Grandparents grieve deeply when a grandchild is diagnosed with leukemia. They are concerned not only for their grandchild, but for their own child (the parent) as well. Cancer wreaks havoc with grandparents' expectations, reversing the natural order of life and death. Grandparents frequently say, "Why not me? I'm the one who is old." Parents express anguish at having to tell the grandparents the grim news. Cancer in a grandchild is a major shock to bear.
Many parents reported that the grandparents responded to the crisis with tremendous emotional, physical, and financial support.
My mother was a rock. She lived far away, but she put her busy life on hold to come help. She took care of the baby and kept the household running through both induction and reinduction when I was living at the hospital with my very ill child. She was strong, and it gave me strength.
Some parents express tremendous gratitude for the role played by the grandparents in providing much-needed stability to the family rocked by cancer. When the grandparents care for the siblings and run the household, the parents can care for the sick child and return to work.
Because Judd had no neutrophils at diagnosis, he was put in isolation at Children's for a month. I stayed with him full time, and my husband took a month off work to be there. Luckily, my mother had moved to our town just the year before and was able to immediately move to our house to take care of Erin, my 10-year-old daughter Grandma was great because she cooked special meals for Erin and helped with cleaning and transportation.
Other families are not so fortunate. Many grandparents are too old, too ill, or simply unable to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. Some simply fall apart.
My mother became hysterical when my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. She called every day, sobbing. Luckily, she lived far away, and this minimized the disruption. We had to ask her not to come, because we just couldn't handle the catastrophe at home and her neediness too. It hurt her feelings, but we just couldn't cope with it.
Other grandparents allow preexisting problems with their adult child to color their perceptions of what the family needs. Sometimes cancer allows grandparents to renew criticism of the way grandchildren are being raised.
While we stayed at the hospital, the grandparents moved into our house to care for our 8-year-old daughter. They decided that this was their chance to "whip her into shape, teach her some manners, and get her room cleaned up." Our daughter was in tears, and we ended up saying, "We appreciate your help, but we will take over."
Sometimes grandparents try to blame the parents for the cancer or make other hurtful comments:
The first day in the hospital my mother told me I had caused the leukemia by coloring my hair blond during the pregnancy. My mother-in-law wasn't helpful either. Throughout the ordeal of treatment, all she did was to tell us to "put it in God's hand."
It is hard to predict how anyone will react to the diagnosis of childhood leukemia. Grandparents are no exception. Some respond with the wisdom gleaned from decades of living, others become needy, and some withdraw. It is natural in a time of grave crisis to look to your parents for support and help, but it is important to remember that grandparents' ability to respond also depends on events in their own lives. If problems develop, help can be obtained from hospital social workers or through individual counseling.
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