In the lead-up to Father’s Day — the gift-buying, the celebration preparation — it’s easy to forget that for many, this particular Sunday in June can be full of emotional landmines.
That’s the case for parents whose spouses have died and left behind kids. Bereavement experts recommend that surviving parents plan ahead for Father’s Day, however painful that might be — and that they carve out time for self-care to stay emotionally balanced.
Before the day
Families dealing with a father’s death should have a conversation about expectations and desires before Father’s Day arrives, says Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, an associate professor with a graduate certificate in trauma and bereavement at Arizona State University. Cacciatore suggests asking, “Do you want to celebrate it, or is there another word that better expresses what you would rather do on that day?”
If there are two children in the family who seem to have different ideas about how to spend the day — one says “celebrate” while another says “remember” — Cacciatore says that the parent should ask them specific questions. “I would say something like, ‘What does it mean for you to celebrate or remember Dad?'”
Father Vincent Corso, a hospice social worker who founded grief and loss organization Compassion Identity, says that depending on the child’s age, parents can offer observations and ask questions about how they’re experiencing the buildup to the day too, whether they’ve seen the Hallmark displays or encountered any gift ads online.
The conversation can also be an opportunity for parents to talk about how the holiday affects them — which is critical.
“It is so hard for the surviving parent to talk about their husband that sometimes they don’t do it, or they feel as if they don’t want to burden the kids with it, and parents really do model how to grieve for their children,” says Corso. “So the kids need to see that it’s appropriate behavior.”
And it’s never too late to start modeling that behavior. Cacciatore suggests that parents who feel they haven’t done a great job can say exactly that to their kids: “I’d like to have an honest conversation about Dad with Father’s Day coming up. I haven’t done a very good job being honest with you about my own emotions, and if I don’t do that, how can you be honest with me about your emotions?”
On the day
It’s up to each family to decide the best way to spend the day, experts agree. “A number of families I work with write letters and take cards to the cemetery,” says Cacciatore. This can be an especially nice gesture for children who might be too young to remember the deceased parent.
One mother she worked with takes a picture of her son and includes it in a card, which she addresses to her son’s father. She writes about her son’s milestones, what he’s been doing and saying, and she’s saving each one to give to her son when he reaches adulthood.
Corso points out that young children might not have a large bank of memories of the parent they lost. “It’s important for photographs and scrapbooks to be put out,” he says, adding that he’s worked with families who asked friends or colleagues of the deceased parent to “talk to the child, in a formal way — write something down in a letter or create a video or audio file for the child about who the parent was and what he did.”
Corso also mentions “memory boxes” — containers full of objects that remind the child of his or her parent, or things that were important to dad.
Tangible, visible items can help children feel connected to a parent who’s no longer there — which is why Corso believes a handwritten or typed and mailed letter from a friend of Dad’s is more powerful than, say, an email.
A gentle landing
“Part of being a surviving parent is being good to yourself,” says Corso. He thinks finding someone to talk to, whether or not that person is a professional therapist, is important for anyone surviving the loss of a partner, especially when kids are involved.
“Many people just kind of walk away and can’t deal with death,” he explains. Finding a person or very small group of people with whom you can talk about this is very important. Meditation, deep breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques can also help parents cope with strong emotions.
And carving out time to feel all the emotions is something to consider. Corso suggests surviving parents could set aside a 10- or 15-minute block of time before or on Father’s Day to light a candle, put out a photograph of the person who died, set a timer in another room and then sit with the person. “Speak to them, cry, rant, whatever you need to do,” he says, “then let the timer go off and be done with it. It’s like trying to put the contents of a tidal wave into a thimble if you don’t manage the time that you’re giving for the grief.”
Cacciatore recommends targeted journaling too — writing a letter to the person who died, which might not be entirely positive. Sometimes surviving parents might feel shortchanged or wish their spouse had taken better care of himself, and that’s OK (and normal) to acknowledge and process.
“It’s important to remember that Father’s Day is not always a celebration — sometimes it comes with a lot of pain and grief,” she notes.