My dad passed away nine years ago today. He was 62. He died from complications of prostate cancer that had metastasized to various parts of his body including his organs and bones. He had been given 18 months to live when he got his terminal diagnosis, and spent that 18 months making amends and enjoying life while managing the pain from his cancer. His last months, we were emotionally the closest we had probably ever been since I was a young child. My parents had divorced early on and my dad struggled with alcoholism his whole life. I’m sad he wasn’t around to give me away at my wedding and wasn’t there to meet his first grandson but I am so glad that we had repaired our relationship before he died.
Before he passed, he and I talked about keeping his memory alive should I one day have a child. Here’s three ideas that Dad and I talked about about and that I do, to make sure my son knows who his Grandpa was.
Take Pictures Before They Go
Lots of them. Digital storage is cheap as all get out these days. Take photos as much as you can, of you and your loved ones in the photo together. Print the good ones. Put them in a book, or at the very least, a box. Holding a physical photo is so much better than scrolling through a screen. Make time to go through them in regular intervals. If you’re tech savvy you can also spend time tagging and categorizing your pictures in your picture managing software so that you can look them up based on date, location, who was in the photo, or special words like “camping”. I was late on the draw on this one, but my mom still has boxes of old prints that the scanning of are on my list of projects for the winter.
Share Memories and Tell Their Stories
Sometimes Kale and I do things together that remind me of my dad. Hiking, camping, fishing, boating, spending time in the forest – they all remind me of special camping trips or times with Dad. I don’t keep these to myself. When we’re doing something and I’m reminded of my dad, I tell Kale the story. He asks questions, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the story or I don’t remember all the details, but tell the stories makes my dad an actual person to Kale, and not an image. I try not to sugar coat things, but I do downplay or omit things that are hard for a nearly-seven year old to understand. I want the bigger picture to be the memory, not nitpicked details. I try and tell him the funny stories that are uniquely my dad.
Use The Memory as a Learning Opportunity
My dad’s life has been a useful teaching tool for Kale for us. We talk about very hard concepts like cancer, death, or divorce when they’ve come up using Dad as a central figure to give Kale context. Because we incorporate the good memories and the bad, and because Dad is a real person rather than an image in a photograph to Kale, we can explain hard concepts like cancer without being too scary. My dad has always been dead, and it is a tough concept for kids to understand step parents and adoptive parents and bio parents; my Dad helps us teach Kale. I am an atheist, so it was important to have some tools at the ready to explain concepts without involving God.
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Do you need some resources for teaching your child about death and keeping the memories alive? Here are a few I’ve collected over the past little while.
- A discussion from a columnist from the Washington Post
- Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician in the US who operates The Order of the Good Death, who advocates for the normalization of various death rituals, in a great interview about the subject. She also lists a few books in the interview and does a video post about it (and she has some really wonderful videos for everyone in general including pet death, talking to your parents about death, and others.
- Mr Rogers on talking to children about tragedy and death (two separate links).
- I found this advice from Parenting Beyond Belief (great blog and great book, btw) about talking to kids about death as a secular parent to be helpful.
- Another post from the author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion on the 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking About Death.
- Some good, practical, basic info from Hospice.Net