Grandfather Is Guilt-Ridden About Grandson’s Accident

I am the grandfather of a 16-month-old boy, Donald. For financial reasons Donald and his parents live with my wife and me; they have lived with us since before Donald was born. Last week while I was keeping an eye on him, he pulled my steaming bowl of soup onto himself. My wife and I rushed him to the hospital where he was treated for serious burns. He was in the intensive care/burn unit at a local pediatric hospital for several days before he was discharged.

Arrangements were made by our daughter-in-law to temporarily move into her parents’ home so that Donald could heal, which he is doing nicely. His physicians are very optimistic that he will make a full recovery with no scarring. As you can imagine, I am dealing with a lot of guilt. I keep reminding myself that I did not intentionally hurt him and that he will be okay. I have a good therapist who is helping me as well.

A few days ago I went to visit Donald at his other grandparents’ house. The minute he saw me he ran to a corner and began shaking his head and crying “No!” He would not come near me. I left crying.

Now I am told his mother does not intend on moving back into our home until he is fully healed: three to six months. All along our daughter-in-law has reassured me that she does not blame me, but now she won’t even bring Donald to our house and I certainly cannot go back to the other grandparents’ house.

My question: How do I begin to rebuild this relationship with my grandson? Is there a group of guilty grandparents out there that I can turn to? I feel helpless. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Although I do not know the number of grandparents who have direct experience with your tragic situation, I do know that being the caretaker when a grandchild gets hurt is something every grandparent thinks about, even obsesses about. I am confident that I speak for all grandparents when I reference the song “My Heart Goes Out to You.”

The guilt you feel is inevitable, at least initially. I say “initially” because dealing with guilt has five stages before it can be accompanied or replaced by a sense of inner peace, including: (1) feelings of disappointment/anger/sorrow because of one’s own behavior; (2) acceptance of one’s role in the guilt-provoking situation; (3) a commitment to learn from the situation and move forward in positive ways; (4) self forgiveness; (5) reaching out to make restitution with those we’ve hurt by our actions.

I think dealing with these five stages is complicated for you by the mixed messages your daughter-in-law seems to be giving. She tells you she does not blame you for Donald’s accident. However, her actions contradict her words:

  • Moving Donald out of your home, which was his home, too, is suggesting that your home is not a safe place.
  • Taking Donald to the other grandparents to heal could mean that she doesn’t think you and your wife are up to the task.
  • By not insisting that you visit at the other grandparents’ home, you are being marginalized.

I suggest your daughter-in-law’s actions – and I assume they are supported by your son – are making it harder for you to rebuild your relationship with your grandson because it appears that, at least right now, she’s not really committed to you having the relationship with Donald that you had prior to the accident. I think she would have behaved differently if she did not blame you, either consciously or unconsciously, for Donald’s accident. Donald would still be living in your home with your son and daughter-in-law, you and your wife, with the other grandparents visiting frequently, and all of you working together to help with Donald’s recovery in his usual environment.

These actions would have signaled an acceptance that terrible things, like this accident, sometimes happen in life. People make mistakes, such as leaving hot soup within a baby’s reach, but when the person making the mistake is loved and forgiven, family members all pull together to help everyone heal, including the person who made the mistake and is suffering from guilt. The goal is to re-establish normalcy for Donald as quickly as possible. If your son and daughter-in-law want to redefine what normalcy for Donald is going to be in the future, that is certainly their prerogative and you will have to abide by whatever they decide. However, in fairness to you and your wife, you need to know what your role is to be in Donald’s future.

I am glad that you have a good therapist because he or she could be instrumental in helping all of you clarify your feelings, share them and make sure everyone’s feelings and actions are not working at cross purposes to Donald’s detriment. I am not saying your daughter-in-law should or should not blame you for what happened: she’s feeling what she’s feeling. I am saying that perhaps your therapist could bring you all together to help you better understand who’s feeling what and how these feelings are getting translated into actions, and what the implications of those actions are for Donald. At the very least, perhaps your therapist could facilitate a discussion of the above three bullet points on your daughter-in-law’s mixed messages.

Most important, because Donald is at an age where he is learning to read others’ emotions and feelings, all the critical people in his life must act in ways that do not cause him to be scared, confused and fearful. The good thing about Donald being so young is that over time the memories of this tragic accident will fade, including the fact that you were there when it happened, especially if he consistently sees his parents and his other grandparents being welcoming of you and treating you with warmth and love.

If your son and daughter-in-law are unwilling to meet with you and your therapist, perhaps over time, as Donald continues to improve, they will be more receptive to your participation in family gatherings and eventually move back into your home. Meanwhile, your phone calls and cards will reassure them that you care about them, miss them, and that you are willing to do whatever they ask of you so you can spend time with your grandson.

You said it would be of comfort to you if other grandparents who have had similar experiences would share them with you. I will forward you responses from my readers.

In closing, I know I am not alone in sending Donald warmest wishes for a speedy and complete recovery.

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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