Special needs grandpa Joe Zaccaria shares what it's like to be a special needs grandparent and what he's learned from his granddaughter Brielle.

Welcome to Different Dream’s continuing series about grandparenting children with special needs. Last week, you heard from Brielle Stull’s grandmother. In this post, you’ll hear the perspective of a special needs grandpa who happens to be Brielle’s grandparent, too.

From a Special Needs Grandpa

The Special Needs Grandpa is There from the Start

I was there when my daughter was born, when she rode her first bike, when she finished college, when she walked down the aisle, and when she had her first baby.

I remember her calling me to announce she was pregnant again and that she also had chicken pox.

I told her she should have an abortion. Why would she risk her health and the baby not being healthy like their first daughter?

I was angry when she and her husband decided to continue the pregnancy. And I worried. A lot.

I celebrated with the other grandparents when Brielle was born healthy. We expected her to look different or act different. She looked perfect. I was so relieved.

I got angry when we found out months later that she really wasn’t healthy. Brielle had cerebral palsy.

And I became a special needs grandpa.

A Special Needs Grandpa Can’t Fix Things

My daughter didn’t listen to me when she was pregnant. But, I learned to listen to her after Brielle was born.

I watched and asked questions. I watched at therapy when we went along. I listened as my daughter’s husband told us what the doctors told them.

I watched my daughter. I watched her struggle being a good mother to Brielle. This wasn’t the life I wanted for any of them. It was painful for a long time.

And I thought there was nothing I could do.

A Special Needs Grandpa Can Help

At first, I was afraid I would do something wrong. There were different ways to hold her, prop her up, play with her, bathe her, and put her to bed.

But, I learned what I could do.

I fed Brielle and sang to her. I could always make her laugh.

I set the table, cut the roast, and washed the dishes.

Mostly, I was just there to listen to my daughter. I was her sounding board.

A Special Needs Grandpa Can Celebrate

Having a special needs grandchild is a sad thing. I am sad for my daughter, her husband, their oldest daughter, and for Brielle. Their lives could have been so different.

I worry about all of them.

But I love watching how Brielle has made such great strides. Even more so, I love her joy.

She has amazing joy. That is when I learn something from Brielle. Have more joy.

Advice from a Special Needs Grandpa

Everyone’s situation is different. So, my only advice is this:

  • Figure out what you can do and do it.
  • Make sure you have a relationship with your special needs grandchild, whatever that means to them.


Here’s what worked for me:

  • I went to therapy sessions so I could understand about my granddaughter as well as what my daughter went through.
  • I went to activities like Special Olympics and Miracle League baseball to be my granddaughter’s biggest cheerleader even though I hate sports and going was inconvenient.
  • I figured out what I could do to help my granddaughter.
  • I did what I can to ease my daughter’s burdens.
  • I built a relationship with my granddaughter on her terms.
  • I will continue to be a positive influence on my granddaughter’s life in whatever way I can.

Give a Shout Out to the Special Needs Grandpa in Your Child’s Life

Thank you, Joe, for sharing your experience so honestly. Now’s your chance to give the special need grandpa (or grandma) in your life a shout out int he comment box.

Part One: Different Dream’s Special Needs Grandparenting Series Begins
Part Two: Special Needs Grandparenting 101
Part Three: Special Needs Grandparenting–The First Word Is Never the Last Word
Part Four: The Special Needs Grandparenting Tug of War
Part Five: Special Needs Grandparents Are Part of the Village
Part Six: What’s It Like to Be a Special Needs Grandparent?
Part Seven: From a Special Needs Grandpa

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Dad and Kerith (2) copyJoe Zaccaria has a PhD from Columbia University and taught Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois until he retired in 1992. He was also a consultant and published eight books. He currently lives with his wife in the Atlanta area close to his daughter, Kerith Stull, and her family including his special needs granddaughter, Brielle.