Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June, is a day honoring fathers and the paternal bond between a father and his child. While this day represents a celebration of the special man in your life, for many it can be a challenging day that brings up grief and feelings of loss. I don’t know about you, but I have gotten email after email over the last week or so advertising “Make Dad’s Day!” and “Call your Dad!” A harmless email like this can have hugely painful impacts on a child who has lost a parent at any age, whether it be a teen celebrating his first Father’s Day without Dad, or the kindergartner who never got to celebrate Father’s Day because Dad passed away before she was born
It can be extremely challenging when it comes to talking about someone who has died. Many adults feel incredibly uncomfortable talking about something that may be painful for another and may have an inclination to protect the young child from addressing death altogether. As caregivers we can change what the day represents. Rather than a day of sadness, it can often become something the child or family unit can celebrate or embrace. If the family is comfortable, it can be a time to reminisce and go through old pictures of happy memories; giggle at the embarrassing Dad jokes he always made; and cook his favorite meal all together. It is possible to change the meaning that the day holds and for it to become a day that brings the family together. We all have different comfort levels with expressing our emotions and talking about how grief makes us feel. The more we model for children and allow them the open forum to do so, the less scary and isolating it can feel.
It is typical to spend the days leading up to Father’s Day making crafts and writing poems for Dad in the classroom. We may automatically assume that the child without a male figure in his or her life should be removed from the classroom and given an alternate assignment because it is a painful reminder that Dad is not there. We may be doing the child a disservice by making this assumption. While the child’s psychosocial needs should be considered during these times, he or she should not be made to feel as though he or she is not involved in the day and that it is irrelevant. When applicable, leave it up to the child. He or she will tell you what feels right and what he or she wants. Maybe he or she wants to make the craft for uncle, grandpa, or it could even be for mom! It is not up to us to decide this for children. Opportunities for choice and control are crucial for kids of any age. There is little opportunity for them to be a part of decision making processes in regards to their lives. The loss of their loved one is unfair and there is little to no control over most aspects of death and dying. Anywhere children can be involved and they can have a say in something that pertains to themselves can be impactful.
Through adolescence, teens seek to fit in with their peers and want to be just like everyone else. Being targeted as the “kid without a father” can be extremely isolating. While it connects us, social media can be a dangerous thing during these widely-observed “holidays.” As humans, we crave community and inclusion, which often leads to oversharing on our Facebooks and Instagram accounts. Many will post an image on Father’s Day of a special memory with Dad and publicize that their Dad is the greatest in the world and they are so lucky to have him. And while the majority enjoy sharing our lives with others, it is important to remember how this can impact the entire network to whom we are broadcasting. Social media and its influence on teens has been a hot topic lately. When we look at the the adolescent from a developmental standpoint, opportunities to thoughtfully reflect on his or her feelings may reduce the risk of developing poor coping mechanisms in response to these challenges. Checking in with adolescents and giving them a forum to discuss what Father’s Day, and the emotions surrounding it, means for them can be beneficial. We cannot just assume that the day holds pain or joy or indifference. One way we may be able to provide support in this instance is to suggest creating something to post that the teen is comfortable with and gives him or her an outlet to feel included like every other peer posting on that date. Just because Dad is not physically there does not mean that a teen cannot express how he or she is remembering him on Father’s Day.
Grief is a funny thing. It is not linear and it does not just cease at a certain point. While life eventually finds its new normal, we don’t just forget about a loved one who has passed; the pain does not completely disappear, and some days will be harder than others. While certain days such as Father’s Day may be a difficult day for many who have lost the important man in their lives, it may also represent a time to remember and celebrate Dad, even if he is no longer physically here with us. There may be tears, but there can also be smiles and laughter.
Jesse Guzik, MS, CCLS
Child & Youth Coordinator
For more information and/or support services for a child and family coping with grief and loss as a result of a cancer diagnosis please contact Jesse Guzik, Child Life Specialist at JGuzik@cancersupportcnj.org or 908-658-5400 ext. 5.