Growing up, I always felt very fortunate to have four living Grandparents. At a young age I recognized that I was lucky, so many of my friends had fewer. Even though I lived far away from them, I cherished them and looked forward to every phone call and visit. We were family and there was no other requirement to be loved and accepted. Unfortunately, my own kids aren’t that lucky. The first funeral I ever attended was at age 15- my own father’s. My mother’s was 3.5 years later.
Don’t get me wrong, my children are EXTREMELY blessed with an amazing paternal Grandmother and Grandfather for whom I am eternally grateful. But they are missing out on the other half- on knowing a huge part of who they are and where they came from. The feelings expressed in My Greatest Regret resurface strongly as I reflect on the fact that my parents and children never got the chance to enjoy one another in that unique grandparent/grandchild bond.
I have done my best to teach my children about them, but how do you really do that? Up until recently, I kept it extremely basic. However, when my Grandma died this year, J started to ask some pretty intense questions, and at the ripe age of 4, I found myself explaining things no young child should have to worry about. I wish more than anything he didn’t have to think about death, getting old, Heaven, etc. Yet, in some ways losing his great-grandmother has opened the doors for more honest, meaningful ways for me to teach him about the people who are no longer with us. He seems to “get it” on a level I never would have imagined possible.
There is no possible way for my kids to KNOW their grandparents, but I do as much as I can to teach them ABOUT them. Above all, I strive to ensure they know that their grandparents LOVE them.
Here are some ideas to help teach young ones about family members they never met:
1) Pictures- Children are visual learners, and having a tangible photo helps them to put a face to the person you are talking about. I have a few pictures up in the house and J recently asked to put one in his room. Since they passed away so young, they don’t resemble typical graying grandparents. Instead J knows his maternal grandparents in their stylish 70’s bell bottoms, as young happy-go lucky newlyweds, and proud new parents holding babies that resemble him and his siblings. But he sees them; he sees the love, the joy, the traits they passed to me and to his brother and sister.
2) Keepsakes- If you are fortunate to have any mementos, share them. I had a little wall hanging from when I was a baby that I added J’s name to when he was born and placed it next to the rocker. I also had a blanket that my mom had spent an entire year knitting, and it is now the “Grandma Wilma blanket” that we cuddle when we feel sick or sad for comfort. When J was really little, I would say “Grandma Wilma loves you” as I wrapped him in it. I kept little trinkets that they had kept themselves over the years. These are the kinds of things that wouldn’t mean much to anyone else, but to us they trigger memories and mean the world.
3) Traditions- Passing along holiday traditions is a simple way to carry on the memory of loved ones. It is a great time to tell stories and reminisce. Everyday traditions are just as wonderful. In addition to sharing traditional recipes and customs, I find the little things can be even more meaningful. Grandma Wilma used to read me all of the Berenstain Bears books, and guess what? They are J’s favorite now too. Great Grandpa Al used to sing us silly songs, want to hear them? Grandpa Brad used to love seeking out the best viewing spot for 4th of July fireworks, so any time we see fireworks we think of him “oohing and ahhing” at the display. Think of the things that really stand out in your memory, and pass them on.
4) Random Tidbits- It is the little every day stuff that makes their grandparents real in my kids’ minds. ‘Grandpa Brad loved Spumoni ice-cream’, so we think of him whenever we eat, you guessed it, “Grandpa Brad ice-cream”. ‘Grandma Wilma loved Giraffes’- an easy reminder to share when we go to the zoo or see one in a book. ‘Grandpa Brad loved sports, he ran super fast, he was a gifted cellist’. ‘These bagels taste like Grandpa Brad’s did’. ‘Grandma Wilma loved pretty flowers and butterflies’. By making it part of every day conversation, they see that we can remember people, that they are still a part of us, and that we don’t always have to feel sad.
5) Special Moments- You can’t always plan for these kinds of things. Be open and aware, and let them come in. As a young girl I inherited all of my great-grandmother’s costume jewelry. I met her when I was one, and as the story goes, she fell in love with me and left me all of her jewelry. Obviously I didn’t remember her, but I loved playing with all of the trinkets and would proudly tell my friends they were from my Great Grandma. The other day I was going through my mom’s costume jewelry, and J surprised me by sliding up next to me and shrieking with glee as we pulled out her fun collection of pins. Later, the babies joined in, happily donning the beaded necklaces. I never envisioned doing this with them and what was meant to be some nap-time organizing became one of my most special moments so far- reliving my own favorite childhood activity while simultaneously teaching them more about their Grandmother- through teary eyes of course!
So while they will never fully know them, at least they will know some things. Nothing fills my heart more than when J randomly mentions one of his maternal grandparents in conversation. It means they are now a part of him.
What are some ways that you have taught your children about lost loved ones?