provided by the grandparents for educational assistance, expenses and medical purposes.
A majority of grandparents live with their grandchildren, younger than 18 years and a grandparent becomes one of the primary caregivers. Among grandparents aged 65 years and older living with their grandchildren, more than 25 % were caregivers for their children, and one third of these grandparents live in households with no parents present which is a current problem in countries from the Eastern Block of Europe because many parents go to work in western countries and leave their children in the care of their grandparents for most of the time.
Responsibility in this situation is assumed by the grandparent for raising their grandchildren when the parent cannot care for them because diverse problems, young age, emotional problems, drug and alcohol problems, mental illness, neglect or abuse, and incarceration.
Placing the child in the care of their grandparents is an alternative for placing them in foster care. According to some social studies, grandparents characterized their experience of raising their grandchildren as a positive one but it was found that grandmothers raising grandchildren reported more overall parenting stress and parental distress than mothers did.
Most studies of grandparents raising their grandchildren found negative effects for the grandparent’s health. There were reports of compromised health, especially in problems with physical functioning, depending on age and gender. Grandmothers are primary caregivers for the grandchildren and have reported worse self-assessed health and partial or supplemental caregivers reported more depression than did non-caregivers.
This particular form of depression is related to the primary responsibility for caregiving and parenting stress referring to parenting the grandchild. The loss of contact that may occur between grandparents and grandchildren may be due to geographic separation, divorce of the grandchild’s parents, family dysfunction or death of the grandchild.
Research on loss of contact with grandchildren has focused on the effects of divorce on the grandparent’s ability to maintain contact with the grandchildren of that union. Loss of contact is likely for grandparents who are usually not custodial grandparents and the custodial parent decides if and when the grandparents see the grandchildren.
This has negative effects because it causes a gap in the grandparent’s emotional and physical health and it was found that grandparent’s grief and reports of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder were higher when loss of contact was related to family dysfunctions or divorce than from geographical separation.
However, a hope of renewed contact is still possible in any of the situations but when the grandchild dies, hope for renewed contact disappears. When a grandchild dies, the grandparents feel that they lose a part of themselves due to the association of the grandchild with immortality, and it results in a deeper grief for the grandparent.
Grandparents grieve for themselves because of the missed opportunities if their grandchild and also for their own adult children. There were reported a wide variety of negative emotional responses after the death of a grandchild, like for example bitterness, exhaustion, anger at God, sadness due to loss of a future relationship with the grandchild, frustration if the cause of death couldn’t be identified, disbelief that the grandchild died before the grandparent, depression, helplessness, and sorrow.
There were also reported feelings of jealousy for others with grandchildren, regret of the limited time they have spent with their grandchildren, anxiety when thinking of the future, and concern for their adult children and their grandchildren. Feelings of guilt were also predominant and there were thoughts that resembled the idea that they should have died instead of their grandchild.
This is a logical response because their own death would have made more sense than the grandchild’s death. These thoughts bring up feelings of shock, numbness and disbelief, these feelings being associated with experiencing physical symptoms. These feelings were reported to have a greater accent on grandmothers and bring up a desire to talk about the deceased grandchild.
Feelings towards their adult child have been reported to change after the death of the grandchild, although the direction of this change (better or worse) was not identified. Paradoxically, there were reported positive responses to the death of their grandchild but these responses were feelings of pride on how their adult child was handling the situation. Reminiscing about the grandchild, remembering the past or reconciling it with the present aided in the recovery from the grandchild’s death. Attending the grandchild’s funeral was also found to be healing for the grandparents.
An interruption in the grieving process of grandparents was due because of the perceived responsibilities for the family after the death and it was reported in some case studies that grief was interrupted to offer a certain protection for their adult children and for their surviving grandchildren. During the dramatic following the death of the grandchild, the grandparent want to be available and helpful to the grieving parents and siblings of the deceased grandchild.
Sets of grandparents may consciously or unconsciously become competitive with each other as they try to help their grieving adult children. This certain help is exemplified by making funeral arrangements, paying for the funeral, ordering the family flowers, or offering burial space in their own cemetery plots. Bereaved grandparents have reported intrusive thoughts, avoidance and hyper arousal, symptoms that characterize posttraumatic stress disorder. During a study, 19 % of grandparents stated that they saw or heard the grandchild after his or her death. Other grandparents reported that they felt as their grief would never resolve and there were also reported flashbacks of the death (vivid, recurring, painful memories). For some grandparents these flashbacks and nervousness were triggered by everyday events that also happened around the time of the death.
Many grandparents reported that their memories of the death would not fade and statements of reported anxiety like for example when the telephone rings at work because that was where one of the grandparents received the call about the grandchild’s death.
Two common roles for grandparents are employee and spouse or partner. Very little research has investigated the effects of a grandchild’s death on the grandparent’s ability to function in these two important roles. For interpersonal relationships, a grandchild’s death has reported no changes in the grandparent-partner couple relationship. The relationship was neither, strengthened or weakened by this cause in the majority of the grandparents while others reported that the event weakened their marriage and a small percent stated that it strengthened their marriage. A method of dealing with the death of a grandchild is turning to others for support and to religious beliefs for meaning, coping and comfort.
These grandparents turn to their spouse followed by the grandchild’s mother, friends, the grandchild’s father, religious professionals, and professional counselors. Studies that compared grandmother’s grief and grandfather’s grief found that men tended to be “strong and silent” while women preferred talking through their grief. Grandmothers who were unable to speak this issue with their husbands have found it to be “devastating”, especially for those whose marriages span several decades. Many grandparents turned to the grandchild’s mother for support while other grandparents were reluctant to express their pain to the grandchild’s parent (their adult child), fearing it would make things worse for their adult child, the grandparents often felt compelled to “be there” for their child.
A strong and energizing force for grandparents in this situation would be religion. Despite the feelings of anger toward God because of the grandchild’s death, an overwhelming majority of grandparents reported that their religious beliefs were helpful. Many reported that through the death of their grandchild they have found a spiritual meaning, a process of spiritual reappraisal, and that their religious beliefs were strengthened. Some grandparents described finding solace in churches and attended church service although there were reports of their faith being shaken. In such dramatic situation religion provides a big comfort and it helps grandparents to deal with the outgoing emotions following the death of a grandchild.
However, feelings of shock, numbness, and disbelief did not differ for grandparents who described their faith as helpful and those who did not. Attending bereavement support groups also grandparents cope with the death of their grandchildren although there was reported a state of discomfort because grandparents are reluctant to speak in a group. The death of a child may also disrupt the parent’s relationship with their own parents (the child’s grandparents). Parents have described the death of their child as being “the most devastating and difficult experience they have ever faced”. Feelings of numbness or a state of shock were reported, being preoccupied with the pain the child experienced before death, feeling out of control, and wanting to die. Parents also reported feelings of loneliness, guild, and emptiness, pain, malaise and fatigue, depression, sense of failure and anger, and sorrow and regret.
Many parents experienced symptoms of depression and/or PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) in response to their child’s death, with the degree of symptoms being proportional to the intensity if their grief. Usually the scores for PTSD and depression symptoms are higher for mothers than for fathers. In addition parents experienced greater depression for older deceased children.
Parents whose interpersonal relationships are characterized by being wary of closeness or intimacy may be less resilient, unable to use defense mechanisms effectively, and may be considered a high-risk subgroup. Research in the social field indicated two factors related to parent’s level of grief: whether parents said farewell to the child (before or after death) and whether the child was laid out at home. The latter provided time to confront the death and facilitate acceptance of the death.
In these vast physical and mental health challenges, adult children may feel the need to protect their parents when a grandchild dies, believing that their parents are too old to deal with the loss. Parents may resend grandparent’s attempts to help with arrangements, feeling that they are interfering or “taking over”. Mothers described the need to plan the funeral of her stillborn son/daughter because they felt it was the only act of mothering allowed for her.
In such dramatic situations it is essential to remember the need for individual assessment of the entire family unit because there can be much variability within families. It is important to include grandparents in discussions where they fell comfortable voicing their questions or concerns and assisting them in coping with their feelings and thereby decrease stress on the entire family. When grandparents display behaviors that indicate grieving, they may benefit from referrals for grief counseling, remembering that grandparents often prefer to participate in a different bereavement group than parents. These referrals can also be done in anticipation of grieving before it becomes apparent. For some grandparents, referral to their spiritual advisor (minister, priest, rabbi, etc.) may provide comfort. Family members also need to observe for signs of physical illness in grandparents that may be a result of stress and grieving and to encourage them to see their health care provider for their own health.
On the basis of research to date, grief may be greater the older the deceased child and the greater the contact or caregiving of the grandparent, putting this group at potentially greater risk in coping with the death. In addition, exploring whether the grandparents have had an opportunity to say goodbye to the deceased child can be helpful in assisting them in finding a symbolic way to say farewell.
Recognizing that grandparent’s grieving may be different from parent grieving and family members can help thereby strengthening the family’s coping with their tragic loss.
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