Father’s Day. It’s usually a day when dads can relax, laying down their burden for a moment.
For those of us who have lost a child, though, it’s a day when we pick up a burden we tend to ignore throughout the year.
You see, it’s a day when you pretty much can’t help but dwell on what you’re not doing. You’re not playing catch with your son; not drinking tea with your daughter; not laughing carefree with the other dads (at least, not genuinely). The burden is different for different guys. It might be the weight of the grief; or the guilt–often imagined–for failing to protect our sons, daughters, and wives; or, though I’m ashamed to say it, the irrational jealousy of seeing another father’s joy.
If this is your first Father’s Day after losing a child, I’m sorry you’re reading this. But if this is your first one, here’s what it was like for me after my son was stillborn a few days before his due date, and what it was like for some other dads I’ve talked to. Thinking back to that first one, there are four things I wish I would’ve known.
First, you ARE a dad. This is a day for you.
Second, the build-up is often worse than the actual day. This is true for pretty much any key day that first year: the first Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, their birthday, etc.
I remember for my first Father’s Day there was just sort of sense of dreading that day coming up, worrying about how I’d feel or how people would treat me (or fail to treat me). I didn’t verbalize it, but looking back I thought it would be unbearable.
On the bright side of things, it wasn’t unbearable; it was merely terrible. Bear it I did, and so will you. And, you might – like me – even find that while it’s a sad day overall, there will be good points when you think back to the happy moments. My wife and I talked about when we found out she was pregnant (coincidentally, she told me on Father’s Day the year before), and we reminisced about the pictures we shot and the mini “babymoon” we took towards the end of the pregnancy. All of those good times and that love is why it hurts so much, so it was nice to be reminded of how much we care for our little guy.
Third, for that first one, I was happy that I had something of a game plan. There’s no one right way to do it, but my wife and I decided on an activity (one that wouldn’t be dominated by other families out with their kids) because I knew otherwise I’d probably just sit around. We talked about whether I’d want to do something myself, or with friends or just the two of us. I think I ended up doing a woodworking project – making a flower bed in honor of Simon.
Another aspect to that first Father’s Day is a bit of a double-edged sword. For the most part, this will be the only one where friends and family will be most likely to remember you or your child. My wife had emailed friends the week before, so I had a mailbox full of cards, which was a nice surprise. I think if she hadn’t, I would have gotten a few calls or emails, but not many. In years since it’s been even less.
Part of the pain of Father’s Day isn’t the fact that we are often ignored. I mean, who really cares if a buddy mentions your achievements in parenting or not. For me, the pain is more about who’s not being remembered – my son. It’s another time when my child isn’t recognized or validated.
Fourth and finally, the feeling of Father’s day changes over time. Like I mentioned, that first one is full of dread leading up to it and then is a big milestone. Later, others forget, and that introduces a new kind of hurt to it, but the entire thing is less poignant. And yet later, it changes again. This year, for me, instead of days of dreading it, I sort of forgot about it until recently. I always think about Simon but hadn’t let myself dwell on the grief as much lately. And so, the idea of Father’s Day acted a bit like a prism, focusing the various rays of pain and grief and sadness and anger that I hadn’t dealt with in a while into a concentrated beam that sort of took me by surprise. But once that had passed, I got back to normal more quickly than I could have in years past.
The one thing I do know is that there’s no right way to feel or one right way to act. For those fathers out there picking up an extra burden this Father’s Day, especially the new dads, I wish you peace and hope you find a way to make it a good day for you and your family.