In the normal course of our lives, when we become adults we leave home and begin living our own lives geographically and/or socially separate from our parents. To a certain extent, our relationships with our parents, grandparents, and other family members evolve. The role of members of the older generations becomes one of providing advice and support – emotional and, sometimes, financial. The relationships become more adult-based while at the same time maintaining varying degrees of simplicity, ambivalence, ambiguity, and complication from our childhood. Of course, you might think, “That certainly doesn’t describe my relationship with MY parents! They have never given me any support or advice.” Some people do not have a relationship with their (grand)parents that they hold dear, but deep down they may WISH that they did. The idealized
relationships we long to have with our elders can be very important in our mourning, as we shall see later.
For most of us, our assumptive worlds hold that the old die before the young. Therefore, our grandparents are supposed to die before our parents do and they, in turn, are supposed to die before we do. Statistics support this assumption – the most common type of loss for adults is the loss of their parents and grandparents. So, what impacts does the death of our (grand)parents have on us? Obviously, the first is the actual loss of the person(s) in our lives, what I have previously called the primary loss. The second impact, made up of secondary losses, involves what the deceased person represented to us. I want to describe two of those secondary losses: the loss of the relationship and the loss of a generational “buffer.”
The first secondary loss to discuss is the loss of the relationship itself. Before the final parent dies, we are children; afterwards, we are orphans. To some extent, our role and our self-identity change. If there had been a close, loving relationship, the death probably left a painful mark on our heart. The grief work facing us is to find meaning in the life and death of the (grand)parent, learn a new way to related to him/her, and re-learn how to live in the world without that support and advice.
Conversely, the relationship may have been complicated and conflicted. When death comes, it erases all hope of fully resolving the underlying issues. For example, the death of an abusive (grand)parent can leave us conflicted about the pain and suffering we incurred at his/her hand vs. the love we naturally have (or are SUPPOSED to have) for a (grand)parent. Alternatively, we may have fought and argued with our (grand)parent, the (grand)parent may have been absent during a large portion of our life, the (grand)parent may not have openly showed love, etc. In short, the relationship was not the “ideal” that we longed for. Now that the (grand)parent is gone, we mourn for ourselves and for the “ideal” relationship that will never be realized. Sometimes, this can be the hardest secondary loss to bear.
Another secondary loss from the death of a (grand)parent is the loss of a generational “buffer” that separates us from our mortality. As long as we have parents or grandparents, we can easily reason that they must die before we ever will. When that buffer is gone, our own mortality is much harder to ignore and we begin to realize that our time is running out, we are next ones to go. What are we going to do with that that we have left?
What are common reactions to the death of a (grand)parent? Besides the assorted ones you would expect (sadness, shock, numbness, loneliness, etc.), there are others that seem to be associated with (grand)parents. They include, but are not limited to:
guilt for not having been a better child and living up to the (grand)parent’s expectations,
fear and helplessness because there is no longer a parental safety net and we are truly on my own,
anger for past misdeeds of the (grand)parent,
sadness for the loss of that idealized relationship and the opportunity to resolve any unfinished business, and/or
a sense of freedom to live life as we want to.
Mourning the death of (grand)parents can be a very complicated endeavor! No longer are we able to use our (grand)parents as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for our own lives. Their death has thrust us out into the world where we have to learn to make our own way.