I was working at my computer when my 37-year-old daughter, Laura, walked into my home office and burst into body-wrenching sobs. She finally managed to blurt out that a doctor had just told her that my 7-year-old grandson had juvenile diabetes and needed to go straight to the hospital. I didn't want to add my own upset to the chaos of the day, so I went through the motions, calming Laura and being as helpful as I could. My husband Jack, a psychiatrist, canceled his patients and picked up Danny and his ten-year-old sister Jessica at school. The five of us met Laura's husband Brian at the hospital and spent two days learning as much as we could about Danny's diabetes.
Later, I had time to think about the role grandparents should play when a grandchild is diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, especially when their child and her family live in the same town. In the past six years, I've discovered that the role you play depends a great deal on your strengths and weaknesses. And your ability to stretch.
For example, in the hospital, my husband Jack encouraged us to practice giving him shots. I fainted the first time I ever had a shot; I never dreamed I'd have to give one to someone else, but when it was my turn, I took the needle, filled it with saline solution and injected it into Jack's arm. I dreaded it but I did it anyway. It was a useful spiritual practice.
On the other hand, caring for a child with juvenile diabetes requires a high level of mathematical, management and problem-solving skill. Having recently been diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, my mind balked whenever I tried to understand insulin ratios and carbohydrate counting. I decided to leave all the decisions about Danny's treatment to my daughter and her husband, provided they gave me clear instructions on what to feed him and how much insulin to give him. It was a relief to give myself permission to leave his medical care totally in the hands of his very competent parents.
Listening Was My Contribution
I found, to my surprise, that I could be a very good listener. Laura would drop by in times of crisis, and in order to prevent myself from interrupting, giving advice, or getting too anxious, I wrote down everything she said on my computer. We both thought Danny might someday want to know what his family had gone through, but mostly the typing kept me quiet and calm while Laura vented her sadness, worries and frustration. Nothing I could have said would have helped half as much as my simply letting her put every feeling she had into words.
Of course, I tried to reestablish my normal relationship with my grandkids, spending lots of time with Jessie in those early months when her parents were preoccupied with Danny. Two weeks after Danny came home, however, I took both of them on an outing to the Science Museum in Boston. It was a near disaster. My car broke down and as I struggled to get a tow truck, I didn't recognize that Danny's tears were a sign that he was low. When Jessie suggested I check his blood sugar it was 38. Panicked, I started trying to assemble the Glucagon kit rather than giving him juice. If it hadn't been for Jessie . . . I can't bear to think of it even now. After I got both kids back to their house, I crawled into my bed and cried.
I was furious with myself. How could anyone trust me when I was so lost and inadequate, even dangerous, to my grandson's well being? I wallowed in self-pity for a while, and then I got over it. How could I withdraw? Laura needed me, no matter how sorry an excuse for a grandmother I was. I told myself I'd learn what I needed to know and do better next time.
Getting Better at a Hard Thing
I rode the same roller coaster the first time my husband and I took Danny for the weekend. We ignored his snacking and forgot about exercise. By Sunday, he had sky-high blood sugar levels. With Brian and Laura's coaching, however, we learned from our mistakes. We did better the next time and the time after that.
Unfortunately, grandparents don’t come with a magic wand. In the end, the best we have to offer is the gift of ourselves, whenever possible, affirming and willing, and with love in our hearts.
Linda Weltner is the co-author of “The Challenge of Childhood Diabetes: Family Strategies for Raising a Healthy Child.” For more of her articles, go to http://www.challengeofdiabetes.com.
What Grandparents Can Do
I’ve come to the conclusion that grandparents can’t do much about a child's illness, but they can be there for the family in many ways. They can be the people who are willing to listen without making judgments, to baby sit on a moment's notice and to offer desperately needed praise.
They can lift some of the burden of everyday life by providing healthy meals, doing the grocery shopping or running errands when asked. They can get rid of all the junk food in their own house. They can affirm how very hard it is to be the parents of a child who is chronically ill.