My Son's Mean-Spirited Grandmother May Be Preventing Him From Grieving His Father's Death

Filed under: Relatives, Relationships, Expert Advice: Big Kids

Dear AdviceMama,

My 9-year-old son lost his father last March in a motorcycle accident. His paternal grandmother filed for custody of him just hours after they turned off his father's life support. I have kept custody, but my son hasn't been able to grieve properly because of the catty, petty way his grandmother and her horrid boyfriend are with me and those around us. How do I help my child mourn his daddy properly with all this selfishness going on around him?

Grieving Mom

Dear Grieving,

I'm so sorry to hear about the sad turn of events in your son's life, and in yours, as well. Losing a parent is extraordinarily difficult, but a sudden death like this must have left your young child in enormous shock, not to mention great sorrow.

While I am sure his grandmother would tell her version of the story, it is clear that what your son needs and deserves is to have the unified support of his loved ones to help him through his grief.

But even if his grandmother continues to make things difficult, there is much you can do to help your son grieve the loss of his father.

Here's my advice:
  • Encourage your son to talk about his loss, and create emotional space for him to voice his feelings with words like "Tell me more ..." when he expresses unhappiness or anger. Make sure he knows that when he's with you, it's safe to vent big emotions.
  • Create rituals that honor his father's memory. You might light a candle once a week and talk about his dad for a few minutes. Or allow your son to set up photos in a special area where the two of you go to sit and remember his dad. This might help him reach inside to feel the sadness that he might otherwise be suppressing.
  • Use his father's name in conversation to keep his presence alive for your son. Sometimes people are uncomfortable about mentioning someone who has passed because they don't want to remind a loved one of their loss. But it's very important for a grieving person to feel that those around him are thinking of the loved one who has died, and miss him, too.
  • Don't push your son into grieving. Allow him to express his sadness when he's able and willing, but recognize that he will also want to play and have fun, and that doesn't necessarily mean he's repressing his feelings.
As upsetting as it is that your son's grandmother has been so mean-spirited, her behavior doesn't have to rob you of the ability to help your son grieve. We can hope that in time she will find a healthier way to deal with her own grief.

Meanwhile, follow these suggestions to help your son move through this loss, and seek professional counsel if he demonstrates symptoms like excessive irritability, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, academic problems, withdrawal, diminished interest in activities or extreme sadness.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.