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Role of grandparents important when a child dies

New research illustrates how grandparents offer crucial support to their family when a grandchild dies.

Victoria University PhD student, Alison Stewart, explored the issue of grandparent bereavement and found that when a child dies the focus of health professional and the wider community is almost exclusively on the bereaved parents.

In contrast grandparents have been called the "forgotten grievers", and Stewart asks - are grandparents "forgotten'? and, if so, by whom?

Stewart has worked with families in both New Zealand and the UK in various areas of bereavement for the last 15 years and found that bereavement wasn't just about death, but, about the loss of a dream of a healthy baby. While working with families she noted a "ripple effect" of bereavement which extends to other family members who are often unacknowledged.

Stewart discussed, through interviews and letters, with 26 grandparents, parents and health/bereavement professionals the context in which grandparents constructed the unexpected death of an infant grandchild.

In particular, grandparents shared stories and memories with the parents and other siblings. As the months and years pass this helps to create a place within the family for a continuing relationship with the grandchild who died.

Stewart found that for some grandparents bereavement doesn't "end" or reach "acceptance", instead it is about learning to live with the death.

She says that in their role as "parents of the parents' grandparents often placed their own pain and preferences second to their wish to support and be with the parents.

Parents and health professionals appreciated the support that grandparents offered at a time, when they, too, were bereaved. It was outside the family where many grandparents found friends, colleagues or their community forgot, or chose not to acknowledge their bereavement.

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