If you have gone to a store, or watched television, or checked your email recently, you have probably been reminded that Father’s Day is this weekend. While for some people these have been helpful reminders to recognize the significant men in their life, for others of us these reminders are uncomfortable and trigger a lot of intense emotions. If you find yourself in the latter camp, we’d like to take a moment to recognize you, to validate your feelings if we can, and to offer some ideas for getting through the day.
For those who have lost fathers: We recognize that this holiday has a unique pain. Especially if this is the first Father’s Day since the death of your dad, you may find that a lot of raw emotions are coming up, and may find yourself particularly sensitive and emotional… But why would you not be? The world is literally pointing out again and again the gigantic absence and painful loss you’re already trying to cope with, often catching you totally by surprise (Thanks, Hallmark!).
If you’re in this group, you may be particularly interested to learn that Father’s Day was started by grieving people. Really. The woman who came up with the idea, Sonora Smart Dodd, proposed it because she wanted to honor her deceased father, and one of the earliest public observances of Father’s Day was following the Monongah Mining Disaster that resulted in the deaths of many men – 250 of them fathers – and left around one thousand fatherless children.
We think that the origins of Father’s Day are worth mentioning, because they illuminate that the holiday wasn’t created to celebrate the living, but to memorialize the departed.
We encourage you to lean into this history as much as possible on Sunday, painful though it may be. Perhaps this looks like making your dad’s favorite food or listening to his favorite music. Maybe it’s looking at old photographs, or reminiscing with others who knew him. Or maybe it’s a memorial activity, like planting a tree, visiting his grave, or releasing a lantern. And maybe it’s as simple as wearing one of his old shirts. Whatever you do, know that it’s normal for a wide range of emotions to come up; there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
For those who have lost children: There is nothing that compares to the death of a child, and we recognize that this day may feel particularly agonizing and cruel to you. We also recognize that, if that is the way you feel, this fact might feel totally overlooked by others, even those closest to you; or you may feel that you have to protect others (such as your spouse and/or surviving children) from your grief, and that this can make the day even more painful.
If you are grieving your only child, you may wrestle with the question of whether you are still a father (For what it’s worth: we emphatically believe that you are – and always will be.). We also recognize that you may feel that it is a father’s duty to protect his children, and thus might wrestle with profound sense of failure and self-loathing. And we recognize that one of the most painful aspects of your grief is the loss of all that could have been, what should have been, and, now, what will never be. We know that a part of you died too, and will always be missing.
We urge you to be kind to yourself today. Take time to let yourself feel whatever comes up: you have the right to feel it. We encourage you to remember your child in whatever ways feel right to you. If your grief feels unrecognized or invalidated by the people in your life, or if you just feel uncomfortable talking about your grief around people you know, consider reaching out to a counselor or a virtual community (like Grieving Fathers on Facebook), or grief support group.
For those who have distant or conflicted relationships with their fathers: Many of us have relationships with our fathers that could be characterized as distant or conflicted. This characterization could be due to communication barriers or unresolved conflict; because of abuse; because of incarceration; because of alcoholism or addiction; because of cognitive decline; or because there is a literal geographical distance between you and your dad.
Regardless of which cause(s) you claim, you are likely to experience something called ambiguous loss. Most simply put: ambiguous loss is grieving someone who’s still living. Make no mistake about it – this grief is very real, and very hard to work through, especially because many people don’t even recognize (or realize) that you are grieving. The fact that your grief is often disenfranchised or invalidated can make it even more difficult to work through. (Perhaps you’ve even inadvertently done this to yourself.) It is important to recognize your unique grief experience. Talking can help. Journaling is also a good tool. But, the first and most important step is claiming your grief, and allowing yourself to feel the emotions connected to it.
For those who never had a relationship with their fathers: We would also like to recognize you and the very real possibility that Father’s Day has always been a little bit uncomfortable, or even painful. Perhaps it triggers nonfinite grief – grief for what you feel you should have had, but didn’t, and don’t. Just like people with distant or conflicted relationships with their fathers, your experience may be frequently disenfranchised and invalidated; but nonfinite grief is real grief, and you have the right to feel it. Maybe this is something no one has ever articulated to you before (if so, we’re sorry), and maybe this is something you’ve never even identified as grief before. If you have strong or uncomfortable feelings about Father’s Day, we encourage you to talk or write about it, or to find another outlet that feels right to you.
Whether you are grieving the death of your father, a father grieving your child, carrying the pain of a distant or conflicted relationship with your father, or grieving the fact that you never really had a father: Be gentle with yourself this Father’s Day.
Take time and space to allow yourself to feel whatever emotions that come up. Try to identify someone ahead of time who is safe and supportive, or who “gets it,” that you can talk to if you start to feel overwhelmed.
And remember: Just like no one had the same relationship with your dad that you did (or didn’t), no one else is going to grieve him in the same way, so whatever feels right to you to manage your grief, is.