The best part of my childhood was hanging out with my dad and grandfather who worked in a machine shop near our home.
They both taught me many things about the trade and took me along on day trips to work sites. I quickly learned what tools were going to be required next for any specific job and had these on hand for them when required.
My grandfather taught me the importance of “cleaning up” at the end of every shift, which involved wiping down each tool that was used that day and putting it back in its proper place in the shop. He was meticulous about this, and when we locked up at the end of the day, everything was clean and back in its place ready for the next day.
Dad took me on many day trips with him, and I especially enjoyed being his helper whenever needed. Sometimes, he would be working under a truck and would ask for a specific wrench, and I would fetch it for him from the tool box, saving him the trouble, time, and effort of getting out from under the truck. When it was time for lunch, we would eat sandwiches from his lunchbox that Mother had prepared for us. Almost every time, he also bought me an apple or banana from a convenience store en route to the job site.
In a moment, though, my life changed completely.
In 1968, both my dad and grandfather were killed in an automobile accident on the way back from a job site on a dark Friday evening.
The next morning was bedlam at our home. My mother was inconsolable and the steady stream of sympathetic people in and out of our home with was almost unbearable.
My dad’s good friend and neighbour arrived, and after expressions of sympathy, he asked if there was anything he could do. My mother trusted this neighbour and asked if he would talk with me, as I was not handling it well. So, he asked me to take a little walk with him. I went along begrudgingly, and he talked about how great my dad and grandfather were and how, even though they were gone, they would live on in my heart—which did made me feel a little bit better.
We we were almost home when he bent down to make eye contact with me and said that my life was different now, that I couldn’t be a kid anymore, and that I had to be a man for my mother’s sake.
Telling me that I had to be a man at 13 did not help me at all. In fact, it added pressure on me to deal with their deaths in a certain way. I remember crying in my bed before sleep and thinking, “I don’t want to be a man, I’m just a kid!” Telling children this during a time of loss places unnatural expectations upon them. It causes them to repress their feelings of grief and the pain that go along with it.
In retrospect, I understand that in a situation like this, when we are consoling a child, many are at a loss for what to say.
Here’s my advice:
Empathy is an important thing to impart to a child in this situation. Let them know that you understand that they are hurting and that it’s 100 percent okay for them to feel sad, to cry, or even be angry. Tell them that their feelings are valid and important, and that you are there for them—assure them that they can depend on you to be there. Following up on our commitment to them is vital. Visiting with them, spending time with them in some activity, leads to opportunities to keep that line of communication open. Their grief and sorrow is an ongoing thing, and so should be our support of these precious children.
That was 53 years ago, and my neighbour was right about one thing: the memory of my dad and grandfather does live on in my heart!