Dear Mr. Dad: My father died when I was a teenager and now that I’m a dad myself, I find myself missing him more and more. Of course, my children never met him, but is there a way to include him in their lives, to keep his memory and the wonderful lessons he taught me, even though he’s not here anymore?
A: For many of us, our own parents can be a constant source of advice, and without that sounding board—even if we swore we’d never be the kind of parents they were—it’s easy to feel lost.
Your dad may be physically gone, but there are lots of ways to keep his memory alive. The best is to talk about him often with your children. If you have an important memento, display it in your house and tell your kids why it was special to Grandpa.
Show them photos, tell them what he liked to do, and encourage them to ask questions about him. And have them ask Grandma what he liked to do with you. Tell our kids stories about your childhood and the things you did with your dad. If Grandpa liked to fish, take them to the lake. If he liked basketball, get them into a league and volunteer to coach. The more you bring him back into your life, the more your kids will get to know him. Read them his favorite books, have a movie night with his favorite movies or learn an instrument together if your dad played one. There are endless ways you can teach your kids about your dad.
At the same time, try to find someone who can be a mentor to you. It’s natural to have questions about becoming a parent – it’s one job none of us knows how to do until we’re up to our ankles in it. If you’re close to your father-in-law, ask him for advice or even a few stories about his experiences as a father. Dads’ support groups aren’t always easy to find (one good sources is www.slowlane.com), but you can always put together an informal one consisting of several close friends or relatives who’ve had kids and who would be willing to share their expertise and wisdom. And if groups aren’t your thing, sometimes just going out for a beer with a buddy can be helpful. It sometimes takes a few minutes for guys to work through the sports talk, but once the kid stories start flowing, it’s hard to turn them off.
When you talk about your dad, choose your words carefully. It’s okay to let your kids see that you’re sad. But they can’t understand the difference between someone who’s sick and dying and someone who’s sick with a cold. You may think you’re explaining the difference only to find your child in tears because he thinks someone close to him is going to die from the flu. Don’t tell them Grandpa is just sleeping or they may be become scared to go to sleep at night. Only you know your children and how best to describe death, but the simplest answer are usually the best.
Having lost a parent may make you more aware of your own eventual death. You know that someday you’ll be gone and your own child will be alone. Don’t dwell on that, but live your life knowing that one day your kids will pass on your stories. What do you want them to remember?