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For many of us, Father’s Day is an annual event to honor dad, to recognize the men in our lives in all generations. For some, though, the day is a sad reminder of a loss, whether of an adult’s father or, perhaps of a child or an infant. Whether through miscarriage, SIDS, illness, accident or other tragedy, the grief for a young life is unlike any other. We see the loss of a new generation of experiences, joy and family in an era when we expect our children to outlive us.
While mothers seem to have a lot of support through the grief process and are apt to reach out to family, friends and agencies, fathers are more likely to try to tough it out, burying themselves in work or other projects. Fathers grieve in isolation, mothers in community. Women reach out, men internalize. Mom’s grief is immediately intense, while dad’s persists over time. Of course there are exceptions, but research shows these characteristics are common.
Grief often comes in waves, triggered by random feelings and memories. These can be overwhelming on holidays like Father’s Day. Many family members and friends don’t know how to support the dispirited parents; a few might just try to ignore the lost child out of fear of stirring up sadness. The parents, however, have certainly not forgotten their youngster and they really do want to hear their name and share memories of their life.
Experts advise that friends showed and acknowledge bereaved parent’s grief and that it’s important to avoid commentary about how long it’s been since the death or urging a return to “normal” life. Instead, give them whatever time and space without judgment or advice, just by lending an ear you can be supportive.
What you can do
Grief is universal yet also personal. Your response will depend to a certain extent on the circumstances of the death. If the parent does not want to talk about the child, do respect that sensitivity. Just acknowledge Father’s Day and offer your support.
A child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth represents the loss of such potential and family foundation. Fathers feel this, too, but might feel less supported than the mother. Let him talk about it.
Say the child’s name and share memories, whether poignant or funny. Look at a photo album and reminisce. There may be tears, but there may also be laughter, which is equally healing.
Offer to listen to the grieving dad if he wants to vent, to remember, to bemoan his loss.
If you have also lost a child, it is fine to say “I know how you feel. I know what you’re
going through.” However, if you have not experienced such a death, instead say you can’t
imagine their bereavement, but that you are available to listen and that you care.
Understand that some parents prefer to spend these holidays with friends and family
members who have walked the same sad road.
The death of an older, or even adult child generates bittersweet memories of good times
along with the devastating loss. You might suggest going to their favorite ball park for a game, rewatching a movie they loved, taking a walk by their well-loved beach, or reading through condolence cards and letters received at the time of their death, many of which have wonderful anecdotes to share and cherish.
Help the parents navigate the holiday, honoring surviving children, while also mourning and honoring their life lost.
Encourage dad to take care of himself—get some exercise, share a healthy meal, spend time with other loved ones.
Most of all, listen
Keep in touch with the grieving family. Be there for them, even if words fail you. They have not forgotten and hope that others will also remember their lost child. “A child is a child no matter how old they are,” says Darcy Kruse of the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine. “In a mother’s or father’s heart, it’s their child.” Honoring them could be your best gift.
“How to help parents who are grieving on Father’s Day.” OptionBThere.
Oliveto, Joe. “How to Say ‘Happy Father’s Day’ 2022 to a Dad Grieving a Child,” Cake,
McNeil, Michael J. MD, “How do fathers grieve the loss of a child?” St. Jude Progress,
https://blogs.stjude.org/progress/grieving-fathers-understudied-in-palliative-research.html Center for Grieving Children, https://www.cgcmaine.org/the-center/