On my desk is a photo of my mother and me in the summer of 1993 when I was nine years old. The picture was taken while riding on my father’s ski boat on the Ohio River. This picture has always been one of my favorites and captures the many wonderful memories I had with my mother while growing up.
Recently, I found my eighteen-month-old son, Anderson, rummaging through my office display and coming across this photo. Anderson loves to look at old pictures and often I show him the 1936 family reunion photo of my paternal grandmother’s family which he is named after. But it is showing the photos of my mother that is especially emotional for me. My mother died in my early twenties. I know neither of my twins will ever get to meet her, but I know how much she would have loved to have met them. Still, however, I show my sons photos of my mother and tell them stories about her and refer to her as “Grandma Jeannie.” For me, this is not only a way to keep her spirit alive, but also for them to know her even if they will never meet her.
Growing up, I was very fortunate to know all four of my grandparents. While the personalities of my mother’s parents and my father’s parents couldn’t have been more different, all four of them lived into my mid-twenties, allowing me to know them not just as a child, but also as a young adult. Despite how different their lives may have been, they all grew up during The Great Depression and the Second World War. The challenges of that time implanted values of hope, persistence, and faith into their character. Because of my many cherished memories of them, I find them still living within me.
I know the absence of a grandparent from a grandchild’s life is not unique. I can think of many other individuals my age who lost one or both of their parents before they had children of their own. However, for those of us who have had a parent die, the wounds of grief can sometimes re-emerge when we have children of our own, even after we thought we had found healing.
Despite the emotional challenges this can present for us, it is still important for us who had healthy relationships with our deceased parents to share our memories with our children. It can even be a way to find continued healing from our grief.
For anyone who lost a parent before their child was born and wished their parent could have been in their child’s life, sharing photos and videos of our parents with our children is a meaningful way to keep their spirit alive. Unlike my father who only knew one of his biological grandparents and only had a few blurry black and white photos of them from the early 20th century, I have countless photos of my mother who was raised in the 1960s, that capture her free spirit and unique personality. And while my mother never liked being recorded on video, I do have many old home videos of her behind the camera, narrating the adventures of my life and those of my sibling in the 1990s. These treasured video files allow my sons to know her voice, including her sarcastic parenting commentaries that I have inherited.
Beyond sharing photos and videos, the most important way to teach our children about our deceased parents and to find continued healing for our own grief is through telling stories. One of the things that I have done not just with my mother and father, but also with my grandparents, is to record all the stories they shared with me as a child, at least all the ones that I can remember. Not only am I already sharing stories with my eighteen-month-olds about my mother and their great-grandparents, but I have also written stories about my own life. If I should be blessed with grandchildren but not be around to then, I can share these stories with them by passing them along though my children to the next generation.
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die,” writes poet Thomas Campbell. say something about what this quote means for you.
Finally, I think it’s important to acknowledge with our children the sadness that comes from losing a loved one while also being honest with ourselves about the pain of raising a child in the absence of a deceased parent. Having a parent who is either deceased or absent from the life of your child due to other circumstances beyond your control is a unique pain that many may never know. However, acknowledging that pain to our children and to ourselves allows us and our children to process our emotions about their absence more fully. Through that process, we can find healing from our grief and celebrate the memories of those who are not physically present with us.