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Coping with Grief on Father's Day

Curate a new perspective during this holiday.

Key points

  • For those who have lost their father or whose father had a negative impact on their lives, Father's Day can be bring up grief and loss.
  • Some ways to cope on Father's Day include being kind and taking care of oneself, embracing joyful memories and writing a letter to one's father.
  • People can work to change their inner narrative about trauma and grief by reflecting on their wounds and what they learned from them.
Photo by Dash Kadam on Unsplash
"My father’s house stood shining hard and bright The branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms" B. Springsteen
Source: Photo by Dash Kadam on Unsplash

In the United States, Father’s Day has been celebrated in the idyllic month of June since 1910. In fact, the whole tenor of Father’s Day seems to be about ideals—honoring the perfect father who’s been there for life’s tribulations and stages. It’s true, as you age, so does your father; it’s aging in tandem.

The role of the patriarch is powerful. The father archetype is one we all understand as it shows up in different motifs in literature, art, and mythology. He is often characterized in such roles as the king, the devil, the caretaker, and the fixer. Do you recognize your father in any of these roles? You see, the father plays an important part within the psychology of who we are and who we become. Regardless of age or gender, the father’s role is potent.

Ideally, your father fills emotional needs to help you become anchored in life. It is a role embedded in how you learn and grow, and live to a ripe, old age.

In reality, not all of us get to experience the idyllic picture of that father. When this happens, you meet a deep grief and a yearning for the “wished” for father. Grief can run deep as we watch others, creating a narrative in the mind of the self, whether true or not, depicting a better and more loving relationship with their father than the one you had with yours.

If your dad has passed away, it can be difficult to watch others honor their dad at the backyard barbecue or shared interest outing. Your father may have impacted the life choices you made; from partnering to playing to your chosen profession. A byproduct of that impact is in how you ultimately grieve and how you live after his death. Of course, the emotional pain of loss can hit hard on Father’s Day, yet grief isn’t self-selecting when it takes up residence, affecting your mental and spiritual wellbeing. You might be surprised at how capable you are in facing grief, being in its grip, and transforming because of it.

At times, with bad blood between father and child, especially if Dad is alive, it’s difficult to shake the prickly and distant remnants of hurt. It doesn’t matter that this is a Hallmark holiday, there’s still a sting to the day. You might even be struggling to reconcile memories of a strained relationship with a not-so-ideal dad with the perfect holiday others seem to be experiencing. Whatever the reason, it’s possible to feel an acute sense of orphanhood.

If Your Father Has Recently (Or Not-So-Recently) Died

To grieve is to know you’ve loved. Other than the loss of a child, losing a parent is one of the most painful experiences you can have. How you navigate through that grief is completely personal—it doesn’t need to take the shape of anyone else’s grief. Actually, it can’t and it won’t. It belongs completely to you.

Whether you had your father by your side last Father’s Day, have been missing him for many years, or rarely spent Father’s Day with him, honor your emotional and spiritual needs by listening to the internal voices we all have. Here are a few things to keep in mind as the day approaches.

Be kind to yourself. This is not the time to avoid your feelings or play the part of everyone’s resilient hero. It is a time to be a hero to yourself. That includes getting enough sleep, eating well, getting some exercise, and taking care of your soul by listening and breathing. Don’t forget to breathe!

Plan for the day. If you know this will be a difficult day for you, don’t ignore the occasion. Even if you think you might be OK on Father’s Day, don’t risk it. Reach out to family and friends so you don’t have to feel alone. If that is not normally how you do things, maybe your father would want you to take this chance to do things differently.

Embrace joyful memories. If you are able to look at pictures of your father, bring out a couple that fill you with joy. Engage in his favorite activity or wear a color he liked. Tell a story that reflects what he meant to you. Even if it was a difficult relationship. The storyline about that guy, regardless if he was your hero or a prick, offers memories coming alive and can bring a certain grace to the grief experience.

Address the difficulties in your relationship. Most father-child relationships have had their good points and bad points. Think about what your relationship with this imperfect human being taught you. How those imperfections cause you to live differently may be a great gift. Healing is not forgetting. It is a choice to heal. Past trauma can offer illumination and insights into emotions that need to be expressed.

Write letters to your father. Yes, write. Tell your dad about what’s been going on in your life or simply begin a new ritual of making a Father’s Day card for him. These small moves can soothe a grieving heart.

When Your Father Didn’t Play the Role That You Needed

Grief can be complicated. The relationship between a father and child and a grown adult child is often complex. Father’s Day is especially hard for those whose fathers have had a negative impact on their lives. If your father was loving and modeled behavior worth emulating, you received a great gift. If your father was not present for you or wasn’t present the way you needed him to be, lacking integrity, purpose, or the ability to love, then Father’s Day may make you feel an intense loss, filled with memories of abandonment, or neglect, or make you feel nauseous. (That’s how the relationship with my dad could make me feel.)

The memories can make old pain resurface, burning deep in your heart, often feeling as if the wound is re-opening every time. This is information for you. When wounds fester, they are telling you to tend to them, nurse them, so they don’t continue to open.

Those feelings represented by the festering wound are more complex, especially if you are grieving a father who is still technically alive. Because there is sometimes this little gremlin within you, saying, thinking, believing, maybe— maybe— maybe I can have a different relationship with my dad.

Often it helps to change your inner narrative about your trauma and ultimately, your grief. Ask yourself (or better yet, write about):

  • What wounds do you carry in your soul that were caused by the relationship with your father?
  • How did you overcome the wounds?
  • What did you learn from the wounds?
  • Did you have a chance to change the relationship with your father?

Is there something in the way that you choose to live that can help your spirit to heal? Perhaps it is merely to remember that fathers may not have had the skill set needed to parent, or were trauma/grief survivors themselves and had never worked it out. As we mature, so do the memories, so does understanding.

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