I named my son Phoenix because my father died in a town called Phoenix, New York. He died in a fire a year and half before my son was born, and when I thought about the name, the symbolism of a phoenix bird rising from the ash and life beginning again comforted me. Naming my son where my dad died helped my grieving process. When I said the name while looking at my newborn son, it gave me some hope.
When my daughter Vivian was born a couple of years later, I kept my father’s urn in my son and daughter’s shared bedroom. To their young eyes, they may have thought the urn was just a wooden box with a mountainous landscape carved into it. To me, it was as though my dad could somehow get a chance to experience their squeals of excitement while they toddled around with toy trains and balanced blocks. The urn has continued to remain front and center in our home, now in the living room. I think of it sitting there as a good luck charm, a way to keep him present each day.
When my son was around 3 years old he asked me if I had a dad. I was surprised by his question and simply said, “He passed away.” And then I added, “He is always in our hearts.” I didn’t exactly want to scare my son by saying his grandfather died in a terrible fire, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I would look at Phoenix’s arched eyebrow — so much like my father’s — and I didn’t want to tell him that his grandfather was unidentifiable when he died, and the medical examiner said smut was in his lungs, as I held in my grief quietly while driving to the zoo or the children’s museum.
Although my children are 6 and 8 now, I still haven’t gone into great detail about how their grandfather died; they’re still too young for all the details, or maybe I’m just not ready to go there. More importantly, I want them to know their grandfather for his kooky smile and the things he enjoyed and loved to do.
I started sharing facets of my dad with my kids by giving my son a superhero Lego set on Father’s Day. My dad had loved comic books as a kid, something I found out about after he died while talking with his sister. Carrying on his love of superheroes also reminded me of a Superman figure my father gave me when I was a child.
My dad’s favorite candy was a Snickers candy bar, and this treat has become a ritual I share with my kids. I love it when Vivian says, ”Your dad would love this.”
As my kids got older I have shared with them my father’s voice through his preserved voicemails and I share some keepsakes I have, like his Giants hat and his sports jacket. After my dad died I created a photo album of just photos of him and it hugs my heart when my kids giggle at his wild and curly hair. Showing these objects to my kids has been a way to introduce my dad, to have an answer when my kids ask about who their grandfather was.
It hurts knowing my dad would have been a great grandfather — and I know I’m not alone in this feeling and this hurt, on Father’s Day and every day.
“My boys have never met my father. My dad always wanted to be a grandpa and it breaks my heart that they will never get that chance to learn and play with him,” says my friend Shani, a mom of two boys in Larchmont, New York. Her father was an amazing Naval engineer and built ships, and her grandfather and great grandfather also built ships and was a sea captain. She keeps her father’s wisdom alive and shares her dad’s memory with her kids with his anecdotes for life.
“Always follow instructions! When you’re building something, when you’re in school, and in life in general,” Shani says. “You may want to take shortcuts, but if you forget that one important nail, bolt, or screw… you will eventually sink.”
Shani also has taught her boys to be cautious of time, something her father lived by. “He always said being late wastes time, your time and mine,” she says.
Another mom-friend, Charysmel, lost her dad this year and now keeps an orchid — her father’s favorite — in her home. It warms her heart when her daughter points to it.
“He loved orchids,” she says. “While he and my mom lived in the Dominican Republic prior to his death, they cared for approximately 150 orchids throughout their yard and home. Caring for the orchids became his passion. Right before what would be his last trip to the hospital, he supposedly spoke to his orchids and said, “I love you all and see you later.”
Cooking also keeps memories of her father alive. “When my mom, siblings, and I get together, we always unintentionally tend to cook his favorite foods and randomly tell one of his many stories. This will probably be a common occurrence for our family…forever.”
Although traditions are great, Charysmel says the best way to keep her father’s memory alive is to just speak about him with one another and to my daughter. “We are still healing but I vow to speak of my father and remind my daughter every day of that great man who is her Abuelo.”
Claire Bidwell Smith, a renowned grief expert and author, speaks about the importance of talking about your own loss as a parent with your kids and shares tips for parents who may be unsure of how to bring up their father: “Talking about loss and grief and teaching children ways to remember people we lose will help demonstrate healthy ways of moving through their own inevitable losses in life,” she says. “In years past there were more shrouds of silence surrounding loss and children grew up never really knowing about important family members they may not have met. Incorporating a parent’s memory into your child’s life preserves family lineage, traditions, and generational knowledge.”
Bidwell Smith talks about her own father all the time with her children. “I always make sure to say “Your grandpa Gerry,” instead of “my dad,” so that they have a sense of having two grandfathers, even though only one is living,” she explained. “I tell them stories about his life, and always point out foods he liked, holidays he loved, places he traveled, and traditions we had, so that they have a sense of who he was.”