Telling the Grandchildren

In her book ‘Mosaic: Pieces of My Life So Far’, music artist and mother of five, Amy Grant, talks about the uncle she never knew. James Larry Mayhugh was a rare, gifted young man and amazing athlete. He was killed in a car accident during the spring of his senior year in high school two years before Amy was born. Amy recalls that she saw very few pictures of Uncle Larry. Her mother and grandmother chose to grieve privately and were reluctant to engage in conversation.

Grant believes it is important to understand the family landscape into which we are born. She says, “My early childhood years were grieving and healing years for my mother. I can say this, not because she ever said so herself, but because now that I’m in my late forties I’ve done enough grieving and healing to understand the process.” Over the years Grant has pieced together the impact of Larry’s death and how it has reverberated through generations.

We have seven grandchildren. Three of them were beginning their life when our son Adam chose to end his. Four of our grandchildren were yet to be born. The challenge for our family is in the remembering.

Frederick Buechner wrote,

“For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost.”

I’m sure that Adam would like to think that we as a family are committed to remembering him. Undoubtedly death by suicide taints our remembering but a person is so much more than their death.

Very few of us remember things that happened before we were four or five years old. We may have one or two vague and fleeting memories from this time period. So it is unlikely any of our grandchildren remember Adam. They may have seen a photo or heard his name mentioned in conversation but they don’t know him.

What is indisputable is that Adam was a brother to their mother or father and a son to their grandparents. He was family. It falls to the parents and grandparents to help the next generation get to know this man.

As Amy Grant so rightly points out, “Just because a life is cut short doesn’t mean it can’t provide a lifetime of impact for those still living.”

How do we go about making Adam known?

  1. By making him a part of our daily life

It is fitting to have photos on display or pictures stored on the computer. Children are naturally curious and will want to know who is in the picture. Their questions provide the framework for our response. It is important that we give the information the child requires in simple, truthful terms and in an age appropriate way. We need to avoid overwhelming them with too much information.

2. By creating living memorials

A living memorial is anything that helps us remember the person who died. I like the idea of a memory box where you keep things that highlight the person’s achievements or represent their special interests.  Write down memories of happier times that you shared with the person. Create a photo book highlighting the different phases in their life. Bring the memory box out from time to time using the items or objects to promote discussion.

3. By being equipped to talk about death, in particular, death by suicide

A child’s level of understanding about death changes over time but it is important for them to understand the following:

  • It is permanent and can’t be changed
  • It means the body stops working
  • It happens to everyone eventually.

It is believed that most children have a grasp of these concepts by the age of 9 years.

While it is hard to tell a child about suicide, it is better if the information comes from someone they trust than another source.

Suicide is a difficult concept to explain. It may be necessary to talk about the death in terms of the person ‘killed themselves’ or ‘made their body stop working.’

Explaining why someone might take their own life is even more complex. It might be helpful to talk about what the person may have been feeling or thinking. For example,

 “People who die by suicide are often very sad and upset. They can get confused and can’t find another way to solve their problems.”

Parents and grandparents alike need to be available when the child wants to talk. There will come a time, of this I am certain, when the child will be looking for answers, knowledge that will help them shape their future. We owe it to them to be prepared.

Mosaic: Pieces of My Life So Far

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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