Surviving Father's Day

Strategies for coping with father loss.

Posted Jun 15, 2017

Several weeks ago 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.

Caroline Hernandez/ Unsplash
Source: Caroline Hernandez/ Unsplash

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.

It doesn’t take Father’s Day fast approaching 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.

Last Sunday, as my partner, Mike, and I wandered around the garden center at Home Depot, my dad was there. Mike and I went home and planted baskets of flowers to hang around the fence on the patio, and 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 love to wake up Sunday, 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 that has happened since my move here. I would love for him to see my home. I would love for him to meet 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.

I struggle with how this will never ever happen except in my mind.

This Sunday marks my fifth Father’s Day without my father, though because of dementia, 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.

A month before the holidays, we are faced with a barrage of consumerism connected to it---greeting cards, advertisements, restaurant promotions, gift ideas, etc. It’s emotionally overwhelming. 

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 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 thankfully, it will soon be Monday. 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. And, it may involve honoring and celebrating the men who are fathering other people we care deeply about.  I recall the moment 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 sibings; his dad died when he was ten years old, and she 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.

5) 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.

6) Find a simple, even fun, way to remember your dad. I remember the time we were in New York City in 1999, and my dad and I sat a Starbucks for a long time and enjoyed coffee together, talking more honestly than we had in awhile. I think maybe I will sip my coffee differently on Sunday morning after all. I won’t have his physical presence, but he will be there, 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.”