“I am having trouble dealing with my mother’s sadness and fear for my child. I know my child’s grandparents feel powerless, but I don’t have the strength right now to handle their anxiety on top of my own.”

Grandparents hold a particularly special place in the lives of our children. The relationships you have with your parents and in laws will evolve as you all learn to live with your child’s serious illness. Your child’s relationship with their grandparents will change as well. As each of you try to make sense of and interpret the news of your child’s condition, you may find that your parents provide a safety net you can fall into when no one else could possibly know what is in your heart. Or, you may find that they add to your stress as you attempt to cope with this enormous challenge.


Grandparents have the dual task of facing the painful news about their grandchild, and watching you, their child, endure unimaginable pain and suffering. They can feel that their grief and helplessness is doubled. They must face their own grief, worry and interpret the medical information through their life experiences losses and illnesses. This greatly influences how much they are able to emotionally support you or be there as a source of hope and wisdom for your child. As parents themselves, but once-removed, they may feel intensified helplessness and powerlessness in that they are not able to protect and unburden you.


However, if allowed and given some guidance, grandparents can be a tremendous addition to the support network, providing practical help and emotional support, and serving as a sounding board and advocate. Your hospital social worker, counselor or chaplain will be able to facilitate a plan that will be mutually supportive. Often times a family conference at the initial stage of treatments and therapies is helpful. This conference will help ensure that all of your family and anyone else who will be playing a role in your child’s living and coping, are on the same page and working in alignment to best meet you and your child’s needs. It is critical for your child that the entire family work together towards a clear focused direction.


Dealing with a strained relationship

If your relationship with your parents was already strained, the diagnosis of a serious illness will more than likely add additional stress. You may have differing faith backgrounds, cultural beliefs and values and these differences may be the source of conflict during stressful times. If you can, try to move the focus off those differences and make the most of the special relationship your parents have with your child. Try to stay focused on how they can be a supportive resource and you may find real power and possibility for nurturing hope and optimism during the difficult journey through your child’s illness.


If the relationship was already fractured prior to your child’s diagnosis, it may be difficult to regain a healthy, helpful stance between you and your own parents. However, sometimes in life’s greatest sufferings and challenges, renewal and even transformation is possible. Change is possible. Perhaps there are practical ways in which they can help and be close to your child while maintaining the necessary boundaries for their advice and opinion.


Remember, don’t be afraid to communicate your needs and expectations. You are going to be doing that a lot with doctors, nurses, friends and family! Practice communicating your needs every day. “I need you to…”


Sharing common fears, worries, hopes and questions can bring families together; sharing life’s difficulties can help you draw strength, sometimes unexpectedly, from each other. Consider the importance of them to your child and try to allow them to share the experience in ways that support and build up your child’s circle of support, normalcy, sense of value and belonging.


Sometimes all it takes is allowing them to find their way of feeling helpful and making a meaningful contribution to the situation.


Article contributed by Liz Sumner RN, BSN
Palliative Care Coordinator, The Elizabeth Hospice