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My wife’s Mom passed away in June, after a long period of declining health. Our family – me, age 64, my wife, age classified but over 50, and our eight year-old daughter – are working our way through the grief.
I’ve been here before. My dad died 20 years ago, my mom five years before him. That’s one advantage of being an “older parent.” Plenty of life experience to draw upon. The difficult terrain of dying and death is better understood or at least more familiar.
It’s the dad thing that’s new to me and I need help helping. Our daughter is showing classic signs of insecurity: she has begun sucking her fingers again; she wears a hoodie like a security blanket; baby talk surfaces occasionally. And she’s reacting differently to my age.
People who don’t know us (or don’t know better) commonly refer to me as her “grandpa.” Sometimes we correct them, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But now it matters to her. She recently told me that she hates when people call me her grandpa “because grandpas die before daddies.”
I have no idea how to address that.
Grownups know that death doesn’t take people in generational order. But I would rock her already insecure world if I explain that. It would make her realize that anyone – including her – can die at any moment. That would make her feel far less secure and that’s not where I want to go.
What I said to her – not using these words — was that this is a good lesson about living in the present, about cherishing every moment that you have with someone. If you project your life into the future, you eventually find its end. If you dwell in the past, you will likely engage in toxic replays of every mistake you’ve ever made.
The simplified version was about more hugging and more loving. I don’t know that it touches the vulnerability and deep concern revealed by “grandpas die before daddies.”
Helping a kid feel secure when their world just got rocked is hard. It’s even harder when a primary giver of security is seen as vulnerable, mortal and temporary.
But, while I’ve been busily pondering the deep meaning of life and death, my daughter has taken a step on her own. When we’re out together, she calls me “Daddy” in a louder than necessary voice, letting everyone know who I am.
While we grownups are off searching for solutions, our kids are busy finding their own. So I guess we’ll get through this like we always do – fumbling forward together.