Connect Kids to Grandparents – Living Legacy

By Valerie
June 11, 2009

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

As my great-Aunt Adelaide would say, “My cup runneth over”. It was an honour and a privilege to read your comments and stories about your own grandparents last month. Thank you for sharing your sacred and beautiful memories on the site.

As I read through your shared experiences, the word “legacy” kept jumping the cue to the front of my thoughts. And with that, my thoughts turned to my own father, the late Greg Johnstone.

Bear with me as I digress.

June 2006. It’s a hot day in Vancouver and I’m feeling as big as house. With good reason, I’m 6.5 months pregnant with my first child. Add the heat and stuffiness of the office I’m working in and it feels like I’ve been in labour for 3 hours.

I’ve been commuting to Vancouver every few weeks to finish off a contract with a nonprofit organization and I’m counting down the remaining two weeks. I’m interrupted from a Board Meeting by our office assistant.

All I remember her saying, “It’s your brother from Toronto calling.”

The conversation feels choppy. It’s Dad. He’s had a massive stroke. Don’t fly home. He was a candidate for TPA (a clot busting procedure that helps mitigate the effects of stroke) and is recovering in hospital. He should be fine.

My brother repeats “Don’t fly home yet.”

The next three weeks are like a rollercoaster. Decisions need to be made for the future care of Dad. As Dad gets ready for rehabilitation, we all feel a sense of hope and positive about his recovery. And then the worst happens: Dad suffers a massive seizure. He’s on life support. Three days later, there are no signs of improvement when a CT scan shows minimal brain activity.

Our family makes the excruciating painful decision to take our father off life support.

I fly home three days later.

Dad dies two hours before my plane lands.

Filled with immense sadness and grief, the days following Dad’s death are equally overflowing with tributes from friends, colleagues and family. We reminisce over old and recent photographs, untold stories and forever lasting memories about Dad.

It was at that moment, we realized Dad meant something different – unique -to each of his friends, his children and grandchildren.

As I prepared one of our father’s eulogies, my siblings and I mused over “What was Dad all about?”

As we delved into his life story, his triumphs, his adventure and challenges, his legacy emerged. Not only was this legacy important for us, his children, but just as important for his seven (and soon to be eight) grandchildren.

Listening for Legacy

As parents we are quite good at understanding what drives children and young adults – we’ve been there and/or we are raising children traveling through various stages towards adulthood. But no middle-aged parent knows what it’s like to be 80 or 90.

In fact, most of us are developmentally moving forward in life – getting ahead financially, advancing careers, children becoming more independent, etc. We are also very task oriented; making lists, crossing off items, setting goals – just to name a few.

Grandparents are most likely on a very different journey. They are leaving this familiar middle-aged world and starting to take stock of their lives – looking backwards and finding meaning through life-review. They are thinking about how they want to be remembered.

As parents, we need to take the time now – before they are gone – to allow our parents and grandparents to express themselves through long ago stories, people, places and relationships.

It’s called Listening for Legacy.

As David Solie says, “Legacy is the unique footprint we want to leave for our time on Earth.”

Creating Legacy: A Family Activity

The following exercise is only the start of creating legacy – a warm- up – to get you thinking about the importance of tapping into your parents’ and/or grandparents’ life-review.

1. Have your child(ren) make a card for their grandparent(s)

2. Inside the card, type or print out the answers from the following:Call your Mom and/or Dad and ask them what they like best about being a grandparent. Ask your child(ren) one or more of the following questions and write/type their responses.

– Do you have grandparents, or other older people you like and know? What do you like about them?

– What kinds of things do you do together? Do you do things to help them?

– What do you like best about visiting them? Describe the best visit you ever had.

– What’s the most fun thing you’ve ever done together?

– Complete the sentence, “Grandparents are special because…”

– Complete the sentence, “The best thing about my grandparents is…”

– Complete the sentence, “My grandparents love to…”

– What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your grandmother or grandfather?
You can also answer a few of the questions above about your own parent(s).

** For toddlers, keep this exercise super-simple. Older children can really delve into this exercise and send a story along with the card.

** If you don’t have grandparents – how about a great-aunt or great-uncle?

Send this gem of a card in the mail to your child(ren)’s grand-parents/aging relative and enjoy the wonderful feeling of knowing what it’s like to begin listening and creating legacy.

The Benefits of Listening for Legacy

Connecting grandchildren and their grandparents as storytellers and memory keepers has everlasting benefits.

– It’s a beautiful and meaningful way to link the past with the present.

– It teaches younger people about respecting their elders and to empower them to find out interesting things about their grandparents and other family members.

– It builds self-esteem in those telling the stories and those listening.

– It shows our children that aging is normal and with it brings wisdom and encourages acceptance of looking at the world differently.

– It gives our aging loved ones an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their life, their achievements as well as challenges.

If this project really floats your boat, check out for more inspiring and intergenerational activities.



Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.


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