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Meaningful Ways to Keep the Memories of Lost Grandparents Alive

Nov 2, 2017

When my neighbour Mary planted a tree in her backyard, I thought it was the loveliest thing. Not only would I benefit from the broad-reaching gentle shade and added greenery in my yard, but she declared that it was dedicated to her mother. When she planted it, she placed photos of her mom at the roots before adding the soil. When her young son remarked that the leaves of his grandmother’s tree looked like hearts, which they do, the sentiment couldn’t have been more touching or perfect.

Heat-shaped leaves from a planted tree.

The tree, says Mary, was about creating something physical and tangible to honour her mother. The beauty and permanence of that gesture has stuck with me, season after season when the gentle pink blossoms give way to the heart-shaped foliage.


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How we remember lost loved ones is an important part of life. So often, as adults, our memories of our parents are marred by the painful details of their passing, whether sudden or slow. And in dealing with the grief and loss it’s easy to forget that our children have lost someone important to them as well.

So when, in the last year, my 10-year-old daughter lost both of her grandmothers in the course of six months, I found myself wondering how to keep her memories of them alive in a way that’s meaningful enough to last well into her adult life.

I kept her home from school (a win in her books!) and she made a list of all the things she and Grandma used to do together.

In contemplating ways to create traditions, I did what I always do: talked to friends and family about their experiences. And as usual, a few common themes emerged. But most poignant, to me at least, is that with a little foresight, parents are able to keep the memories alive when the inevitable happens — particularly if kids are still relatively small with memories that are bound to fade.


Spend A Day Doing Their Favourite Things

While many cultures have a day where people collectively honour the spirits of their ancestors, like the Day of the Dead in Mexico, Canada doesn’t have a similar tradition. Instead, spending a day doing what a grandparent loved is a great way to create a lingering connection, and, in my opinion, more personal.

Pencil-written checklist of things to do and places to visit.

For instance, when we got the news from B.C. that my husband’s mother passed, my daughter and I declared it a “Day of Grandma”. I kept her home from school (a win in her books!) and she made a list of all the things she and Grandma used to do together. We went to her favourite lunch spot in our ‘hood, we went to a library because Grandma loved books, and, shrewdly, my girl opted to go to the mall instead of the ROM because, honestly, Grandma loved shopping. We honoured her with a treat from Purdy’s and a purchase from American Girl — two favourite stores to take her granddaughter despite my initial protests! It was a wonderful, meaningful day that will repeat each year.

Purdy's hedgehogs

And I already know that for her grandfathers we’ll have days full of long ravine walks followed by scones, or woodworking projects followed by fondue. But let’s hope those days are in the distant future!


Enjoy Their Favourite Foods

Speaking of scones and fondue, food is a perfect way to create a multi-generational connection. It’s something you can make together and share. Plus, it’s delicious.

For me, food was one of the best parts of visiting my grandparents. We were bestowed with plate after plate of handmade Italian delights: fresh cappelletti soup, homemade pizzelle (tie plates in the local tongue) and, my absolute favourite, handmade cacciatore that sat in giant bottles of oil in my Papa’s workshop.

To this day, there has never been a gnocchi or cacciatore as good as those of my grandparents, and when I find something close I’m transported instantly to their little bungalow in Sault Ste. Marie. I only wish I’d learned more of her recipes when I had the chance, though it doesn’t stop my brother and me from trying.

I only wish I’d learned more of her recipes when I had the chance, though it doesn’t stop my brother and me from trying.

Mary, my neighbour, says that even more meaningful than her tree for her kids is the tradition of making ravioli. It was her mother’s speciality and once a year the family makes pasta together and shares family stories. For one of her sons, it’s his other grandmother’s tapioca pudding that holds the dearest spot in his heart (and stomach). Whenever he visits his family in Windsor, he’s greeted with a big bowl of it that’s all his own.

Mary already knows that it will be a part of his son’s enduring memories of his grandmother after she’s gone — and she knows she’d better learn the recipe while she can.


Make a Memory Book

Putting together a photo album or a scrapbook is surely an obvious expression, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to come up short. When my mom passed last year we were left with the realization that, aside from a trove of old black-and-white photos, we had very few recent photos of her, a fact made more poignant when my niece asked my brother why she didn’t have any photos of just her and Nonna.

Her time with her grandkids was spent cooking, crafting or hanging out by the lake. For my daughter, making handmade cards for all occasions with Nonna’s well-stocked card kit is one way she’s able to share her memories of her time alone with my mom. But I wish I’d been more insistent on taking photos of Nonna with the grands (or retaking them when they didn’t turn out so great).

Legacy Scrapbook made for grandkids.

By contrast, when my sister-in-law’s dad passed this fall, she had the most wonderful artifacts to share at his celebration of life — largely because he had envisioned that moment. For several years, he had been working on his Legacy Scrapbook, which included newspaper clippings of his university antics, patents he filed, songs he’d composed, and even a letter from Winston Churchill! He was a fascinating bloke and he wanted the grandkids — and their kids — to remember what he was like. The family even filmed the process. The whole thing “couldn’t have been more Brian” as everyone kept remarking, and is a wonderful legacy for his descendants.

Just as he’d wanted — and planned for.

Article Author Rae Ann Fera
Rae Ann Fera

Rae Ann Fera is an experienced freelance writer, editor, content curator and content producer. She is curious about how things work and what motivates people to do what they do. Rae Ann has frequently written on media, creative technology and travel. The parent of a 10-year-old girl, she gardens when she's supposed to write, writes when she's supposed to cook dinner, and will drop everything to listen to a good story or indulge in a snuggle (while they last!). She's currently working on a book about her experiences with adoption, which really means her garden looks fantastic.

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