Father's Day without Dad

Editor's Introduction:

I was a kid without a dad. Not all that unusual, but at the time I remember feeling like I was the only child in the world in my situation. I was the only one that I knew. I was 5 when my dad died from a heart attack, and, to be honest, I recall that I got over it and got on with life pretty quickly - probably because I was only 5.

But there were two things that I hated: I hated to tell people that my father was dead. I didn't care if they knew -- in fact, I wanted them to know. I just didn't want to have to tell them. It wasn't saying the words that bothered me so much. It was the reaction to those words - the sad face, the loss for words.

And I hated Father's Day -- especially the making of the little gifts in school. Hated it. Hated the teacher having a private word with me, "Oh, it'll be for your grampa." But they were both dead (and I had no trouble saying that). I even took a bit of pleasure in seeing her squirm when I told her. Then she would move on to uncle, godfather, brother (!) and it got really weird. I would come home with some ill-crafted ashtray for my uncle/godfather, who, by the way, had 6 kids of his own.

Once I passed the age for making craftsy gifts, I stopped worrying so much about Father's Day, but never really resolved my feelings. That is, until I began to work in parenting publishing. Finally, I could do something. Several years ago, I asked for this piece, "Father's Day without Dad", and now, each Father's Day, I re-offer it along with the more upbeat dad content. If you know a family that has lost their dad and this is their first fatherless Father's Day, please, consider sharing it. --Elizabeth Holthaus

Father's Day without Dad

Special days are far from festive for kids who have lost a parent. Rather than moments of celebration, they are often painful reminders of an incomplete family and an uncertain future. But there is hope.

For many children, Father’s Day is a joyous occasion and a chance to celebrate dads for their hard work and loving nature. But for those whose fathers have died, this holiday is far from festive.

“I was only 7-years-old when my father died of a heart attack,” remembers Travis Wells, now 32, of Annapolis, Maryland. “Being so young, I couldn’t comprehend the idea of never seeing my dad again. I was an emotional basket case, and those feelings only got worse around the holidays—especially Father’s Day.”

Wells’ tale is not uncommon. Every year, thousands of children under the age of 18 lose a parent or a close family member. Once carefree and content, these children feel like they’ve been thrown unwittingly into a world of uncertainty and sorrow, says Lynne Hughes, a grief counselor and co-founder of Comfort Zone Camps, a nonprofit organization that holds bereavement camps for children.

“Their lives become incredibly complex; they’re dealing with adult emotions that they can’t harness or understand,” says Hughes, who lost her mother when she was 9, her father less than two years later. “All they know is that they hurt inside and they don’t like feeling that way.”

The Grieving Process

How children comprehend death and grieve depends largely on their age, temperament and how their parent or parents died. For instance, a 5-year-old will likely not comprehend the finality of death and may even use his imagination to craft elaborate scenarios wherein he rescues his deceased father and brings him back to life.

An older child, however, will understand that death is irreversible and may endure various stages of grief, including guilt, apathy, anger and depression. Those who lose a parent suddenly, such as in a fatal car accident, often question the fairness of life and may ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" or "My dad was a great man. Why was he taken from me?"

While there is no immediate cure for the pain a child feels after losing a parent, there are coping strategies the surviving parent or a caregiver can use to help the healing process. These may prove particularly helpful around the holidays, when family bonds are strong and children are more apt to reflect on their own lives.

Be honest. Do not try to sugarcoat the situation by using ambiguous phrasing, like "passed on" and "went to sleep". Use the words "death," "dead" and "dying." It may seem harsh at first, but the direct approach is much more effective than disguising the truth, which usually leaves children with more questions than answers.

Take cues from your children. Oftentimes, children in mourning can become distant and reclusive, shrouding their pain and uncertainty beneath a veil of indifference. If this is the case, don’t press your child to talk about matters she is not yet ready to discuss. Instead, acknowledge your child’s pain and remind her that you are experiencing similar feelings. You might say, "I know how you feel, and I am here when you need someone to talk to." Leave it at that, and don’t force the issue. Your child will eventually open up, but she needs to do it on her terms, not yours.

Express your own sadness. It’s tempting to assume the role of the unwavering pillar of strength during tragic and tumultuous times, but it is not the best model for your kids. Rather, let them know that you are sad, too. This will signal that it’s OK to express your feelings and show emotions. Try to open up the lines of communication by saying something like, "I really miss Daddy. It makes me sad to think he’s gone. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?" Open-ended questions like this not only empower children, but they allow them to steer the conversation.

Make your children feel safe. The death of a loved ushers in a period of uncertainty. Suddenly, once carefree children start to feel vulnerable, insecure, helpless and abandoned. Many will worry that you are going to die next, and some will start, in the most basic of ways, to question their own mortality. For example, it isn’t uncommon for children in mourning to have sleeping problems. Most often, these occur because children fear if they fall asleep, they’ll never wake up. This is just one more reason why parents should never compare dying to "going to sleep" when discussing death with children.

Instead, reassure your child that they are safe, loved and well cared for. Be careful, however, not to make unrealistic promises. If your child asks if you are going to die, give a sympathetic but truthful answer: "I want you to know that I plan on being here until I’m really old and you are grown up with kids of your own."

Encourage artistic expression. For those children who are not ready to discuss their loss with others, try having them express their thoughts, concerns and worries through artistic means, such as journal writing, painting or drawing. Provide the appropriate materials—paints, molding clay, a sketchbook, pencils—and be careful not to supervise their projects. Let them use art as a way to explore and confront their innermost feelings. When they’ve finished, you can ask open-ended questions: "That is an interesting painting. I noticed you used many shades of blue. Why is that?" Boost their spirits by complementing their artwork and encouraging them to create more of it.

Memorialize the deceased. When a holiday arrives, such as Father’s Day, acknowledge that this will be a difficult time for a child who has lost his father. Instead of avoiding the subject, use holidays as a way to discuss and remember the dead. You might encourage your child to write a poem about their loved one, or help him plant a tree in memory of the deceased, or he could leaf through photo albums and talk about what he admired most about his father.

Visiting the grave sight is often too much for younger children. Older kids, depending on how long it has been since their loved one died, may be ready to partake in this ritual. However, always give them a choice in the matter, and do not force the issue if your child is reluctant or scared.

Reaffirm your spiritual beliefs. If your beliefs include a Heaven, discuss with your child how a person’s soul continues to live in our memories and in the afterlife long after the body has died. Be prepared for some tough questions, including "Why did God take Daddy away?" or "Will God want me to die next?" If you are a religious person, reiterate that God is a caring, compassionate entity who watches over the living and the dead. Many parents and children find that prayer, meditation, candle-lighting ceremonies and other forms of contemplation soothe their anxieties and bring spiritual fulfillment.

Tell them it is not their fault. Some children blame themselves when a loved one dies. It is not uncommon for kids to "wish a parent dead" during an argument or misunderstanding. If the parent dies days, weeks or even months after such an exchange, the child may feel that his "wish" was granted. This can lead to overwhelming guilt, a debilitating emotion most kids are ill-equipped to handle. Ease these worries by continually telling your child that nothing he said, did or wished caused the death. Children cannot properly begin the grieving process until they understand they are not to blame.

Join a support group or seek psychological counseling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Too often people view seeking support from others, namely professionals, as a sign of weakness or admitting failure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is strength in numbers, and people who have endured similar tragedies will understand the wide range of emotions you are feeling. Also, they can share stories of how they came to terms with their loved one’s death and what they did to help the healing process.

Read age-appropriate books that address death. There are several excellent books for children that deal with losing a pet or a loved one. (Click here for a complete list.) Reading such titles together can serve as a discussion starter and help you better communicate to your children what it means to die and to grieve.

Helping children to understand and accept death is not an easy or enjoyable task. However, once children work through their feelings and realize that they are not to blame for their loved one’s passing, they will start to cope with their loss and find comfort from talking and sharing with others. Most important, remember that grieving is a process, not a single event. Remain patient and allow your child to cope at his own pace, in his own way. The best thing you can do is to provide your child with the tools to cope - and extend your hand and heart.

More Resources:

The 10 Talents of Parenting: Resolution: Every person alive has experienced some form of loss; it's just part of the human condition. We may have lost a parent or a sibling, or lost our sense of safety because of being abused or neglected as a child. We may have lost a dear friend, beloved babysitter or grandparent. We may not have lost anyone to death, but instead lost their love and affection because of illness, depression, addiction, anger or stress.

Finding the Right Words: A complete list of age-appropriate books for children struggling to understand and accept the death of loved one.

Terminal Illnesses: How to Tell Your Kids: Not only is it important for parents to understand what to tell their children, they must know when to do so.