Dear Beloved Grandparent,
Being a grandparent is that wonderful experience and time in life most grandparents dream of. To be a part of your son’s or daughter’s lives as they build their own family is precious, and the love grandparents share with their grandchildren is a sacred and special time in life. That is how it is supposed to be. Yet, when one of those grandchildren dies, all of those hopes and dreams feel like they die too. My heart goes out to you and your family. I know what you are going through.
My name is Susan Whitmore, and most importantly to me, I am Erika Whitmore Godwin's mother. I am also the founder and president of griefHaven.
When griefHaven first started, I would write a personal message to every person who contacted us. Now, all of these years later, it is impossible for me to do that and give each person the love, hope, and support they so desperately need. Even though you are not receiving a letter that I wrote specifically to you, please know that this letter comes straight from my heart to yours, took me years to get just right, and to me is what I have would have said had I written a personal letter to you.
I know there are no words I can say to help ease the sorrow of your grandchild’s death. On top of that, you are also dealing with the sorrow that your child and other family members are going through. As the matriarch or patriarch of the family, it has always been your job to try and make things better for your children and your grandchildren. Just knowing that you did something to help with past troubles made you feel better. And now this has happened, leaving you feeling helpless, while also dealing with your own intense grief. Please know that losing a grandchild is one of the most difficult things anyone will experience; everyone’s lives are changed forever. I am so sorry.
On May 30, 2002, our beautiful daughter, Erika, died from an extremely rare sinus cancer. She was 32 years old and our only child. She was living in Canada with her amazing husband, Sandy Godwin, and close to receiving her teaching credential. We had never seen her so fulfilled or happy. Then we received the news that what we thought was a bad sinus infection was actually a stage 4 tumor. Over the next year Erika fought hard and we fought hard alongside her, but it was not to be. Erika died as I held her in my arms as she was surrounded by her husband and father. I thought that was the worst day of my life, but I realized the worst day was that first morning when I awoke and remembered Erika was gone. How could I possibly go on? How could I deal with this gut-wrenching, relentless pain? Erika was my best friend and the love of my life. It is my love for her and this lifelong journey of rebuilding my life without her that has been the springboard into starting griefHaven. Well, that and the fact that, once I felt the pain of Erika's death, I realized I had to do something to help others like you.
So often people forget that there are others who are deeply suffering as well as the parents, including grandparents and other siblings. That is one part of our work--to give support to the "forgotten ones," as they have also lost someone they love dearly.
Erika's grandmother (her grandfather died young) who she called "Nanny," has been through so much sorrow and grief as well. Nanny is my mother, and she and Erika were the closest to a mother-daughter team as one could be. My mother suddenly found herself dealing with this tragedy and was frustrated that there wasn’t anything she could do that made me feel better. It took her a long time to realize that it wasn’t her job to even try and make me feel better because there simply wasn’t anything she could do or say that would do so. What did help was that she was there, grieving alongside me and helping me keep Erika’s memory alive. My mother’s love for me and Erika sustained me in times when I felt I could not go on another moment. Notice I did not say my mother’s “strength” sustained me because it was her love that did so. What does that mean? It means that my mother did not need to pretend to be strong around me, keep from talking about Erika, or even hold back her own sorrow and grief. Rather, it means that, even if my mother cried or had really difficult grief moments herself around me, I felt her love because I knew I was not alone and together we would eventually rise out of the abyss together. We don’t want the grandparents to “be strong” in the face of such a terrible loss. We don’t expect that of you—we know you must be hurting. As difficult as it is for various generations to show their emotions, sorrow or pain, grief is the normal response to losing someone we love. It is as normal as coughing is when we have something caught in our throats. Yet grief is the very thing people try to avoid or try to hide from others. The truth is that real strength comes from being able to be vulnerable around others and be real with the grief we are all feeling. The death of a child can bring families so much closer as they take the journey together.
As you know, throughout our lives we experience difficult and painful times that usually prepare us for more of them further down the road. But not this. Not the death of a child. Nothing prepares us for that. So everyone in the family tends to flounder, trying this thing or that thing. Often people will describe it as being a “stranger in a strange land,” not knowing who they are anymore, and having no compass to find their way back—back to the person they used to be and the life they used to know. We can’t go back. This tragedy changes absolutely everything about our lives, including the familiarity of life’s roads.
As a grandparent, it is very important that you too allow yourself to grieve and take loving care of yourself as you also stand alongside the others. Here is a brief list of the things you can do to be of loving support right now to yourself and your loved ones:
- don't deny your own sorrow and grief. Allow yourself to grieve your own way, and if that includes crying openly, then do so. We say that grief needs to “be given a voice,” and that means that it needs a way to be expressed in whatever way works for you;
- model healthy grieving in front of other family members, including your other children. There is no need for you to be closed off or stoic in the face of such depths of sorrow. Remember that talking about your grandchild is not going to “remind” anyone of what happened or upset them. They are thinking about it every minute of every day, just like you are, and when others stop talking or saying the grandchild’s name, that often makes the journey feel even lonelier. We all need someone who will cry and grieve with us, in whatever form that takes for each person, and who better to do that with than the very people who loved that child since the day of his or her birth?
- review what to say and not say from the enclosed document, for there are so many things that others will say that will be hurtful and frustrating;
- realize that the process for all of you goes on for years, not just weeks or months, and that people don’t "get over" the death of a child. Rather, you will all eventually learn to live with it, but it takes a long time. For instance, the mother may cry for a year, every day, and that is normal. The father may not cry openly and may find other ways to deal with his pain, such as working or crying in the car or shower. So don't be alarmed when, this time next year, the parents are still actively grieving;
- recognize that all of the holidays and special occasions, especially the first two to three years, will be difficult. The parents might even decide they need to break tradition and try different things during these events. Try not to take it personally if they do, because it isn’t. If everyone can give them the space to do what they have to do, especially the first several years, the family will actually pull more closely together over this death instead of further apart;
- be patient with yourself and the parents. This is a lifelong journey, they will always be the parents of their child, you will always be the grandparent, and all of you will miss him or her;
- attend a support group where other grandparents meet so you can at least see if it’s something that helps you. We regularly see that talking to others who understand your journey is very helpful and lets you know you are not alone;
- see a person who specializes in grief to help you and with whom you can talk;
- educate yourself about all that we know today about grief. Things have changed tremendously, especially with all of the research being done using fMRIs on the grieving brain. You can see much about that on our website and in our Now You KnowTM TV and Video Blogs;
- read our newsletters so you will better understand all that is happening;
- know that there are SO many grief myths out there. The two biggest myths are (a) the death of a child creates so much strain on marriages that most parents end up divorced; and (b) there are “stages” of grief you must go through. Neither of those is true, and you can learn much more about those by watching our Now You KnowTM TV Video Blogs;
- don’t minimize your loss or compare it to others’ losses. Your experience is what matters at this time;
- exercise/move, even if it’s just a slow walk around the block. Studies show that exercise releases endorphins in the brain and helps people cope with grief.
Those are just a few tips that will hopefully give you some guidance right now. Our website is filled with tools of love and hope for everyone, and we are just a phone call or email away. That is why we are here—because we care and because we are walking alongside you on our own journeys.
Although I am so sad that you needed to find us, I am also glad that you did. Please let us know if there is anything else we can do to help support you and yours as you pick up the pieces and rebuild your lives without your grandchild. We have not forgotten that you, too, have lost someone so precious and are dealing with your own grief. Please be gentle, patient, and loving with yourself and your loved ones. Together you can ride this tsunami back to shore while growing ever closer as a family.
With much love,
Susan Whitmore, BS/BM, CGC
Founder & CEO