How to Celebrate Mother's Day or Father's Day When You've Lost a Parent

May 11, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

The Mother Lode

Although my family is spread over many states, for many years, we gathered for a Father’s Day barbecue each June. My parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and I would all come together to celebrate. It was such a joyful ritual — and a time for us to connect as a family.

But this year, my grandfather won't be there; he died this January. He lived a beautiful life right up to the age of 90 and died peacefully in his sleep, but that doesn't make his leaving any easier. And with Mother's Day and Father’s Day coming up, the absence of Grandpa — and the absence of our annual gathering together — feels particularly hard to face. Without our elder family member, I’m wondering how we could (or should) celebrate these holidays. Is it even possible, when grieving, to celebrate?

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I reached out to licensed counselor Amy Lipton, who counsels folks going through loss. She reminded me that although most people are familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance) as a guide to processing loss, it is not a one-size-fits-all.

“People should not feel they are doing it 'wrong' if their process of grieving doesn't neatly fall into each of these headings or are in this particular order," Lipton explains. "The way one grieves has a lot to do with the way that person processes other emotions in their lives, their relationship with the deceased and the circumstances surrounding the loss of the parent — for example, if it was sudden or if it was at the end of a prolonged illness.” Lipton encourages her clients to remember that the most important part of grieving in a healthy way is to let yourself experience the many different complicated and sometimes conflicting feelings that come up.

With that in mind, I asked her and two women who’ve lost someone for their best advice for celebrating through grief.

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Reach out — & plan something in advance

“Many times, people who are struggling with a loss will avoid thinking about the upcoming holiday until it is here, and they therefore lose the ability to plan to connect with others who could be of support to them on that day,” Lipton said. “Spend Father's or Mother's Day with siblings or other close relatives or friends who knew the parent well and can share in the feelings and spend time actually honoring that person — by sharing memories with one another, preparing and eating foods the parent loved, looking at photographs or going to a place that person enjoyed. The most important piece is to reach out to others and plan in advance together how you will honor your loved one.”

Stay off Facebook

“Post something if you want, but then shut it down for the rest of the day” is the advice given to me by Brandi Ryans, who lost her father a bit more than two years ago. In the years after her father’s death, changing her family’s routines and developing her own ways of honoring his memory became an important part of her grieving and healing process. Ryans notes that her dad was not very sentimental; as a Black man self-employed in the South, his energy was directed toward moving forward and forging a beautiful life. So now, her way of celebrating his memory aligns with that energy. She might post a picture on social media, but then she'll unplug and spend the day lighting candles, taking a shot of moonshine and cherishing her father's image — a new ritual that's unique and specific to their memories together.

Do something they would have loved

Zoe Triantafillou, who lost her mother in 2014, echoes these ideas: making a plan, setting up new rituals and staying connected to the parent's interests and personality as a way to honor them in absentia. Triantafillou's sister, who lives in England, decided to sign up for a garden allotment for Mother's Day — because she wanted to do something their mom had always said she wanted to do. Now, Triantafillou's sister gardens almost every day and stays connected with their mother through the acts of planting and harvesting.

Triantafillou, on the other hand, has turned to writing. She decided to buy a journal she calls her "mom journal" about a week after her mom’s death. In it, Triantafillou started to write about all her emotions — the hurt, sorrow, sadness and anger. She finds she writes the most on her mother’s birthday, on the anniversary of her death and on holidays like Mother’s Day. Now, instead of just writing emotions, Triantafillou also writes to her mother about Triantafillou's son (her mother’s first grandchild) and their family.

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While commemorative holidays like Mother's Day and Father's Day are meant to be celebrations of all that our parents and elders bring into our lives, it's often overlooked how these holidays might affect someone who’s just lost one of those elders. But each person I interviewed echoed the importance of keeping traditions and memories alive in the name of those we've lost.

Lipton points out that remembering allows us to not only potentially revisit some difficult memories and associated feelings, but also gives us the opportunity to experience positive feelings related to the good memories of our time with loved ones who have died. After all, when we block out the difficult feelings, we often block out the positive ones by association.

On the other hand, when we embrace the range, complexity and depth of life’s emotions — on Mother's Day, Father's Day and every day — it helps us grow, become wiser and appreciate those who are gone as well as those still around us. And it also helps us appreciate that life is far too precious to be taken for granted.

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