Applying The Stages of Grief to the experience of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Sometimes understanding the process of raising a grandchild can be very challenging. Often, especially early on in the journey, it feels overwhelming and often it is easy to feel like we won’t survive the experience.  Survive we can, and I believe that we can even move to the stage of “Thriving”. 

One perspective that can help us gain a helpful perspective is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief.  Our journey of raising a grandchild is definitely one that is dominated by emotions of grief.

The Five Stages of Grief are:






I purposely did not number the stages because believing that the stages happen in a sequential manner is one of the main myths related to the stages. There is a basic progressive manner to the experience of the stages and progressing through one stage does open the door to moving into and through the next stage.  That being said, it is also important to understand that the stages recycle randomly and unexpectedly.  So, more than a predictable sequential progression, we experience them more like the game of “Chutes and Ladders”.  We are moving forward thinking that we are making marvelous progress, and then out of the blue we slide down back to a previous stage and possibly even back to where we started our journey.  Often, we are not actually progressing but regressing.  We have periods and moments when we are moving backwards.  Yet, even with the backwards movement, overall, we are moving through the process of our grief journey, and are ahead of where we started.  Understanding the chaotic randomnous of our journey can help us not be surprised by the grief “chutes” that we fall into and hopefully allow us to find our way to next ladder and step up along the journey.

Another Important principle to understand is that everyone’s journey is unique.  No one’s grief journey is the same as another’s.  Our own time frame and tools and techniques that we find helpful will be different than anyone else’s.  We must give ourselves permission to walk our own path and not follow the exact path of anyone else.  We can learn from other’s journey experiences but we must avoid comparison and judgment, when our path differes and meanders in a new way or not the way someone else thinks that we should go.  Our permission to grieve in our own unique way will be the foundatoin to our healing and growth.

Now, let’s consider each of the stages of grief and apply them to our journey of raising a grandchild.  The first stage is “Denial”.  Denial may even be an important aspect of the stage that precedes our becoming a grandparent raising a grandchild.  Denial of the severity of the situation that creates the need for our stepping into the role may have kept us from becoming involved sooner.  One of the early perceptions that is common is that our caring for our grandchild is only temporary.  The need can be temporary but that tends to be the exceptional case and not the norm.  Of course, we cannot move to permanent solutions in the beginning, but we do need to start preparing for the possibility and maybe even, likelihood that our role will be a permanent role.  We need to consider what are our best options for custody and what will give us the most effective ability to make the necessary caretaking decisions that will be in the best interest of our grandchildren.  Another denial way of thinking that can be unproductive is the desire to help our adult child, especially if they are struggling with an addiction.  Of course, that is a natural desire, and yet, one that is out of our control.  In many cases, adult children do choose recovery and a new path in life.  Yet, unfortunately, many also are not able to find that new path and will continue in their addiction.  The bottom line is that they have to make that choice totally on their own.  When we allow ourselves to think that we can make that choice for them, it weakens our ability to set and maintain the healthy boundaries that will benefit our grandchildren and ourselves.  The opposite of “denial” is “reality”.  We must choose to live in the reality that will best protect our grandchildren and give them the best chance to grow and develop into the precious gifts that they are.

The second stage of grief is Anger.  Anger is a very common, and yet challenging emotion to experience and express during our journey.  Yet, experiencing and expressing anger is a key pivotal stage in our journey.  I would say that it may be the most important stage.  When we can give ourselves permission to be angry, and we can find healthy ways to express that anger, it allows us to move forward in our journey.  When we feel guilt about being angry, and we hold it inside, then we are stuck with it, and are not able to move forward.  Also, when we hold that anger inside, then it often finds a way come out side ways or backwards.  We may unintentionally allow it to come out towards our grandchildren or our spouse or partner.  It may come out backwards in that we turn the anger inward toward ourselves, shaming messages about ourselves as a person or as a parent.

It is common to feel angry about the choices that our adult child is making, or the situation that they have placed us in.  We may feel angry about the consequences of their choices and how those consequences are impacting our grandchildren and ourselves, and maybe other family members as well.  We may be angry about the things that we can no longer do or experience because of the need to care for our grandchild.  It is also important to realize that anger is a “covering” feeling.  There is always a deeper emotion underneath our anger.  It is often pain, fear, shame or guilt.  When we can allow ourselvs to experience and express their anger, then we can access those deeper emotions, and hopefully experience and express them as well.  We also need to recognize that our grandchildren will be experiencing their own grief process.  They too may experience periods of anger and have every right to their anger as well.  We will need to help them identify that anger and learn healthy ways to express it.  Otherwise, it will often come out through aggressive behavior.  Our facing and experiencing and expressing our own anger, will put us in a better permission to face their periods of anger.

The third stage is bargaining. As I think of the bargaining stage of grief and how that relates to grandparents raising grandchildren, I think of the challenge of dealing with our adult children as we are raising their children.  Often, we find ourselves developing an adversarial relationship with our own children, and we enter a battle with them in order to protect our grandchildren.  Especially, if our adult children are dealing with an addiction, they are trying to bargain with them to have more time with the children or they still want to be the ones calling the shots as it relates to their children.  Unfortunately, some grandparents may still struggle in setting appropriate boundaries and may still found themselves thinking that if they can do this, or that, maybe their adult children will get it together and start making better choices.  As I mentioned earlier, that is an understandable desire, and you never really stop being their parents, but we have to let go of the myth that we have a role in their recovery process or in helping them make better choices.  They, being our adult children, are fully responsible for the choices that they are making and we have to allow them to sit with that responsibility.  Yes, we can be supportive when they are genuinely working at making positive choices, because we have primary care responsibilities for our grandchildren, we have to offer that support from a distance, maintaining the appropriate boundaries that will keep our grandchildren safe.

Depression is the fourth stage of the stages of grief.  Most grandparents raising grandchildren experience some level of depression, some of course more severe than others.  There can be many dynamics that can lead to depression, but I am going to keep it simple.  The word “depress” means to “push down”.  As children, we naturally knew how to experience and express our emotions.  We would experience pain when we got hurt physically, we would express that pain, and then we would go play.  When we got angry, we would experience the anger, express the anger, and then we would go play.  It is only later in childhood and adolescence that we started getting messages to not experience and not express our emotions, especially pain and anger.  The result was that we pushed those emotions down, and the result was, we don’t get to go play.  Often, depression can be seen as simply as keeping our emotions such as, anger, loneliness, shame, guilt, fear and pain pushed down and kept under lock and key.  This emotional lock down can lead to the experience of hopelessness and depression.  Grandparents raising grandchildren experience all of those emotions at some time or another.  The key is to find ways to experience and express our emotions, all of them.  We can express our emotions through talking with a family member, a friend or in a support group.  We can express our emotions through journaling or writing poetry or through painting.  The oppositie of “depression” is “expression”.  Healthy experiencing and expression of our emotions will keep us healthy and also be a great role model for our grandchildren.

The final stage of the grief process is acceptance.  The reality is that although acceptance is our destination, there are no short cuts.  We only come to a place of acceptance by experieincing the journey through, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then finally acceptance.  The paradox is that acceptance is actually more of a beginning than an ending.  When we recognize the things that we cannot control or influence, we actually only have two choices. The choices or anger/frustration or acceptance.  Coming to a place of acceptance frees us from the dead-end streets of comparison, “this isn’t fair”, or judgment, “what did I do wrong?”, bargaining, “maybe if I…, then things will be better”.  Acceptance means that we accept the reality in front of us, the reality that we did not create or choose, but in some ways has chosen us.  It has chosen us as the best people available with the best tools and resources to provide a safe and loving home for these precious loved ones, who are our grandchildren.  Acceptance allows us the opportunity to start anew with a new perspective and a new mantra, “Okay, Now What?”  Now, what are my options and what are my resources that will help me be successful in the venture of caring for my grandchildren.  Acceptance is not really the final stage at all, it is the true beginning stage that will allow me to move from “surviving as a grandparent raising a grandchild” to “thriving as a grandparent raising a grandchild”!  We as grands benefit, but so do our grandchildren, and I would also say that so do our adult children, if they are open to it.


Sharing the Journey,

Rich (“Pops”)

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I have been involved in the field of Human Services for 30 plus years. I teach in the field of Human Services for Purdue University Global. Allene is a stay at home "Lolli", after spending many years in the Healthcare field. We have 3 adult children and in May, 2018, we adopted our granddaughter, who is 6 years-old. We have had her since she was 5 months old. At the end of 2019, we moved to Mount Airy, North Carolina, as a part of a plan to downsize and give Allene the chance to retire, and be at home full-time. We are devoted to making a difference in Sebellah's life and also in the lives of other grandparents raising grandchildren.

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