When my sister called to tell me that my grandfather had died, I wasn’t surprised. He’d broken his hip almost a year ago and been in a care facility ever since. He was 90 years old and had lived a good life. But, as I’d learned with my mother’s death, no matter how much you’re prepared, grief still hits.
The hard part about being a single parent is that parenting doesn’t take a vacation for grief. I still needed to pack my son’s lunches, make him dinner, give him a bath while processing the death of a man who’d been present my entire life.
My son met my grandma, his great-grandmother, but had never met my grandfather. He’s already dealt with so much loss and change in his life, starting with my divorce and subsequent ugly court battles that I wondered if I should even tell him about my grandfather.
When someone we love dies, it can be hard to talk about it with our children. Death is a far-off concept to them. But I don’t think glossing over the truth, or avoiding it, helps children.
Similar to a divorce, lying to your child or pretending everything is okay when it’s clearly not can create a lot of fear in them. A child is smart enough to know that, even though you say everything is fine, you’re crying yourself to sleep every night. And, absent any explanation of what’s going on, they can read a lot of horrible stories into your silence.
I found out about my grandfather’s death on a weekend I didn’t have my kid, so I had a day and a half to grieve before picking him up from school. But I was still sad, and not in my usual spirits. When he asked me why, I gently explained to him that someone I loved had passed away.
It turns out that, even though he’d never met my grandfather, talking about him with my child was the right thing to do. My grandfather was a panoramic photographer so later that night we sat on the couch and paged through his books. I told C stories about hiking and camping with him, and how my grandma would sit and cross-stitch while he tried to get the perfect shot.
At the back of the book, I pointed out the author photo. “That was your great-grandfather,” I told him. He was fascinated and felt a connection to a man he’d never met. And now he had an explanation for my tears. It also honored my grandfather’s memory, to share with his great-grandson the good things he’d accomplished in his life.
When tough times happen, our children can pick up on them. As hard as it can be to choose the right path, I think being honest but age appropriate is the best choice. It includes your child in your feelings and validates their impression of how you feel. This, in turn, raises their emotional intelligence.
Two weeks after my grandfather’s death we traveled back to my hometown, Seattle, and explored the Space Needle and Science Museum. I shared stories of visiting the museum with my grandparents, of eating at the Bite of Seattle, and how my grandpa once photographed the monorail for a promotional event. My son lapped them all up.
Up to a certain age we are the most important people in our children’s lives. Getting insight into what shaped us helps ground them and gives them a sense of history and belonging. After a divorce, they may feel uncertain about their place in the world. Even though it may no longer be as part of a two-parent family, they still have family and a place they belong.
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