Fourteen years ago, suddenly and traumatically, I lost my father. I was 22 and just out of college. I still had a 14-year-old brother at home, and a 20-year-old brother in transition. That first year after my dad’s passing is mostly a blur, a haze, but I do remember having three main goals that year- make it through dad’s birthday, make it through Father’s Day, and finally make it through that one-year anniversary. Those are the only guideposts I remember having that year. Countdowns. A new countdown would begin as soon as the previous one passed. And that’s how I made it through, just barely.
Even though it’s been fourteen years, my father’s death sometimes still seems recent to me. I’m shocked when I occasionally do the math and realize it’s been FOURTEEN YEARS. That seems so long. But also not long at all. Through this, I’ve come to realize that “recent” is a relative term. To some, the “recent” passing of a parent may mean they lost their loved one in the last year. To others, the loss is still so present and pervasive that “recent” may mean five years. Seven. Or more.
But no matter whether you’re at the beginning of your loss timeline, or well down it like I am constantly surprised to be, there are days that are just harder than others- certain holidays, milestone days, personally significant days. Today, Father’s Day, is definitely one of those days. I’m not here to tell you that it gets easier. It doesn’t really. But it does get different; it evolves. While I still feel the loss acutely on special days, on other, regular days it’s a dull ache that can easily be toned down and put aside. I’ve had a lot of practice at this and have developed a few exercises that I’ve found helpful.
The first is to remember that my dad would want me to be at my best for my family, even though he never got to meet his grandchildren. I know that sounds corny and trite, and that sentiment made me angrily defensive and bristly when I heard it for the first several years. But over time, I’ve come to accept that it is true, and it’s lovely if you really think about it. My dad WOULD want me to be enjoying my life, even on Father’s Day and his birthday, whether he is here or not, because he loved me and wanted only the best for me. Accepting this has also relieved the guilt I feel when I realize I haven’t been thinking about my dad as much as I used to, or certain memories are lost or the sound of his voice begins to fade. I know now that he would want me to be present with my children, the way he would be if he were here.
Another exercise I try on particularly hard days is to compartmentalize. If I start feeling overwhelmed and know it’s going to be a rough day, I make a deal with myself to put those feelings in a little box for later. Then, at a quiet and socially appropriate time that day, I’ll take a few moments to myself to unpack those feelings and memories, and treat them and myself gently. Maybe that means having a good cry. Or looking through a family photo album. Or telling my kids a story about their grandpa. Then I’m able to get back to the demands and routine of the day without a nagging sense of irritability or sadness. (Please note, I am not a therapist. Compartmentalizing may not be good, psychologically speaking- I don’t really know. But it works for me in these situations.)
And of course there’s talking about it. Find your person, let them know how you’re feeling, and get a big hug from them. Sometimes that’s all I need- a verbal recognition and reminiscence about my father in a safe place, with a safe person who gives good hugs. Expressing my feelings to my person (my husband) almost always keeps me from crossing the line from feeling a little down to feeling downright depressed.
So to someone who has recently lost their father- no matter how “recent” that that really is- I know this day sucks. Self-pity and envy is real. I mean, how dare other people post tributes to their perfectly alive fathers- don’t they know mine is dead? To you I say, don’t worry, sister- it’s natural and normal to feel that way. I had those same bitter thoughts for years. But I have hope that it will change and become different for you over time, the way it has for me. This day and others like it will still sting, oh yes. But eventually, if you were blessed to have a father like mine, the good memories will eventually prevail over the abyss and desperate shock of loss, and working through these days will become old hat, possibly even enjoyable as you treat your sacred memories with your father with joy and care and kindness. Happy Father’s Day, friends. I know we can do it.