A Grandparents’ Legacy


Stacy DeBroff was orphaned at 12 years old. Her parents left for vacation and a plane crash ensured they would never return. She remembers being in a complete state of shock. “It was as if my worst nightmare had come true,” DeBroff recalls.

Now, 30 years later, she shares her mother’s p.j.’s and perfume with her two children, as a way of keeping the memory of her parents alive for her family. DeBroff advises, “When you have loved and lost someone close, you can still give your children the legacy of memories that you want to be part of them.” For those of us who will never see our children and our parents walk hand-in-hand, there are ways to teach our kids about these important people, making them a genuine part of our children’s lives.

Grandparents Part of Every Day
DeBroff, an author and founder of MomCentral.com, suggests that parents should point out characteristics in their children that remind them of their grandparent, either physical traits or simply the way they laugh. “This is so your grandpa,” can begin a lifelong connection according to DeBroff. She suggests we include comments like, “If my mom could meet you, here’s what she would love … here’s what would drive her crazy!”

DeBroff does caution that both timing and attitude are important. “Have conversations about your relatives when you are happy, not sad. Don’t just talk about how much you miss them, or how sad you were when the died,” says DeBroff. She advises, “Make comments about grandparents a part of ordinary conversation, not a startling revelation.” It may open up a conversation that could be difficult to handle, “but we have to get past the taboo of talking about it. There is a way to make it incredibly nurturing for everyone involved,” insists DeBroff.

Weave Wonderful Stories
Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of “Blending Families” (Berkley Books), points out that our ancestors are a resource we should not shy away from, but embrace. “Children get a sense of security from knowing that they are in a long line of special people,” explains Shimberg.

Certainly this can be a painful subject for parents, even long after the death. But with some mental preparation it can be presented in a joyful manner. Debbie Mandel, author of “Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul” (Busy Bee Group), says we should focus on the positive aspects of the person’s life, and tie their unique characteristics to our children. Mandel explains, “Show your children photographs of their grandparents when they were vibrant. Tell stories, witty sayings or kindness’ about their grandparents, and be sure to point out ‘Oh, you have the same playful smile Grandma used to have’ for instance.” She adds that we may be called upon to repeat these stories often, attributing them to the grandparent each time, but the effort will be well worth it.

Explore Family Traditions
Another positive way to involve grandparents in the life of your child is to incorporate the relatives’ special rituals into your family’s traditions. Be sure to explain the origin of the ritual, and why it is passed down from one generation to the next.

Does your child’s first or middle name honor someone who has passed away? Share the story of their name — how it was chosen, what other names were considered — explaining why this tradition is important to your family.

Talk about the Whole Person
Susan Newhouse is a licensed clinical social worker at the Center for Grief and Loss at Stella Maris in Timonium, Md. She advises parents to be direct and simple. “Talk about the grandparent in ordinary conversation when it seems natural to do so. Use direct, simple language, that is appropriate to the age and developmental level of the child,” says Newhouse. She encourages parents to be honest when answering questions about the relative, providing a balanced perspective on who this person really was. “Tell true stories about the grandparent, including some of their foibles or less endearing qualities, as ‘perfect’ people rarely interest anyone, least of all children,” adds Newhouse.

In the end, we all tend to tell the “big stories” about our fathers in WWII, or the time our parents met, but those events don’t really define who they were. Share the little things that you remember, which only on the surface are of no consequence — how your mom always saw the best in people, or the horribly funny jokes your dad used to play on you and your sisters. Those are the memories that bring the person down to earth, making them accessible to youngsters.

Give your Children Something to Hold On To
A connection truly does exist between your child and your parent, whether it is the color of their hair, the tilt of their smile or family traditions that one-day your son will teach his children. Newhouse recommends we “build a connection between the grandparent and the child by telling them how you think the grandparent would have reacted to the child, if he or she had been alive to know them.” A tangible connection can be forged by allowing your child to have a personal item from the grandparent.
If this isn’t possible, you can create a “memory book.” “Include pictures of the grandparent and the story of their life, and death. Add written recollections from relatives who knew the grandparent,” advises Newhouse.

Honor the Spirit of the Grandparent
Another option, especially when inheritance has been received, is to establish a philanthropy fund to honor the relative. It can be as easy as putting some of the inheritance in a specific mutual fund, and then using the interest earned each year to help causes that were important to the relative. Our family established a fund when my father passed away. Each year we choose a different organization to support, and we provide a gift that involves my children, and would be meaningful to my father. It gives me the opportunity to talk about what was important to my dad, and teach philanthropy at the same time. The principal in the fund will never be touched, but handed down to my sons for this tradition to continue.

DeBroff makes a wonderful point, that as you talk about your parents, you are really communicating to your children what you value in life. “If you’re always talking about their looks, personal achievements or wealth, you are telling them what your values really are, and how you define a life well-lived,” says DeBroff. She cautions us to carefully think about how to position this person, in order to reflect what you care about most.

DeBroff tells us from her experience that the process of teaching your children about their grandparents can actually heal you, as the connection forms between the generations of people that you love. “Let the grandparents be a story that your children get to know over time,” suggests DeBroff. In time, the grandparents, the children and those of us in the middle, may all get what we deserve — the honor of being remembered, warm memories of an ancestor they never knew, and a bit of healing for a wound that we all will one day bear.

Linda Kastiel Kozlowski is a freelance writer and mother of two boys, from Glen Ellyn, Ill.