Father’s Day: How to negotiate grief if you’ve lost a parent

We lost Dad to cancer almost five years ago. He was diagnosed in January 2016, before his health rapidly declined and he died a few weeks later.

At the time, I had spent all my energy focusing on being there for him, shuttling back and forth from the hospital and being militant in my care for him – so much so, I never really gave it much thought about how I would cope after he’d gone.

So when the time came and I got The Call, I wasn’t sure how to process it all. My body moved, but my mind and heart were someplace else. I wouldn’t say I was “numb”, but I was shell shocked, full of rage and despair, but completely disconnected.

I applied that same methodical approach to organising the funeral and the various admin that comes with death (who knew there was so much paperwork to deal with?), before I eventually allowed myself to cry and release the built-up emotions.

Not one day goes by where I don’t think about him or miss him dearly, but sometimes the pain is more manageable than on other occasions. It’s not that I am sadder on certain dates, like Christmas, the anniversary of his death or Father’s Day, but there are definitely more physical reminders that can make it incredibly difficult to suppress certain feelings or thoughts.

Working in news, I am inundated with press releases about Father’s Day – and if that wasn’t enough, my personal email account is flooded with mailers, my social feeds are spammed with targeted ads and vintage photos, and every shop has a special section, full of cards and gifts.

And although I am definitely not an expert and I know no two experiences are the same, I have discovered ways to ease the pain over the years. Here are my suggestions for those struggling to negotiate the loss of their parent – and a guide for friends and loved ones on how to help.

For those grieving:

It feels good to lean on family (Sophie Rainbow)

1. Don’t feel guilty about taking time off work

Although Father’s Day itself always falls on a Sunday, it’s not to say that your pain is limited to just one day.

I am the worst at admitting when I need time off and over the years I have buried myself in work to distract myself from thinking about my loss – in fact, I returned to work straight after and never took any compassionate leave (which, by the way, should not have an expiration date).

But, the thing is, as we have all learned from the current coronavirus outbreak, this “stiff upper lip” attitude surrounding both physical and mental health does way more harm than good.

You may think you’re fine and that going into work is the “noble” thing to do, but it can be massively detrimental to your wellbeing.

2. Your friends aren’t mind readers

While the date is marked by most people, you cannot expect your friends and colleagues to make the connection and instinctively know.

Of course some people are great and will remember without any cues, but you have to remember this is your grief and your experience.

3. On that note, remind them a few days in advance

Should you feel like you’ll need support, just make your friends and colleagues aware that you may not be contactable or your “usual self”.

It needn’t be a big deal, but it can really help – not that you’ll expect preferential treatment, but it can avoid getting called out for having an “off” day or not replying to texts.

4. Spend the day with family, if you can

I appreciate that not everyone has other family members nearby or still with them – or that surrounding yourself with people is everyone’s cup of tea.

But despite being a massive introvert and someone who usually deals with everything alone (typical Virgo), I have learned that it feels good to open up and lean on family members.

One of the main things that affected me after he died was no longer being able to say the word “Dad” or speak about him freely. I didn’t want people to feel awkward or upset anyone, so I just quietly processed things.

But now, you can’t stop me; the thing is, I want to talk about his crazy adventures and laugh at his awful jokes – and who better to discuss that with than my family?

5. Not being able to visit the grave does not mean you care less

Since coronavirus hit, I’ve not been able to visit Dad’s graveside once. And it can make me really sad to think how I’ve neglected it.

Of course, my mum and siblings have replaced the flowers and spruced things up, but I do feel as though I’m not a good daughter by not physically going to the grave.

But then I remind myself that it’s absolutely no reflection of my relationship with him or some sort gauge for how devastated I am about this monumental loss.

It’s mine, and the only thing that’s important is that I know how special our bond was.

For friends and loved ones:

Message your friend to let them know you’re thinking of them (Sophie Rainbow)

1. Send a message

You may feel like you’re imposing, that you’re running the risk of upsetting your friend, or, perhaps, you’re just terrible at dealing with the “awkwardness” that comes attached to grief – but I promise you your friend will love to hear from you.

You don’t necessarily have to ask them how they’re feeling, as chances are they’re not in a great mood, but just a simple message acknowledging what day it is and letting them know that you’re thinking of them can make all the difference.

2. Avoid saying “I understand” or “I can’t imagine how you must feel”

No, you do not understand and no, you cannot imagine how it feels.

You may think that you’re showing empathy and support, but these comments aren’t helpful and can be really offensive, however well-meaning they are.

3. Don’t make it about you

If you have not experienced the death of a parent, it’s a wise idea not to compare your friend’s grief to how you feel about the death of a distant relative or pet.

While you are more than entitled to feel sad about your loss, it is not comparable, and if your friend is reaching out to you to talk about their dead parent, you should listen to them and encourage them to speak on their own terms. You don’t need to turn the conversation back round to you.

4. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say

I have many friends who are absolutely wonderful but have no idea how to talk to me about Dad.

And that’s okay.

If you don’t have the words, just listen and give them a hug.

5. You’re allowed to talk about your own dad

I don’t resent anyone for still having a dad – in fact, quite the opposite.

My friends are much more used to it now, but for a long time they felt awkward about bringing up their own fathers around me, as though they had to censor what they said, through fear I would burst into tears.

It’s perfectly acceptable and okay to talk about your family members, so don’t think you need to apologise for the fact they’re not dead.

Instead, if your dad is still around and you have a relationship with him, I implore you to celebrate him, make the most of the time you have and love him – because you never know when things will change.


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