death of a grandparent
March 24, 2015 9:38 AM   Subscribe

My father was just given a very bleak prognosis. Of all the things that are upsetting, I am most distraught by the thought that my toddler will not remember my father. I am pregnant and there is a chance that my son (due in June) will never even meet my dad. I'm looking for advice on how to manage my sadness about this.

This is all very sudden, and I think that advice such as "make a memory book" or "take lots of family pictures" will be met with derision by my parents, or at least be viewed as super morbid. I also live across the country, so while I will be spending time there, we can't be there daily or anything (plus at some point, I will be prevented from flying due to the pregnancy) and even being there does nothing to help my extreme sadness over my child(ren) not knowing their grandfather. Advice on how to be at peace with the fact that they will not know him and remember him would be greatly appreciated.
I'm looking for therapy locally as well, FWIW.
posted by avocado_of_merriment to Human Relations (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your children will love hearing stories about their grandparents. They will not really miss your grandparents if they've never met them or spent limited time with them as babies.

To me, your question is more about the intense sadness that you are facing, and it seems that you are dealing with this in the immediate sense by thinking about it in terms of your children's loss instead of your own.

It is ok to be incredibly sad about this, and to give yourself permission to be. Lots of internet hugs.
posted by cacao at 9:44 AM on March 24, 2015 [14 favorites]

I am so sorry for the prognosis and for what you are going through.

My husband and I both lost beloved grandparents right after we married. We are now almost 15 years down the road and have two young kids of our own. I know losing a grandparent =/ losing a parent, but I find a lot of joy in the ways I can share traditions and tell our kids about these people. Baking around the holidays was a big tradition for my husband's grandmother, and now he does that with our son, using some of the same recipes and techniques. He tells our son about her. It's very sweet, and in a way he does "know" her. It is not the same, and it's not perfect, but I am surprised how fulfilling it is.
posted by handful of rain at 9:45 AM on March 24, 2015

My father died when my daughter was a toddler and never met my son (born a few months after the funeral). This was almost 10 years ago.

I think cacao has a good point in saying this is likely about your own sadness, but you frame it in terms of your children, because of course you do. You're a mom.

It's hard and sad and you have my sympathies.

Two things I would suggest from my own experience.

1) I've had to give myself some space from friends with kids when their grandparents come to visit. I have one good friend whose dad comes to see her several times a year to fix things around the house and hang out with the grandkids. Even after years of this, the envy and sadness I sometimes feel watching her family have something my kids will never know is still damn hard. I just try and make peace with those feelings, not beat myself up for being petty, and take a break from hanging out with her during those times so I can chill out.

2) Your kids will love the stories you tell about your dad. My dad was a problematic personality to say the least....but he was a whiz with tools. Now when my kids and I are doing projects with drills/saws/hammers I can talk about how their grandpa would do it. We even have a few of his old tools. It's not the same a living person in your life, but it's part of how kids and families build their understandings of themselves.

Take care of yourself.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:55 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dang. Sorry to hear that. I was in this position when my father's father passed away unexpectedly--I hardly remember him and my sister doesn't at all.

Here's an idea I've always wanted to do, but just haven't put into effect: make a "photo family tree" somewhere in the house. So you put pics of your kids, then you and your spouse, then your parents above the two of you, their parents above them, etc., maybe with little black lines or something showing the connections. If you put this somewhere relatively prominent, you can explain it to your kids more easily and naturally than "Let's get out the memory book and go through it"--this is like that, but always "out". You could broaden it to include your siblings and their spouses and kids to help form connections with those family members who are far away (this is free-form, go nuts).

For your father, specifically, since he may not be around to form impressions on the kids, maybe make his photo a collage of several photos from events that capture a story or personality trait you'd like them to remember. That way if your kids ask about the photos, you can tell the story and they'll have a mental picture to go along with it.
posted by resurrexit at 9:58 AM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry for the hard news, and I hope that you do have lots of good time together in the months to come. The ideas about telling stories to your kids and sharing your traditions is big. We talk about my grandparents pretty often with my kids, 20-30 years after their deaths, and share things like recipies and things like that as ways to stay connected with them and the ancestors before them.

I know your family may find the memory book hard to swallow, but one idea that pops into my head is StoryCorps has developed an app that allows you to record stories from your loved ones. The resulting interviews can go to the Library of Congress, so maybe you could frame it in terms of being something that preserves history more generally?
posted by goggie at 10:01 AM on March 24, 2015

I know you are not asking for advice about specific things to do, but what if you ask both of your parents to read several children's books on video for your kids? It would be a positive thing given they are far away regardless of your dad's health status. And it would give you and your children visual and auditory memories of both your parents.

I would give anything to hear my mom's voice again. We were not a video family so I don't have anything.
posted by cecic at 10:04 AM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am very sorry; my kids are older than yours, but I think about this, too.

I suggest that it will be helpful for you to put together a scrapbook of your favorite things about him, for two reasons. It would be a chance to share with them the things that have meant the most to you about him over the years, which the kids can enjoy some day. But it will also be a great comfort to you after he's gone as a reminder of what you loved best. The kids won't ever know that aspect of the book, but it will be there when you need it.

If this doesn't work for you, could the two of you make something together? He doesn't have to know why! :7) My own parents live 1300 miles away and, while they are in fine health now, they have always been slightly Legendary Figures to my kids. I like to tell stories about them, but a couple of summers ago when they came to visit I had ordered a kit of metal parts to make a picnic table. We went and bought lumber, and then the whole family plus Grammie & Grandpa built the table over a weekend, and sanded & sealed it. The number of meals we have since eaten at that table outdoors in the summer -- never failing to mention how we all built it together -- have made it a surprisingly important artifact.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:09 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mother died when my son was 8 months old. (I was also pregnant at the time, but had a miscarriage a week after the funeral. Then got pregnant again and had my daughter 11 months after my mom died.) Someone I knew who had lost her father when her children were very little said to me, "Your mother may not know your children, but your children will know your mother. She will live on in all of the stories you tell them about her." Of all the things people said to me when my mom died, that stuck with me. Not only does it bring me comfort, it reminds me to make sure that my kids do know about her. At this point, they are still too young for me to tell them much, but there is a framed picture of my mom in our living room and my two and a half year old son points to it and says "grandma."
posted by amro at 10:10 AM on March 24, 2015 [10 favorites]

I like the recording idea, especially now with the new StoryCorps app that is mentioned above. My paternal grandfather died when I was young and I didn't really know him. I remember snippets of him but what I remember the most to this day was listening to an old audiotape that he recorded. It's been probably 25 years since I heard that tape but I can hear his voice in my head still.

I'm really sorry you're going through this. I am actually going through something similar (I'm pregnant and my mom is battling cancer) so please MeMail me if you'd like to chat sometime.
posted by cabingirl at 10:15 AM on March 24, 2015

Could you record him reading some favorite children's books? Sorry if this has been suggested. I didn't have time to read through the whole thread.

Also: I'm very sorry. Hugs.
posted by harrietthespy at 10:26 AM on March 24, 2015

I'm so sorry about this.

Amalah is a blogger who dealt with this a few years ago when her father died of cancer. She has three kids and was either pregnant with her third at the time or her third child was a newborn when her father passed away (she was definitely pregnant when the terminal diagnosis happened). She talked about this issue - her kids not knowing her dad - a fair amount on her blog using the tag fuck cancer.

Sometimes I find that reading similar experiences helps me, so maybe you'll find some help there. I also imagine that she'd be more than happy to talk with you if you reach out to her - she's a very personable blogger and is very kind (she and I shared some emails back and forth many years ago and she was very nice to me.)
posted by sockermom at 10:29 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just went back and re-read your question. I see that you are looking for ways to cope with the idea of your children not knowing him rather than ideas on how to preserve images or recordings.

It's simplistic to say, but I think this will be part of what you are grieving after he is gone. It will be easier with time. (((More hugs))).
posted by harrietthespy at 10:31 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mom died two years ago. My kids were almost two, and five and a half. Because of distance and the nature of her illness, the kids did not see her for a whole year before she died, except via Skype.

While she was sick, the thought of them never knowing her was paralyzing for me. I thought it would kill me. And my oldest daughter did take it very hard, the last time she saw Grandma. But what people say is true: they don't remember and they don't miss her. They love hearing stories, they love looking at pictures, and they love visiting her grave/taking flowers/"remembering." They do not feel any real loss or sadness, though. Even my oldest daughter, who does remember her slightly, has no sadness about it.

I do, though, constantly, and I think in some ways that worry about my kids was a way to cushion the blow from myself. The loss is really mine, not theirs. Which does not make it easier, unfortunately.

It is awfully nice to have little people who always, always want to talk about her, though.

My sincere condolences.
posted by xeney at 10:33 AM on March 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

So sorry for your coming loss; losing a parent is always hard.

I never knew my maternal grandfather: he died before my parents even married. But yes, I always loved to hear the stories about him (he made elderberry wine in the basement! He carved Christmas ornaments! His idea of "rearranging" the living room was, move the staircase!), and am doing my best to pass those down. Your kids will also love to hear everything about their grandpop.

I'd like to n'th the posters who say that your kids will be fine; this is more your own sadness that your kids won't have the chance to know him, to sit on his knee and make grandparent-grandchild memories. Talk to your kids about their grandfather: show them his pictures, tell them his jokes, pass on all the family stories.
posted by easily confused at 10:36 AM on March 24, 2015

I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died about a year before I was born, but I loved hearing stories about him growing up. My dad didn't talk about him too much, but as I got older, he did more and my sisters and I really ate it up. I loved looking at pictures of him and if we had had some kind of "memory book" or photo album about him that would have been a coveted and prized item in my house.

Having never met him, it was a loss that I didn't even really know I had, if that makes sense. I had three living grandparents and that's just the way my life was. Your kids will be totally fine.

But for you - of course you are going to feel this keenly. Watching one's children have a lovely, positive relationship with one's parents is a treasure in life, and the prospect of that going away, or never happening, is a sobering one. Take the time you need to mourn your loss. I think the plan to seek therapy is a good one. Seek comfort in your children and partner when you can, and when you need to be alone, do it - take a bath, or get your nails done, take a nap, or whatever. I know how hard it can be to get alone time when you've got little kids, but I'd start working now on getting a network of friends and/or babysitters you can use when you need some time to yourself (or time to do whatever it is that will help you mourn and also remember your dad). If you were my friend and going through this, I would offer to take your toddler off your hands on a Saturday morning, or I'd take your newborn for a walk so you could rest - and I would be really happy to do it, and I know most people would be happy to help in a similar kind of way. Don't be afraid to ask for help, is what I'm saying.

One thing I will say as a piece of advice is that my dad and my grandmother didn't talk about my grandfather for a long time, I think because they were so sad about it, and as a child, I was always too nervous to ask about it. I was afraid I would make things worse. (My grandmother was also a little dramatic). So talk about your dad and encourage your kids to ask whatever questions they like. Have lots of pictures they can look at.

I'm so sorry for your coming loss, and I wish the best for your family.
posted by sutel at 10:52 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My children's maternal grandmother died years before my kids were born - I only met her twice, one of which times was in a hospital. (she died of a cancer that killed her a few months after discovery and diagnosis)

We just tell our kids about their grandmother when the topic comes up. They know that their grandmother said she wanted to meet them. Since they never met her, they can't miss her. They have never seemed sad about it other than in the sense of "that's too bad". It's my wife's sadness, not our kids'. Also, they have very close relationships with all their living grandparents.

I am very sorry that you are having this loss.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:03 AM on March 24, 2015

I did StoryCorps with my father and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The cool part about the way they do it is that you have someone there with you to help facilitate the conversation, so it never feels forced or dad shared some things during our conversation that I had never heard him talk about before, and I count the CD we left with as among my most valuable possessions in the world.
posted by richmondparker at 11:24 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My father died several years before my three year old son was born, and even longer before my daughter was born, but I think about this a lot, particularly lately, as my infant looks like my dad to me. I don't have really great, specific advice, but here are some thoughts:

1. You never exactly get over the loss of a parent. You're going to be carrying around that sadness for the rest of your life (well, at least for ten years--I can't speak for anything past today), and one of the ways that sadness manifests for me is thinking about how he never met my children. It just sucks, but I will say that over time, it is an almost comfortable grief rather than a searing grief.

2. You may find yourself oddly angry at people who have healthy elderly fathers after he passes. I had that before my kids were born, and now and then I still get it a bit. At this point, my kids only have one grandparent, and it makes me angry. It's not a rational response, and I never let on that I feel this way, but it's there, and you might experience it, too.

3. The thing about grief is that you just have to sit with it. There's not much you can do about it. Like any pain, you do whatever you can (read, sleep a lot, watch TV, drink, whatever) to get through the worst of it without losing your mind, and you just wait until you find yourself not thinking about it every hour, then not every day, then not every week. I know this is a very general statement and not precisely about your kids, but I think it applies, but this is at base about your grief over not just your father, but over his relationship with your kids.

I am very sorry you're dealing with this. I wish peace and healing for all of you.
posted by hought20 at 11:30 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Both of my dad's parents were killed by a drunk driver five years before I was born. Here are things that my dad did to make sure my sister and I had a connection to them, even though we were never alive at the same time they were:
  • Lots of photos around the house, of both of them at various stages of their lives. I always had an image in my head when someone mentioned their names.
  • Telling lots and lots of stories about them, and inviting other people who had known them (relatives and friends) to tell their stories about my grandparents when we were visiting my dad's hometown. That way, I got to know about who they were as members of the community, not just my dad's parents.
  • Carrying on with things that were special to them, or particular to them. Several of our Christmas tree ornaments belonged to my grandparents, and I was told which ones. My dad recycled his father's "dad jokes" often, and always said afterward "My dad told me that."
  • Sharing the one piece of audio that exists of my grandmother. This is one that my dad really, really wishes there were more of. There is no video or film of them, but my grandmother hosted a radio show, and her final broadcast was saved on a record. Hearing her voice instantly made her more real to me.
  • Describing ways in which various family members resembled my grandparents. My grandfather apparently talked just like his brother, my great uncle, whom I knew very well. My grandmother, on the other hand, was apparently very similar to me in her interests and temperament. Again, details to help fill out a picture of what they were like.
The result of all of this is that although I don't have direct memories of my dad's parents, I do have a strong sense of who they were, and I feel a strong connection to them even though we never met. Of course, I would give quite a lot to have the chance to meet them, but given that meeting them is impossible, I feel like I've got the next best thing.

A caveat: all of this information was shared over a period of years. It's not something you have to have a handle on right away. If it were dumped on me all at once, I think it would have been overwhelming. Some things were explained to me very young (that they were gone, what their names were, who they were in photos, etc.) while others were saved until I was older and better able to appreciate or understand (the record of my grandmother, the exact nature of their deaths, etc.).

There's one thing my dad didn't think of that would have been an immense help: coming up with "grandparent names" to refer to his parents. He always just referred to them as "Mom and Dad," but that meant that my sister and I didn't have something that we could call them. It would have been a lot easier to ask questions (it still feels awkward to me) if I could say "Grandpa Pat" or something rather than "your dad" which sounds awfully awkward and distant, like I'm not talking about my own grandparent.

It is possible to maintain a connection for your kids, even if they never know your dad in person. It can be something they'll cherish, as I do my connection to my grandparents.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:48 AM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

advice such as "make a memory book" or "take lots of family pictures" will be met with derision by my parents

In a similar vein to this, to get around your parents' objections, I would recommend doing it yourself. Write down the memories of him that you want your children to have. This might be journaling where you just get your own grief out onto the page about things you wish for that unfortunately, simply aren't going to happen.

Or it might be you writing down the stories from the past you plan tell your children about him. Writing it down may help you notice that you aren't remembering some details, and you can ask him specific questions to fill in the gaps like, "what was the name of the guy you went on that motorcycle trip with? and was it Utah or Colorado where the motorcycle broke down?" which he might find easier to deal with, compared to "please make a memory book of your life."

Do you skype with them, or facetime or something? Even if it's just audio phone calls, whatever is part of your routine, you might look into recording it. Just an everyday phone call can convey a lot of someone's personality, even without the formal "let's make a memory" stuff that your parents might object to.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:57 AM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

When my grandmother was dying, she was very concerned that my youngest cousins (then small children) wouldn't remember her. My aunt and uncle have made sure that the memory of my grandmother is very alive in their family, by talking about her, telling stories, and looking at pictures. On her birthday, they eat some of her favorite food. And my grandfather is involved in their lives, and talks to them about her, which helps.

My FIL died last year. My sons were 3.5 and 10 months old. We have a picture book of family members, and we talk about, "This was Grumps. He's Papa's papa. He's dead now." And stories about him naturally come up, when we encounter things he would have loved or things that were part of his life, or ways in which our kids are similar to him. I expect this will continue and evolve over time. It's still deeply sad that my kids won't know him. And it's really hard sometimes to see them having a close relationship with my father, and to know that they won't ever have that relationship with my spouse's father. The best thing I know for dealing with that is to allow them to sink into and really enjoy that relationship. I feel like giving them a strong relationship with their maternal grandfather will allow them to imagine having had that kind of relationship and connection with their paternal grandfather.
posted by linettasky at 11:59 AM on March 24, 2015

Your child may be a little young for this, but just recently Maria Popova had a list of best books for helping children deal with death.
posted by mmiddle at 12:25 PM on March 24, 2015

Because you are pregnant, everything is skewed. I would say at this time try to maintain the best outlook possible for the child you are carrying. I would spend as much time with your Dad as is comfortable for him and your Mom. I would be on the Dad train and make as much new great memory as you can, right now. The little kids are little, death is not comprehensible for them, but life is. Best to you, and your little ones. Pregnancy is difficult, under the best of circumstances. I want to growl at people who claim to love the state, I found my emotional legs kicked out from under me daily. So, I drank more water, to be sure I was processing out as much as possible, and realized soon I would have a new life to care for, rather than an indefinable illness. Best to you again and a hug (theoretical.)
posted by OyƩah at 5:43 PM on March 24, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you so very much. These answers are all helpful. I am grateful to each of you for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 6:11 PM on March 24, 2015

My dad died unexpectedly last March when my baby was two months old, and for various reasons the two of them never met, which was wickedly hard. I was really hung up on it. The only thing which made that feel any less terrible was someone asking me if I thought the baby or my dad minded. And I realized that even though it felt like the terrible pain was about them, it was mostly about me, about the fact that I wouldn't be able to see my kid in my father's arms.

One thing that still cuts me a bit was that my dad was obsessed with the idea that I ought to make recordings of the baby's grandparents' voices, and play them to my belly. He wanted the baby to know everyone's voice so as to feel familiar with the whole pack of us once he was born :). For various reasons, including that I was told that fetuses really only hear their moms, I didn't make the recording. But now I really wish I had made a recording of my dad reading one of my favorite childhood books. I would have liked to have played that for my kid. Maybe that's super morbid, but I bet a recording or video of your dad reading a kid's book you loved yourself as a child would be something your kid might get a kick out of later. You can announce the polite fiction that you want to play it to your belly if your family needs a story that dances around the idea of loss.

It still sucks that my dad and my kid didn't meet. But to tell the truth, if they had met, I would have wanted them to know each other longer...and then to go camping together...and then for my dad to see the kid enter scouts...etc. It is never a good time to lose someone you love.

All I can tell you is that the acute pain diminishes. Then it's a duller pain. At this point, I wouldn't even really want to be rid of it, because it's sort of the golden cord that still attaches me to my dad.

My heart goes out to you and your family.
posted by sockanalia at 12:45 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

My mother died when my sister was about 6 months pregnant. My sister has made a big point about telling her daughter about the family, in particular about the line of women from whom she descends. My sister also had custody of my mother's ashes for a number of years, which she kept on a low shelf in her front room. When Sophie was learning to walk, she would walk the circumference of the room, holding onto sofa, chairs, bookcases, along the way, and whenever she reached the urn, she would give it a pat.

She's 15 now and she feel very much a part of an extended family, despite having only met her grandfathers, only one of whom is still living.
posted by janey47 at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2015

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