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My Grandfather Died. This Is How I’m Trying to Explain It to My Kids

"It was very important to me to have the boys present at family events both during and after his final days. I felt that they should be a part of the events, even unpleasant and difficult ones."

My grandfather recently passed away. After 88 years of life, his health quickly deteriorated and he left us. Though it wasn’t a surprise, it did happen fairly quickly. He was, without a doubt, the most at-peace person I’ve seen, and he was ready to go. Still, our boys went from having four great-grandparents still alive to only three. Though they’re only a year-and-a-half old, I wanted to make sure they understood what had happened at some level, and that his influence lives through them.

My grandfather and I were close, but not as close as I wish we could have been. In recent years, we talked more, Facetiming fairly often and visiting their house more since we had the boys. Many of my early memories are of us visiting their house, catching fireflies, chasing dogs around the backyard, or just sitting around the table after a meal listening to his stories. There were always stories to be told. My grandfather once got picked up by the coast guard off of the coast of Manhattan after he tried to sail from NJ to NY. Another time, he tried to build a flying car and drove it off the roof of the house, breaking an arm in the process. He also knew all of the good family stories like about the speakeasy my family ran as an ice cream parlor and our one distant relative who killed his wife, but was still apparently a really nice guy.

I realize how lucky the boys are to have been born with four living great-grandparents, have met three of them, and spent considerable time with two of them already. They’ll have time with another next summer when we visit Charleston. They also have all four grandparents in relatively good health and nearby. They also have three cousins, two aunts, great-aunts, second cousins, whom they’ve all met. For a small family, the boys have a nice network of closely knit family members.

My grandfather was always a very active guy. Until his knee surgery, he was out constantly in the yard doing work or building things in the garage. After the surgery, he slowed down a bit and started having heart issues. He was noticeably less active after a heart operation. We knew things were getting worse, but not how fast it would go.

We visited several times once he began hospice care and was moved to a hospital bed. We decided to bring the boys each time, not just because they provided some needed levity, but so that they would be present and a part of what was transpiring. I didn’t want to traumatize them, but I wanted them to see that their whole family was there to support each other. I wanted them to see their great-grandfather again, even if he wasn’t quite himself. I also wanted them to see that death, while a little scary, is a part of life and while it’s sad, we can help each other get through it.

During the last couple of days of his life, while he was largely out of it, we all gathered in my grandfather’s room, by his side, and kept things going like any other visit. We ate, had some beer, and most importantly, told stories and laughed at his bedside. I even gave him a tiny bit of my latest self-brewed beer. During this time, we had the boys with us there as well. Though they were a little scared of him, they quickly settled into their own habits as well, playing with blocks and cars on the floor and generally crawling around and causing havoc. Having them there helped maintain a light atmosphere.

At one point, he was awake enough to have a brief conversation. During it, I told him how much I and the boys loved him, and he answered back in kind. One of the boys even gave him a wave. Later on, the boys were a little scared when he would demonstrate discomfort, but I continued to tell them that it was alright. I didn’t want to sugarcoat it for them or myself and so didn’t say everything would be okay, but instead did my best to tell them that their great-grandfather was going away and wouldn’t be back. I also tried to tell them about the good things he did and the model he set that I want them to pick up.

Though he’s gone, I want them to carry on his legacy and learn from his influence. He was hugely influential in the lives of his neighbors, demonstrated by the number of gifts and visitors that arrived in the days after his passing.

I know they don’t understand it all, but I wanted to do my best to give them some context as to what was happening and why. I spared them the medical details and focused on what was happening and what it meant for our family. If they were a little older, I’m sure they’d have questions about death and what happens after. In fact, our 5-year-old nephew had these exact questions for us (at first he thought it was his grandpa who had died, so we quickly straightened that out). Thankfully, we have some more time to figure out how to answer these, as we just told him to go ask his parents. Instead, I talked to the boys about what was going to happen, that great-grandpa was going away, not by choice, and that he loved us very much. Great-grandma and the rest of our family would still be there and we’d see them often. We wouldn’t see great-grandpa again, but we’d never forget about him and it was okay to be sad about it.

We also took the boys to the viewing. Though they got a bit testy during the ceremony I believe being there will be influential to them. Sharing the time with family and seeing how loved their great-grandfather was should stick with them. My grandfather was an exceptionally kind man and one very generous to his friends and neighbors. He didn’t have a ton to give in terms of possessions, but he graciously gave his time and efforts to volunteering at church, teaching Sunday school for years, and helping with administration. When he was able, he helped neighbors with housework and loaned tools constantly. I want my boys to exemplify the same generosity and giving spirit that he did. He was also slow to show a temper, cautious with his words, but a great storyteller.

He was also obsessed with our ancestry and cultural heritage and never missed a chance to raise a Danish cheer (that I think he made up) or share Danish recipes. I pledged to carry on these traditions and learn from his influence to be a better person, neighbor, and father so that the boys have this sort of role model as well as let his personality live on through them.

It was very important to me to have the boys present at family events both during and after his final days. I felt that they should be a part of the events, even unpleasant and difficult ones so that they would feel the love our family has for each other and see the strength we give each other. Though they are unfortunate to have not had more time with him, they are very lucky to have had him in their lives and to have felt his presence. I plan to make sure it lives on through them and that even though he’s gone, he will be remembered by them. The boys may not grow up hearing his stories from him or seeing him selflessly devote himself to others, but they will hear about it from me and the rest of our family. His presence will still hover over us and direct the lives of the boys. Most importantly, the love we feel for him will be carried on to them and they’ll build their own memories shaped by his influence.

Tyler Lund is the editor of Dad on the Run.