• Wed, Dec 18 - 12:00 pm ET

Trying To Include A Deceased Parent In Our Holiday Rituals Is Opening Old Wounds

84231669My father passed away before I had my children. You could describe our relationship as “tumultuous” at best – downright aggressive and angry at worst. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would tell you that death allows you to see a person with new eyes. I want my children to have stories about their grandfather – I want them to “know” him as best they can. How do I incorporate a father I didn’t get along with when he was living into our family rituals now? It’s something I’ve been struggling with this year.

My father and I very much had a love-hate relationship. I was twelve when my mother and sister went away to celebrate my sister’s graduation from high school and my father saw his window of opportunity. He packed his stuff and left. He was so anxious to get out the door, he sort of forgot that he was leaving his 12-year-old daughter alone in the house for the rest of the week.

We were buddies before this happened. We joked, we laughed, we played video games – I was too young to feel the brunt of the discipline that my sister felt as a high school student. When he left – I was scared, angry and baffled. Being that I was twelve and not understanding the intricasies of adult relationships, I thought it was my fault. I didn’t tell my family about his absence for years – I just let them believe he left the day that they returned. My father leaving was the first and worst disappointment of my life. It would taint our relationship until the day he died.

I didn’t have the luxury of grandparents when I was growing up. My mom’s parents died when I was very young, and my father’s were not close to our family. I always wished I had a grandma or grandpa – from what I saw of their involvement in my friends’ lives – grandmas and grandpas were awesome.

We moved to Florida during my second pregnancy – and although my first child has always been close to his grandma – he worships her now. There’s something about having her here day in and day out that is so special. He calls for her when he gets hurt. He asks to go to her when he can’t fall asleep at night. I love that. I love it even more because it’s something I never had and always wanted. I was told a few anecdotes about my deceased grandparents when I was a child – but not enough to make me feel close to them. I want my son to feel close to the grandfather he looks – and acts – so much like.

You can reach this post's author, Maria Guido, on twitter.
What We're Reading:
Share This Post:
  • Mel

    I say give your kids the fantasy of a great grandpa. It’s bad enough that you suffered so terribly. If you’re going to share him, polish up the good, leave out the bad, and let them enjoy. Who’s it gonna hurt? You’re not doing it for him, you’re doing it for them, so why not make it as pleasant as possible? The world is gonna hand them enough shitty people in their lives. Why not give them an awesome (if slightly unreal) one?

  • Bethany Ramos

    This post is absolutely amazing and so heartfelt. I can definitely identify because I no longer talk to my dad, but he’s still living. I’m interested to hear what kind of answers people have for you. I also just can’t fathom a parent no longer talking to their kids – but I read more about parental estrangement becoming a growing trend. Trend is such a gross word for that, but seriously, why is it happening?

    • Janok Place

      My husband goes through periods of estrangement with his father… When we met they hadn’t spoke in two years. This disturbed me, and I meddled with it. “Brought the family back together”… Now, I’m disturbed when the man calls. Disturbed when I have to see him. Disturbed by the things he does and says. I think adult “kids” are now becoming more out spoken and independent, with less tolerance for what they believe to be wrong or unfair. Whereas, the people who raised me, believed they had a commitment to their parents. It was their duty to tolerate and accept what they were told by their elders.

    • CMJ

      It was super strange to me too (coming from my background) until it happened to my husband. Long story short, after a series of unfortunate events (including our wedding), my husband hasn’t talked to his mother in over a year. It was the hardest thing he’s ever done, and it still eats at him every day. He’ll get texts every once and a while and he just shuts down. It’s hard for me to see him like that and it’s even harder to fathom how a mother could treat her son the way she treated/s him.

      When I first met him, over seven years ago…I just kept saying, “It can’t be that bad!” And I was wrong. So wrong. I don’t know if it’s a trend or if more people aren’t putting up with the bullshit from people just because they are family.

    • Bethany Ramos

      That’s kind of what I read about the “trend” – more people cutting toxic family members out of their lives. I feel for your husband, and I STILL DON’T GET IT.

    • CMJ

      I know! I keep thinking – were people always this horrible or am I lucky to have the family I have?

    • jsterling93

      My family has always been super close even if we sometimes don’t get along well. So for me seeing my husband have the strained relationship he has with his family creates that same “I don’t get it” feeling. When we were dating his father died and I had to force him to go to his funeral. When we married he at first wasn’t sure he wanted to invite his siblings and mother but due to another family death we went to visit and they were so welcoming I convinced him to mend the relationships. They were so nasty and flat out evil at our wedding and then afterwards that other than his mother he doesn’t speak to any of them.

      Meanwhile certain family members of mine that I expected to cause problems have been amazing. I don’t understand treating family that way but I support my husband. Abuse is abuse and just because it isn’t physical doesn’t mean you should have to take it for the sake of “family.”

    • Bethany Ramos

      I agree completely. I was just talking to my sister about my dad, and she’s going to see him for the first time in many years over Christmas. She’s not that bothered by it, but it bugs me so much because it makes me angry and sad at the same time. She tried to explain to me that he seems happy in his own life, where he has friends and is involved in church. So I guess that means he’s just happy not having a close family. Again, I don’t get it.

    • Andrea

      I really do understand you. I felt the exact same way in the exact same situation (husband estranged from his mother). Until I saw that it can BAD. REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD.

  • Alex

    As long as the information and details are all kept age-appropriate, I would always encourage sticking to the truth as opposed to fantasy-based lies. Teach your children about who your father was as you knew him, both good AND bad.

    But then, I only grew up with one set of grandparents; my paternal grandfather (even with his flaws) passed when I was 17, and my paternal grandmother rarely wanted anything to do with us (and even less so since then). So perhaps my perspective on the inherently “valuable” family role of grandparents is a bit jaded and cynical.

    • AP

      Re: Age-appropriate. Take into account the likelihood of the kids repeating the story to their friends and classmates, especially if they’re young enough that the “telephone” effect kicks in.

      We had some amusing characters up the family tree and were privy to the stories at a young age. I assure you, people, especially authority figures like teachers, don’t always hear the stories correctly or judge you based on what your ancestors did, even ones who died before your grandparents were born.

  • Bunny Lucia

    I’d be a little careful when it comes to lies that they can easily figure out. I might be a little biased being the girl who thought her father was dead for seventeen years.

    I’d start with happier tales, then maybe when they ask or old enough to understand say “Your Grandfather was a human being. He had issues like the rest of us and he wasn’t perfect. That doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t have loved you to the moon and back.” Or something like that.

    • Alicia Kiner

      Exactly. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes. It’s not like he’s around to disappoint or even bring harm to them.

  • JLH1986

    Thank you for this. This is something I struggle with. My father passed away several years ago, having never even met my husband. He and I had difficult relationship due to his alcoholism (and my having to care for him because of it). And I wonder how do I let any kids know their grandpa would have worshipped the ground they walked on but also let them know he was far from perfect, that sometimes when he drank he wasn’t so nice, that he would tell everyone within earshot how much he loved his wife and kids, but he still drank a fifth of bourbon every day? It’s not something I relish. I guess I’ll play it by ear.

  • Janok Place

    Good people sometimes do bad things, they make wrong decisions, they hurt people they love. This happens, in every family, across the globe. I had many disappointments as a child, there was pain, there was poverty, there was abuse, but there were those who loved me. They loved me, they wanted me to be safe, they wanted to put me first and they didn’t always succeed. They had their own pain to work through, and things in their own world that I couldn’t fully comprehend. At the end of the day, to those relatives who meant well and gave me what love they had to offer, they still have my love in return. I think it’s okay for children to know that good people sometimes make terrible decisions, and no one is perfect. What I think is unhealthy is to mount anyone on a pedestal. Show them that sometimes doing the wrong thing does not necessarily make you a bad person, and allow them to learn the consequences of those poorly made decisions. Let them learn from the mistakes made around them so that hopefully, when their time comes to make those same choices, they will make the right ones. If they go through life expecting everyone to do the right thing all of the time, they are guaranteed to be met with disappointment. Bottom line, it is okay to know that those who love us are not infallible.

  • Kay_Sue

    I think you can balance it. I bet you have some awesome stories based on the close relationship you had with him before his abandonment.

    I would be honest later though. It happened, and it is a part of you. My mom and her father had a rocky relationship. He never left–but he did irrevocable emotional damage to her by refusing to walk her down the aisle (she was about three months pregnant with me) and saying really damaging things in the process. He refused to see her, barred my grandmother from speaking to or about her, and blamed her for bringing dishonor on their family. I was lucky enough to know him, but even at a young age, it was obvious that things were not always great between them. There was a tension there, even though he eventually came around shortly before I was born because, well, I’m fucking awesome, aren’t I? It wasn’t until later, when I was able to understand and well after his death, that she explained it to me. I don’t even remember how it came up, but I remember thinking, Ah, that explains a lot.

    I still love my grandfather. He was a good man with a very flawed outlook. It is good, in some ways, I think, to see that these people that we look up to are also human and imperfect, that they make mistakes that they hopefully (especially one as large as abandoning one’s 12 year old alone) come to rethink and maybe feel remorse for later.

    I really wish you luck in figuring out the balance that will work best for y’all. (hug)

  • Marie

    I enjoyed reading this, though I am sorry you have had to go through what you did. I can relate in a certain way – struggling with how to include my deceased brother in my children’s lives. He committed suicide before they were born. My son, now 4, is starting to ask who that “guy” is in pictures at my parents’ house He is very inquisitive and doesn’t stop with “that’s Mama’s brother.” He keeps going with where is he now, why can’t i meet him, etc etc. And he understands death on some level and is quite fascinated by it (I credit his interest in his fascination with “stinct” dinosaurs). Anyway, I can’t/don’t want to explain the “truth” to him at this point, obviously, but also don’t want to lie to him and have him middle-aged and wondering what happened to Mama’s brother. I am also worried about telling him too much because I don’t want him upsetting my parents with questions and/or talking about my brother too much, as this is still raw for them as well. Anyone have experience? Good luck to all who are dealing with these issues, especially around the holidays!

  • Guestling

    I’d advise to not try and put any figures on a pedestal; tell the good things about your dad but don’t paint him as a too flawless a figure before you’re ready to discuss some of the darker sides of things. In my experience kids will just ask a lot of questions and you can just answer honestly. I don’t remember ever been told about my grandmother’s murdered cousin or the alcoholism that took all her siblings or the fact that my mom was adopted; I just always knew. People discussed things and I’d ask questions about the family and I don’t know, we just… knew. I liked my dad’s abusive mother when I was a kid but as I got older I was able to kind of just realize she’s not a very good person and when I was mature enough to hear about it the stories would expand to include some of the darker sids of his childhood. It was stuff that just always came up in conversations. You talk about people in front of your kids you can say nice but kind of vague things and as they get older their curiosity will grow and they may well just give you the opportunity to answer them honestly and age-appropriately.

    My kids aren’t old enough to ask why my dad is never around, but I plan to just follow this pattern. Mention things when they come up, refer to his wife as “grandpa’s wife” since she is by no means a “stepmother” to me and won’t be a grandmother to my kids. then as they get older and they start to question it i can just honestly tell them aspects of my father’s and mine relationship as it becomes appropriate without having to sit them down and say “grandpa left grandma because it was easier than working through his issues”

  • Ptownsteveschick

    I’m torn on this as well. My husband’s father died years before I met him, but he was both a drug addict and a hoarder. However, he was the parent who actually was present and raised my husband, we are still trying to decide how and what we will eventually tell our daughter about her grandfather.

  • JD

    When kids are little they will worship their grandparents and so I think telling stories about him that are light-hearted and fun is the way to go. When your kids are older using the hurt your father caused you is a way of helping your kids understand the lengths you will go to to make them feel valued and loved.

    My parents and grandparents made me feel worthless as a teenager because of the ways they mocked and undermined my values and goals. I have a wonderful relationship with my parents now and a superficial one with my grandparents, but there are certainly deep scars that I feel that make me very conscious of how accepting I am of my children’s goals and interests. You have a similar opportunity to make sure your children always feel how deeply committed you are to giving them the love and stability you lacked.

  • Lindsay

    My grandfather was the world’s most loving, amazing grandfather. I loved him to death; he died five years ago and I still have a hard time thinking about him without tearing up. In my eyes, as a kid and a teenager, he was the perfect human being and no one could tell me otherwise.
    The first time I remember being cognizant of not-so-positive stories that my dad and his brothers told (it was the sixties) about getting punched in the face by him as teenagers for being disrespectful to my grandmother, about him stabbing them in the hand with a fork if they tried to serve themselves before the adults, about getting hit with a belt as a kid, was right after he died. My family was talking to the rabbi about what kind of man he was and my cousins and I only had positive things to say, and my dad and his brothers (who adore him like he was a god) mostly did too, but they began telling about how he was “rough” on them as kids. I am positive they spoke about it before that moment, but it was the first time I really heard it, and it fucking hurt. I knew him (I was 19 when he died) so it wasn’t like I had an idealized imaginary picture in my head of someone I had never met, but it still really, really sucked to hear that.
    Now, at 25, I’m able to compartmentalize all of it, but I’ll tell you, holding an idealized version of someone and then having the bubble popped at almost-20 isn’t fun.
    I say tell the good stories and remind the kids that no one’s perfect. The bad stories can wait awhile, there’s no need to rush into them, but they shouldn’t be a shock.

    • Alicia Kiner

      Being the one to pop the bubble is no picnic either. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth really does hurt, but far too often, it hurts innocent bystanders.

  • GPMeg

    My parents both had very mentally disturbed parents growing up, whom I had the fortune to know a little in that limited way that children do. As I got older, they opened up their stories a little more, and exposed me to it gradually. Now, at 28, I have a much fuller understanding of the sort of illnesses that plagued them — my mother’s mother would talk about running away and so my mom actually spent a larger amount of time with my Memaw than I ever realized. My father’s mother was convinced that a shadow man was making her drink and spent an insane amount of time in a hospital in Memphis, where I had been told as a child she was just not feeling well. I’m glad that the stories they told me growing up prepared me for learning this now, and it’s something that I’ll be using to tell my own children about my Granny and Grandma. I think that you can share the good memories now, the ones that the kids can understand, and as you go along and they ask more questions you can explain that Grandaddy wasn’t the stablest person, he didn’t know how to express himself, etc. because I do think it’s important that people know as much about their family as possible. It’s driving me crazy I can’t learn more about my father’s family because none of them want to talk about it — they’re steeped in that Old Southern “don’t talk about it and it won’t exist” fantasy and I don’t have any of the amazing stories on hand that many of my friends do. I think Bunny Lucia is definitely on the right track!

  • thisshortenough

    My mam died 7 years ago and my family tends not to bring her up on Christmas or my birthday because it just makes us sad. Instead we make jokes and tell stories about her all throughout the year which I find keeps my memories of her happy. Then again I had an insanely good relationship with her.

  • Rachel Sea

    Tell the truth as best you can. My family is full of addicts and alcoholics, which has resulted in many painful early deaths and separations. The most agonizing thing was finding out that I had been lied to about the circumstances of some family turmoil. Knowing the real stories has brought me much greater understanding, and love of those lost, because I can better comprehend who they were, and why they did the things they did. I’m still angry at them sometimes, and I hurt with every milestone they miss, but I understand.

  • CrushLily

    I think you’re doing the right thing starting with his food. And all you can do is answer a question honestly if or when it is presented to you. Kids are smart, they deserve the respect of honesty even if it is couched in diplomatic terms. As for grandparents, I was just thinking yesterday I am really going to have to find a way to reconcile with myself that my children’s grandparents couldn’t care less about them. It appears to be an ongoing process.

  • Pumplestilskin

    I was raised by my father and step mom, who I call mom. My biological mother, who I call by her first name, had visitation. My mom knew my bio mom her whole life and had lots of things to tell me about her, some good, some bad. My bio mom was a horrible alcoholic and had many demons. She passed away a year ago in October. I hadn’t spoken to her in 4 years.
    I still have my mom and my bio moms siblings that I can glean stories from because now my kids are asking lots of questions. They knew who she was, they have their whole lives. I never wanted them to hear from their cousins that my mom wasn’t their “real” grandma. I told them they didn’t have to call her grandma if they didn’t want to, that my mom would always be their grandma. A while later told them that she was sick and couldn’t take care of me so she let me go live with their Papa (my dad obviously). My oldest is 11 and I’ve just started getting into the alcoholism and the horrible abuse that she put up with from her husband. Someday, I may feel comfortable telling them of the years of sexual abuse she underwent at the hands of her father.
    Along with these “not good” things I’ve included good stories. How she used to hold me on her lap and rock me all night during my visitations. How she called me Katydid (my name is Cathy) Our mutual love of tacos and salt and vinegar chips. How she had the best laugh and called and sang Happy Birthday to me every year that I could remember, even if those last 4 years I didn’t answer when she called. If I ever get comfortable telling them about the sexual abuse, I’ll tell them how she saved my life because her father and his wife tried to strong arm her into giving them custody of me and it freaked her out so badly that at just barely 20 years old, alone, with her waitressing tips in her pocket, she hopped on an airplane with me and flew from New York to Arizona to give me to my dad. It was the only time in her life she ever defied her father and she caught hell for it from him and later, after she remarried, from her husband who forever used her “abandonment” of me as an example of her bad mothering.
    All that to say, I just tell them stories about her the same way we tell stories about our living parents. they know my dad is a yeller, but it’s harmless. They know my mother in law is negative and usually has nothing nice to say. they also know my dad is funny and will play with them for hours and that my mother in law will bake with them, do crafts with them and has taught them more about gardening than they’ll ever need to know.

    • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Maria Guido

      The anecdote about your mother is really heartbreaking. I think your story really illustrates how after someone dies we are able to see the ways in which they were just human and doing the best they could with the cards they were dealt.

  • rmm

    My husband is dealing with this right now. We have a 16 month old and will have another in January. His father was murdered in Mexico when my husband was 15. My husband has scars on his body from the abuse he endured and scars on his heart from the emotional abuse. He is now trying to figure out what to say to our kids when they ask about their abuelo. My dad is very much in their lives and is loving and kind. My husband doesn’t want the to grow up thinking abuelo was horrible person even though that’s the reality. He wants to share good memories and is having a hard time thinking of that. It’s a very touchy subject right now because our children are so young they can’t hear the details nor do they need to know. Eventually they will because it affects how my husband acts Around them and explains his depression and PTSD and bi polar. Yep life is fun over here!

    • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Maria Guido

      That sounds really, really hard. I’ve never dealt with physical abuse – that would be really, really awful.

  • Justme

    I totally get it. All of it. My husband’s father was a brilliant and reckless man. He loved and worked hard, but he had demons that led to him committing suicide ten years ago. Having our daughter has brought such joy to my husband’s life, but also immense pain because his dad isn’t here to spoil her or to pat my husband on the back and tell him what a great job he is doing. Every Christmas, birthday or other big milestone is tinged with THAT FEELING. I look over at my husband and he is smiling, but his eyes aren’t focused on the present. He is missing his dad and angry that he isn’t here.

    And then there is my girl. What will we tell her someday when she asks about her daddy’s daddy? My husband swears she will never know about the suicide, but I can’t help but think that could cause problems if she were to ever find out the truth. If we tell her too young, I don’t want her to worry about her daddy dying in the same way. It’s all just…tough.

    Sorry to hijack your story, and I’m not trying to play the “who has it worse” game…I just really relate to this predicament.

    • ChillMama

      Take this for what it’s worth, but I would strongly encourage you to tell her when she is older. I too had a close relative who committed suicide, but no one told me how he really died until a sibling of mine let it slip. I was pretty upset that i had been lied to for so long.

      I also think it is crucial from a mental health standpoint. I suffer from depression, and it is SO important to mention this family history to medical professionals. Knowing this family history has also made me very, very proactive in seeking help when I need it.

      Just my thoughts.

    • Justme

      I’ve decided that since it’s not really my story to tell, I will let my husband have the final say in when and how he tells our daughter about his dad.

      And yes, with a suicide on his side of the family and alcoholism on mine, we definitely are aware of mental health issues and understand the impact they could have on our child.

  • Needs Improvement

    I don’t have kids, but my father was also someone that I was estranged from on and off for the last decade until he died this spring of a drug overdose. There were two years where I didn’t speak to him at all because I was so angry at him (he had been hiding a prescription drug problem for my entire life) and the shit he put our family through when he ODed for the first time and everything came out into the open. I don’t think my youngest cousins were old enough to remember him, really, and so I do wonder what my aunt and uncle have told them about where my dad was. Ultimately, I think you should be gentle but honest with your kids, and ease them into the realities of the situation. They can still love the good in the people who have passed, which is what I am trying to do for myself now that my dad is gone, though I am always aware of what his flaws were.

  • darras

    I think it’s important to show your kids that people can be good and bad at the same time, that nobody is perfect. It’d suck to bring your kids up with stories of this perfect grandpa who only ever did things to tell good stories about. They’ll never feel that they could measure up. So I’d say be honest, broaching the subject is easy enough. Have a photograph around for them to see – “That? Oh that’s your grandpa. Do you want to hear a story about your grandpa?”. I only ever had one grandma growing up and we were never that close, she died when I was 16. Having said that I LOVE that my son has all four grandparents, and I dread the day that he loses one of them. Given that my father is in his early 80s now and getting rather crumbly it likely won’t be very far away :(