Being Fatherless on Father's Day

Some tips for surviving the day.

Posted Jun 17, 2018

John Robertson/Pexels
Source: John Robertson/Pexels

I’m 48, and in recent years it seems like most people I know have tumbled into mother loss or father loss or both. I am now at the age where the majority of my friends have just one remaining parent, if they are that lucky. I’m going on my sixth Father’s Day without a father. 

Due to multiple illnesses, complications, and memory loss, I really lost him eight years before that. Most of us who have lost a parent have come to dislike Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. It’s one of the most profound feelings of being left out. 

It doesn’t take Father’s Day for me to miss my dad. The missing happens every day—when I see a dazzlingly creative advertising campaign, when I swim, when I write, when I am quoted in a great media outlet, when I buy pretzels, when I do something edgy in my classroom with my students. He’s everywhere.

A few weeks ago, as I planted baskets of flowers to hang around the fence on the patio, the magenta and watermelon colored impatiens reminded me of the ones my dad planted every year in Cleveland. 

My father adored the summer, and he loved spring even more that. I live in South Carolina now, a place my father always wanted to see and even had dreams of moving to before he got so sick. Here, I am getting the chance to build on and extend a life he yearned for. To plant my own gardens. 

I would have loved to wake up today, take my dad to Starbucks, get venti Americanos, and come back and leisurely linger on the patio, marveling at these flowers together and all the growth and flourishing that have happened since my move here. I would love for him to see my home. I would love for him to meet Mike, the man I love. They could talk public relations and marketing and joke around, one-upping each other with funny lines while I make us all omelets. 

A month before these holidays, we are faced with a barrage of consumerism connected to it—greeting cards, advertisements, restaurant promotions, gift ideas, etc. It’s emotionally overwhelming. In fact, during one of my all-too-frequent trips to Starbucks, I picked up what looked like a new greeting card they were featuring. I am a sucker for all things new at the register. I didn’t recognize the card to actually be a holder for a Father’s Day gift card and so when I picked it up, I nearly dropped it like a hot potato and put it back quickly as though I wasn’t supposed to even see it or touch it. 

After all, it wasn’t something meant for me anymore. I wanted to buy it. But, I couldn’t buy it. The thing is, I have no one to buy it for anymore. Each time I return to treat myself to too many shots of espresso over ice, I keep noticing those greeting cards and Father’s Day gift cards staring back at me. Taunting me. Tempting me. Yanking me back to the times I had something to celebrate. 

My relationship with my father was not perfect or simple by any means; he was adoring and affectionate and also abusive and difficult. Celebrating Father’s Day or Mother’s Day can be fraught with tension even when parents are alive due to complicated relationships and challenging family dynamics. 

My purpose here is to offer support for those of us who will be without our dads on Father’s Day for whatever reason that happens to be. I’ve learned that the combination of these things softens the blow and makes the day more manageable:

1. Stay off of Facebook. The wonder and the problem with social media like Facebook is that we are confronted with such a wild range of pictures and words—exciting news, tragic news, and all the minutiae in between. On a day like Father’s Day, it is difficult to open Facebook and see all of our friends and colleagues with their fathers, enjoying cookouts and brunches and days at the pool and the park. And, it’s also difficult to see all the losses that so many others have sustained—the fathers in declining health, the fathers who just died in the recent weeks and months, and the fathers who have been gone since our precious friends were small children or babies. It’s an electronic swirl of grief.

2. Get into nature. When we become untethered from technology, we have opportunities to connect to the world beyond ourselves and our work and to relish in wonder and hope. We all need to do that more.

3. Be kind to yourself. This is especially true if this is your first fatherless Father’s Day. It might feel like the longest, loneliest, most torturous day of the year, but like all the others, it is just 24 hours and for at least this week, you can rejoice when Monday morning comes. Enjoy some refreshing solitude or connect with a dear friend, maybe one who is also fatherless and with whom you can focus on other things. If you are a father yourself, allow yourself time to celebrate.

4. Reach out to the people who have stood in. This may involve reaching out to men who have served as impactful mentors, friends, and dads. For years, I have done something to recognize and honor the man I have come to call my stepdad. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me too many years to acknowledge him in this way. For the 19 years that he has been back in my mother’s life, it has been in the more recent years that the enormity of his care and generosity for my mother and me became clearest, and the only word I have for that is something approximating dad. 

But now, Allan, this stepdad of mine, is living in a memory care center with only vacuous activities and lousy meals marking the passage of time. He lives on Cape Cod and we went to visit him this week, brought him a Father’s Day card, explained to him that the day was approaching and while I could not be there on the actual day, I was celebrating him.

And then there was Mike, who knows how to make even the worst circumstances more fun, the heaviest situations lighter and more bearable; he disappeared to ask a nurse for a ball and returned with a soft, fuzzy, neon green pet toy and proceeded to throw with Allan. Other than lighting up when he sees my mom, this was the first time I saw a real glimmer in Allan’s eyes. For decades, Allan had been the pitcher for his softball team and adored it; it has been over two years since he had tossed a ball around yet some of the muscle memory was there and apparently his heart knew what he was doing.  

So that residents cannot get out on their own, we used a key fob to exit this dreadful home of sorts. As I walked through the door, it was the colliding sense of father loss that hit me. The last time I ever saw my dad was in a nursing home in Cleveland. Who knows if this would be the last time I saw Allan?

I looked over at Mike with tears in my eyes, wishing so badly that my dad could have met him, that Allan could have really gotten to know him before his memory failed. Mike’s dad died of a heart attack when Mike was just 10 years old. Walking behind me was my mom whose father died 35 years ago, and the missing seems to only get stronger. And walking next to my mom was her friend, Carol, who accompanied us for the visit. She lost her husband years ago leaving her three sons without their dad. Iterations of father loss reverberated everywhere.

5. Honor and celebrate the men who are fathering people we care deeply about. Mike shared with me that years ago, he used to send Father’s Day cards to his mother for all the fathering she did for him and his siblings; she had assumed various roles and responsibilities, never leaving Mike feeling as huge a void as one might expect. That still amazes me—both her care and his awareness of what she did.

6. Think of the new dads. Reach out to expectant fathers and new fathers you care about or who are partnered with people close to you. Honor the life cycle and what they are now trying to do. 

7. Find a simple, even fun, way to remember your dad. I remember the time my dad and I were in New York City in 1999, and we sat a Starbucks for a long time and enjoyed coffee together, talking more honestly than we had in awhile. Today, I don’t have his physical presence, but he’s here as he always is. He also loved a Bombay martini straight up with an olive. I can’t manage to drink those but maybe Mike and I will go out for dinner, and I will order a mojito or a Moscow mule and raise a glass to my dad. I’ll toast his creativity, his humor, and his appreciation of beauty. In my mind, I will say “Cheers, Dad, I love you. Here’s to you.”