The pain of losing a parent at any time is overwhelming. The pain of losing a parent too young is devastating. Part of that pain is our own—not having our loved one physically in our lives anymore. However, for parents of young children, part of that pain is for our children. They are missing out on knowing one (or more) of their grandparents (this Sunday is Grandparent’s Day).
My mom died the day before my oldest daughter turned two. I was also thirty-three weeks pregnant with my son. Although she knows the stories of how close they were, my oldest child doesn’t remember her maternal grandmother. My younger two children don’t even have those stories. A few years ago I made the decision that no matter what, my children would know their GaGa. For all of the people out there missing parents and grandparents, I wanted to share my process in making this happen.
Talk about them.
This may seem obvious, but it took me a while before I could talk about my mom after she died. It hurt. Physically and emotionally hurt. Then one day I realized that if I did not talk about her, I could not keep her memory alive. So, I started bringing her up when it felt natural. Mentioning that we were eating her favorite meal or going to a store she loved or doing something that she would have hated or showing them pictures and videos. Over time, it became much easier—even enjoyable—and now my kids know normal everyday things about their GaGa, just like they know about their living grandparents. It has also helped me feel more comfortable and smile when I think about and talk about my mom.
This strategy accomplishes something else important—it encourages my kids to ask questions when they want to learn more. In the beginning, my daughter was nervous to ask me anything about my mom because she thought it would make me sad. As she sees me talk about GaGa more and more, she asks me her own questions helping further build their connection.
I struggled with honoring my mom after her death. I thought that I should focus on her on the anniversary of the day that she died, but it felt so unnatural. That day is hard, some years more than others, but I don’t usually feel her with me on that day. Then one day I saw a friend post something about eating her dad’s favorite cake on his birthday and I knew the way to honor my mom. She loved her birthday (LOVED) and we make a big deal about birthdays in our family. So, on her birthday each year, we do all of her favorite things. We have donuts for breakfast. We go to the bookstore and buy too many books. Then we cap the day off with ice cream. My kids now love her birthday (I mean, who wouldn’t with a day like that?!?!) and I love that not only are they learning about her, but they have a really positive association with and connection to my mom.
Share your inside jokes.
When I was a kid my mom hated roller coasters. She would always go on the “sitting on the bench” ride while we were hurled down big hills shrieking with joy. On one trip to Disney World, my dad convinced her that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was not really a roller coaster at all (spoiler alert: it is). She agreed to ride on it and as it hurled her around a particularly fast bend she shrieked, “I’m going to kill your father!!!” It became a joke in our family and I shared it with my kids on our most recent trip to Disney World. When we rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, my kids, completely unprompted by me, yelled, “I am going to kill your father!!!” My eyes filled with happy tears that my mom was now part of our family inside jokes and the tradition continues. (Sorry, Dad!)
Create a connection.
We see our parents in our children. In them, I see my mom’s love of books and ice cream. I also see her ease with strangers and her compassion. They share her intelligence and deep love for family. I also see some of her less flattering qualities. I make it a point to share all of what I see with my kids. My kids deserve to know where they come from. They are very fortunate to have three living grandparents and even a great-grandparent to know and develop relationships with. They can’t do that in the same way with my mom, but I can help them create their own connections to her that not only help them understand her, but also help them understand themselves.
Being a parent after losing a parent is sometimes a struggle. I would give anything to have my mom here helping me navigate parenting and helping me shape my children. However, being a parent has forced me to have the strength to manage the loss in a way that I might not have otherwise. Grief never goes away, but I have learned to live with the grief in a way that lets me still hold my mom close and keep her memory not only alive but also present.