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Connecting Families After the Death of a Grandparent

Rich Wake

My mom and I had a ritual when I was young. After I was packed for school, I'd help her get ready for work. While she applied her makeup, I'd sit by her feet, carefully transferring all her business cards, important-looking papers, and magazines from one briefcase to another, which always matched the rest of her uniform—two-inch heels, a knee-length knit dress with matching jacket, and a spectacular assortment of jewelry that made my eyes open just a little wider.

Sadly, my mom passed away before I was married, as did my father when my elder child, Jake, was just 18 months old. They say that lessons often skip generations. Sometimes I wonder how many more possibilities my daughter, Lexi, might envision for herself if my mom, the co-founder of the largest and oldest executive search firm owned by women in the United States, could have personally shown her just how powerful women can be. My professional orbit is a bit different; I often write from home, usually in jeans, and I don't have dozens of people working for me.

To counter my parents' absence, I take my kids on special “Grandma and Grandpa Tours.” During one of these adventures, Jake and Lexi visited my mother's company and strolled the same long corridors she used to walk; even more strikingly, we saw her name still etched in glass on the front door. They've also toured some of the buildings my father, who was an architect, designed. Our guide used the words “your grandfather” every time he talked about my dad, which helped make him just a little more real to them.

A girlfriend told me how these visits have inspired her. Her mom is alive, but because they've never been particularly close, she's now taken steps to improve communication, especially as it relates to her son. Several times a year, the three generations sit down over a meal for a lighthearted Q&A, which gives her mom the opportunity to share family stories and her son the chance to relay his latest accomplishments.

Last year, at my daughter's piano recital, I couldn't help but notice all the grandparents happily snapping pictures of their grandkids. Of course, I wished my mom and dad could be there, too, but as I watched my husband, stepmother, and in-laws lean forward in their chairs and applaud enthusiastically, I was struck by an awesome sense of gratitude. Even though I've lost my parents, I am surrounded by love. Longing and living can coexist. Appreciating that, and accepting it, has been an unexpected gift.