Barbara Burdette was in the room when her first grandchild, a boy named Dawson, took his first breath when he was born in 2001. 14 years later she was holding him when he took his last breath after a 5-year cancer battle. An only child, Dawson loved baseball, swimming and riding his bike.
“He was a quiet and kind young boy with a crazy sense of humor that he shared with his father,” Barbara remembers. “They had many lines memorized from Jim Carrey movies and they were hilarious to watch acting out those lines.”
She fondly remembers annual shopping trips on Martin Luther King Day for a winter coat for Dawson.
“I let him pick any coat he wanted then we would go to an arcade and play video games for an hour or 2 and finish the day with a movie and dinner,” she said.
After Dawson died, Barbara found herself struggling with profound grief and observed that everyone’s style of grieving was not the same.
“While many friends and family were well-meaning they often didn’t know what to say or how to act when they saw me,” she said. “Sometimes people just avoided me altogether, it was very confusing.
“One day my daughter shared a letter she had received from Akron Children’s about their grief support services,” she added. “One of the support groups was specifically for grandparents called Hope for Grandparents Grief Support Group.”
Nancy Carst, bereavement coordinator for the hospital, was instrumental in starting the group back in 2007.
“As we work with families, we meet grandparents who were intimately involved in the care and support of their grandchildren,” she said. “My goal is to assist them in their grief and bereavement process. There aren’t many opportunities for grandparents to meet other grieving grandparents – they often appreciate hearing the insights and wisdom of others in a similar situation.”
“It doesn’t matter if the child’s death is sudden and unexpected, the result of an extended illness, or how far in the past it was, it’s still painful,” Barbara said. “Just being able to be honest about what I was feeling and knowing I wasn’t going to be judged was comforting.”
Nancy works to create a safe and comfortable space for the group’s participants.
“I offer general information about grief and coping to help them express what they want and explore ways to manage these things,” she said. “It could be coping with their personal grief, trying to support their own child (parent of the grandchild) and other grandchildren through the loss, or accepting the loss of a role they had in their grandchild’s life – whether they were a primary care provider or the ‘fun’ grandparent.”
Nancy hopes the group is able to facilitate ongoing connections for the participants so they can be a support system for each other.
“I was able to openly express my fears and emotions and share what Dawson was like and what he meant to me,” she said.
The 3-part Hope for Grandparents grief support series covers topics like honoring the memory of the child, talking through emotions and learning to cope with loss.
“I feel like grandparents are the forgotten grievers,” Barbara said. “Grief changes constantly and it can take you by surprise some days. It’s been 2 years since Dawson died and I still have some intense days. It was helpful for me to be able to talk to others who have been through the same things and remind ourselves that we aren’t abnormal.”
For more information about this free support group, call 330-543-3343. A new group starts on Aug. 1, but people can join anytime.