Bereaved grandparents of multiples: what helps

Many expectant grandparents of twins or higher multiples are extra-involved in the pregnancy, because of the specialness of multiples and the additional needs that the parents may have for help during bedrest and in getting ready for more than one. The twins or triplets may be the first grandchildren, or there may be many more – but they are a special point of pride and anticipation. When one or more, both or all of the babies dies, grandparents may find themselves extra-involved, in ways they never could have expected or planned for: being with the parents and the babies for the heartwrenching hello and goodbye, helping to arrange a funeral, or more than one, helping to care for the family while the parents are with a tiny survivor in the NICU, or trying to care for a daughter or daughter-in-law who is completely devastated and distraught from the loss of both or all of her babies. Your son or son-in-law may be completely shell-shocked as well as having practical pressures and need support of all kinds. Grandparents experience the loss in a way that is very up-close, and all the more heartbreaking for them in feeling the loss and seeing their child in such pain.

Other grandparents may be at more of a distance, for example if they live in a different part of the country, but they are confronted in one way or another with the reality that one or more of the babies has died and that their child is facing a very difficult kind of grief that does not just pass in a few weeks or months. These two kinds of situations are different in some ways, and there are many variations in between them…and every situation is different, every person is an individual, and the relationships that parents have with their adult children are varied. We’re not about telling others what to do, bout there are some things that seem to be helpful (or not) overall:

  • Remember that the multiples were so special. This is the loss of a prized pregnancy, and one that can’t be done again “next year”. It is felt very deeply even though the babies may be in the first or second trimester.
  • Not helpful: “It wasn’t meant to be”, “maybe you weren’t ready”, “it will be easier now”, “you can try again”, or anything that tries to minimize or rationalize the loss, no matter how many survivors there may be. Almost anything that has the words “at least” in it is not helpful. Parents will find their own ways of coming to terms with the meaning of it all, when they are ready.
  • The grief for the loss of one or more multiples is complicated. That is because the situation is complicated, with each baby having its own story and then the story of the pregnancy and birth overall. At any given time, parents are likely to be relating to one aspect of their experience – but it’s important to keep in mind that the way they relate to anything will still reflect the whole situation and how they are reacting to it all. Nothing is the same as if it were just that thing. Parents are overwhelmed and may be deeply confused, as well as in shock, or angry. So it helps not to take personally if something that you might say doesn’t seem to be appreciated at the time, or if the parents don’t always respond to something as you would expect them to.
  • Not helpful: treating the surviving baby as the only baby, or treating the loss of both or all as “the twins” or “the triplets” or higher, instead of individual babies who were each precious.
  • This is not fixable. – there is nothing that you or anyone can do or say to make it ok or like it didn’t happen or didn’t matter. There is no thought, word or action that suddenly brings “closure”. It’s so important to accept that and know that what matters is that you are there and care, and to just be with your child and try to do anything you can that the he or she wishes.

    Not helpful: turning away because you can’t make it ok, or implying that there is something the parents can do to erase or forget their loss and their babies

  • It’s really important for you if at all possible to see both or all the babies, and say hello and goodbye to the one(s) who has died. This helps you in your grieving, as well as supporting your child in saying hello and goodbye, and is also very helpful later because the babies were real to you, too. Your help with siblings (if any) saying hello and goodbye is very valuable also, if the parents wish.
    Not helpful: staying away because it’s too difficult or because you feel that you don’t know what to say or do.
  • Some parents are not able to see or hold their babies, or do some of the other things they need to do at the time of the loss, because they are so overwhelmed – and some grandparents have been the ones to actually spend time with the babies and do some of the things that the parents couldn’t do. Later on the parents will take comfort in knowing that their parents did this, and are able to fill in some of the gaps of things that were missing in what happened due to their shock.
  • Some parents are in such shock or other reactions such as guilt that they are not able to talk about anything even to their own parents for a while, or show their emotions openly. Being patient until your child can speak of and share the loss can be very difficult but it’s important for him or her to know that you are there when they are able to.
  • Helping make the arrangements for a funeral and a memorial is often very much appreciated, or helping to find a trusted relative or friend who can if you are unable to. At the same time, it’s essential that what you do is what the parents want and that what you are doing is carrying out their wishes.
  • The same is true about dealing with equipment, clothing and other things that may have been ready for the babies, and the babies’ room if it was ready: your practical help may be very much appreciated, at the same time it is essential that you not take away anything unless the mother specifically asks you to. It may be very tough for you to do, too, and you may need help from others, while again making sure that nothing is done with the mother’s request, no matter what. You can also help to make sure that any mementos of the baby(s) no matter how seemingly small are kept so that they can be treasured later. If the mother wishes, you can help in storing everything related to the babies until she is able to decide later what to do with everything.
  • Don’t give away or withhold something special you might have had for the baby(s), it can be put away with the other mementos and treasured later.

Find ways to support your own grief, and meet your own needs…You may find yourself submerging your own emotions and needs while helping your child, and you may have really had to do this in devastating and complicated situations that required your totally pitching in. But you are grieving too, and your child can’t be your support. It’s really important that you find others you can talk to, and develop a support system for yourself outside the immediate family. Many local pregnancy and infant loss support groups welcome bereaved grandparents. CLIMB usually has grandparents who are willing to be in touch with others. Also, there is a group AGAST which is devoted to the needs of bereaved grandparents (and it includes some multiple birth loss grandparents)– . You may find that you have some friends or others in your life whom you can talk with, especially if they have experienced a loss themselves. It is really important that you and your spouse or partner (if you have one) communicate as much as possible, whether or not he or she is also the parent of your child; and you may find yourself needing to encourage your spouse or partner to also seek support.

  • You may find it difficult at times to relate to your child’s ongoing grief, or your own feelings. Like many of us who are in our 40’s or beyond, you were raised in the time when “the less said the better”, “get over it” and so on were the norms, and there was no such thing as support groups or books. You may have been raised in a family which did have losses of some kind which were never discussed. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable at some point, or uncomfortable with the intensity and length of your child’s grief, it may help to remind yourself that this is the case and that times have changed in the direction of being more honest and open. Also, you may have special circumstances:
  • You may have had a loss yourself of one or more babies. If so, this will very much impact how you relate. If you did not have an opportunity to grieve your own loss, you will find yourself needing to in order to relate to your child’s loss, and of course that can be difficult and require support. Many women were essentially made to think that their mental health totally depended on not grieving, and some of the most painful experiences our members have had were with their mother (or other older relative) saying things to them that seemed completely heartless and cold, from what was actually their own loss and not being allowed to grieve. On the other hand, more positively, your having had a loss makes it possible for you to relate to your child “from the inside out” so to speak, as long as you are very careful not to assume that your experience, your feelings, your way of coping are just the same.
  • You may have had twins yourself. Quite a few parents in our group have siblings who are twins, or even are a twin themselves. Most of them find that because their parents know the joys and challenges of having twins, they are able to relate even more fully to what they have lost…you are not going to say “at least you have one” or some of the things that others unfortunately say to us. At the same time, it of course makes your own loss – and the loss of having another generation of twins in the family – even more vivid and painful. If your child is a twin, she or her twin may be devastated as well. It can also be more confusing for everyone – why did someone in the last generation get to have them, while someone now, with all the current technology, didn’t get to, and such… On the other hand, if your experience of having twins was a difficult one, this isn’t the time to convey to your child that having multiples wouldn’t be so great anyway. For everyone, your experience of raising twins means that your child has a somewhat realistic idea of “what it would have been like” and how they would have managed, instead of the unanswered questions about that, which can be very helpful. And you are in a position to reassure them that they will always be the parents of multiples.

If you are reading this, you probably know already that being understanding doesn’t just mean giving the parents a couple of months to go “back to normal”… Parents are just at the beginning of a long path, and the path leads to a new normal and to their being different, less na•ve, people in some ways. Going back to work, or having to, has many issues involved with it, along with everything involved in raising a survivor(s), if any, or trying again after the loss of both or all the babies. By being there and caring, while having support for your own loss and your pain for your child, you will be able to accompany your child on the path. You will be with him or her in that new normal and be close to the person your child will become. You will not be left out of the relationship he or she will always have with both or all their children. Some other things along these lines:

  • Remember all birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates for both or all of the babies. (Examples of how this has been done will be in a future article.) Be aware that there will be other significant dates that will affect how parents are feeling (for example, the date of finding out that it was multiples).
  • Help the parents find ways for the child(ren)’s memory to be part of life, and traditions that are part of that. (Some examples will be in a future article.) Always have it be possible for your child to mention or talk about their lost child(ren) in a way that is natural and is part of everyday life.
  • Recognize all the grandchildren in the family…”I have 8 grandchildren” (not 6), for example…and include both⁄all the multiples in the list of family birthdays, the family tree, and other such family things.
  • If there are other twins or multiples in the family, especially among the grandchildren, recognize these multiples too, and recognize the parents as being among the parents of multiples. Remember that multiples in the family will be a very sensitive area for the bereaved parents, quite possibly for years to come – as are any actual or even possible multiple pregnancies that might come up in the future – and parents need and deserve all the space they can be given on that, without anyone being offended. It is always an issue as to whether a family member’s pregnancy will turn out to be multiples – and any pregnancy can be very sensitive (especially if the parents are struggling with infertility), along with the possibility that another child might be given the same name as their multiple(s) who died.

Those are some things that may help keep everyone on the path. All this being said, family and peer support are very important but these tragedies are very complicated and challenging to anyone’s ability to cope. Some parents do become clinically depressed and very much need help from professional counseling or other intervention. (Also, professional counseling is always a good “insurance policy” in making it through such an experience, even if parents are coping as well as possible.) This is true not only of mothers, but of fathers, who are often under so much pressure to take care of everything⁄ everyone, be strong, go back to work, and so on, and often are not made to take time off and are reluctant to ask for any kind of support. Also, there is something that to us seems much like post-traumatic stress syndrome that can set in for many parents, sometimes (like the depression) months or even years later. You are in a position to try to see whether your child may need professional support or intervention and to make that happen.