Stacy DeBroff was orphaned at 12. Her parents left for vacation and a plane crash ensured they would never return. "It was as if my worst nightmare had come true," DeBroff recalls.
Now 30 years later, she shares her mother’s pajamas and perfume with her two children as a way of keeping the memory of her parents alive for her family. "When you have loved and lost someone close, you can still give your children the legacy of memories that you want to be part of them."
For those of us who will never see our children and our parents walk hand-in-hand, there are ways to teach our kids about these important people, making them a genuine part of our children’s lives.
Make grandparents part of every day
DeBroff, a best-selling author and founder of MomCentral.com, suggests parents point out characteristics in their children that remind them of their grandparent, either physical traits or simply the way they laughed. ‘This is so your grandpa,’ can begin a lifelong connection, she says. She suggests including comments like, "if my mom could meet you, here’s what she would love .... Here’s what would drive her crazy...!"
Both timing and attitude are important, though. "Have conversations about your relatives when you are happy, not sad. Don’t just talk about how much you miss them or how sad you were when they died," DeBroff says. "Make comments about grandparents a part of ordinary conversation, not a startling revelation."
Weave wonderful stories
Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Blending Families, points out that our ancestors are a resource we should embrace. "Children get a sense of security from knowing that they are in a long line of special people," explains Shimberg.
Sometimes this can be a painful subject for parents. But with some mental preparation it can be presented in a joyful manner. Debbie Mandel, author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, says to focus on the positive aspects of the person’s life and tie their unique characteristics to your children. "Show your children photographs of their grandparents when they were vibrant," she says. "Tell stories, witty sayings or kindness about their grandparents and be sure to point out ‘Oh, you have the same playful smile Grandma used to have.’ "
Be prepared to repeat these stories often.
Explore family traditions
Another positive way to involve grandparents in your child’s life is to incorporate their special rituals into your family’s traditions. Be sure to explain the origin of the ritual.
Does your child’s first or middle name honor someone who has died? Share the story of their name—how it was chosen, what other names were considered—explaining why this tradition is important to your family.
Talk about the whole person
Susan Newhouse, a licensed clinical social worker at the Center for Grief and Loss at Stella Maris in Timonium, Md., advises parents to be direct and simple. "Talk about the grandparent in ordinary conversation when it seems natural to do so." She encourages parents to be honest when answering questions about their parents, providing a balanced perspective on who this person really was. "Tell true stories, including some of their foibles or less endearing qualities, as ‘perfect’ people rarely interest anyone, least of all children."
We all tend to tell the "big stories" about our fathers in World War II or the time our parents met, but those events don’t really define who they were. Share the little things that you remember—how your mom always saw the best in people or the horribly funny jokes your dad used to play on you and your sisters. Those are the memories that make the person real to youngsters.
Give your children something to hold onto
A tangible connection can be forged by allowing your child to have a personal item from the grandparent.
If this isn’t possible, you can create a memory book. "Include pictures of the grandparent and the story of their life and death. Add written recollections from relatives who knew the grandparent," advises Newhouse.
Honor the spirit of the grandparent
Another option, especially when inheritance has been received, is to establish a philanthropy fund in their honor. It can be as easy as putting some of the inheritance in a specific mutual fund and using the interest earned each year to help causes important to the grandparent.
As you talk about your parents, you are really communicating to your children what you value in life. "If you’re always talking about their looks, personal achievements or wealth, you are telling them what your values really are and how you define a life well-lived," DeBroff says. Carefully think about how to position this person in order to reflect what you care about most.
The process of teaching your children about their grandparents can actually heal you, as the connection forms between the generations of people that you love, she says. "Let the grandparents be a story that your children get to know over time."
In time, the grandparents, the children and those of us in the middle, may all get what we deserve—the honor of being remembered, warm memories of an ancestor they never knew and a bit of healing for a wound that we all will one day bear.
Simple steps to take
n Prepare a scrapbook with old photos, the name of the person and their relationship to your child.
n Display photos of grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., on a wall in your home.
n Think about your family name or first names that have been passed down from relatives. Talk about why we remember those departed by using their names for new generations.
n If you have possessions that belonged to a deceased relative, mention that it was "Granny Smith’s pitcher" or "my mom’s favorite chair."n Help your child make a family tree, regardless of how many branches or limbs it may develop. Talk together about this tree and the importance of being a family.
Linda Kastiel Kozlowski is a freelance writer and mother of two boys living in Glen Ellyn.