Spring is a hard season for the bereaved. After my dad’s death, the transition from winter to spring was the the most unexpectedly difficult period of my ‘year of firsts’. There is no greater indication that life is moving forward than the landscape coming alive with sunshine, buds, and bird calls. Spring’s warmth infuses the general public with happiness and smiles. But back in 2004, the hopeful weather was the antithesis of my mood. I would have happily stayed in winter for that entire year, but I was forcefully pushed forward into a world I where I felt like I didn't belong.
Me and my dad (I'm on the left)
Spring also holds Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Of my 35 Father’s Days, I have now been fatherless for 15 of them. That particular Sunday in June no longer feels like a spotlight highlighting my father’s short life and my half-orphan status, but I really struggled with Father’s day, and other holidays/anniversaries for the first 5-7 years after my dad’s death.
As a kid, I found Father’s Day to be more of a nuisance than a celebration (my dad was born on June 27, and I was always at a loss on how to celebrate these two occasions so close together). Now I want to yell at that whiny child with tangled hair and stained sweatsuits, because I know how lucky I was to have a person to celebrate. Now I wonder why I never thought to just ask my dad what he’d like to do for Father's Day. At the time I hadn’t yet learned the lesson that celebrating people didn’t have to be about buying things they didn't want. My poor dad got stuck with a series of BBQ utensils that came in a fancy case, a 3" plastic trophy that said ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, a series of cards with ties on them, and a black mug with orange lettering that read, "Dad is always right." And then in smaller letters at the bottom, "(except when he disagrees with mom)." I didn’t notice the mom part until the night before Father’s Day when I was wrapping up the gift on my bedroom floor. I gave it to him anyway, hoping he wouldn't notice (he noticed and he wasn't a fan).
Illustration Credit: Mari Andrew
If you are newly missing your child, mom, dad, stepparent, or parental figure, these two days of celebration can be stabbing daggers. Marketing materials celebrating the child-parent relationship are everywhere — written on the classy and colorful balloons-on-a-stick at the supermarket checkout, floral arrangements advertised on radio, or restaurants with big window signs, encouraging you to make reservations for Sunday brunch. Perfectly posed and artificially highlighted parent-child photos bombard our social media feeds.
You are not alone if you are dreading these holidays. When miscarriage and stillbirths are included, 19% of adults have experienced the death of a child (excluding miscarriage and stillbirth, that number changes to about 10%). For children under 18, 2% have lost one or both parents. Anywhere between 22-30% of college aged young-adults are within a year of a significant loss (parent, sibling, or grandparent). There are a lot of people hurting.
Like clockwork, my body responds to the calendar, even when I try to convince myself that a particular trigger day won't bother me this year. I have found that there are things that I can do to help ease the stress of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. There are also reassurances I give myself to help me remember why I’m feeling what I’m feeling, and that these feelings are absolutely reasonable. Here is what I have learned from 15 years of trigger days:
Tip 1: Anxiety
My first tip is not actually a tip but an acknowledgement. The anxiety leading up to the day is almost always worse than the day itself. This, of course, doesn’t help in the days leading up to the day when your anxiety is in the red zone, but it most certainly can be helpful to know that the terrible feelings won’t necessarily explode on the second Sunday of May or the third Sunday in June. I often feel a release of tension and anxiety when the day concludes. Grief comes in waves, and the build up is part of the experience.
Tip 2: Plan something to look forward to
Can you get away that weekend? Do you have someone in your network with a similar loss? Could you get together with them on Saturday (specifically not on Sunday in a place where you might see families out celebrating). You can do anything. This year, on my dead sister’s birthday, we went to SkyZone, last year it was LEGOland. Sure, these aren’t dream destinations, but they were fun and it helped me and my family get through the 24 hours we were dreading. Do you want to paint pottery? See Roller Derby? Eat at a food truck? Build a fort out of cardboard and paint it in neon colors? Watch comfort TV on Netflix? Do whatever might bring you lightness (but be sure to keep it legal).
Tip 3: Stay off social media
It’s best not to even bother — you will be seeing a lot of posts from others celebrating their parents or children. Maturity and reason should tell us that it is not a personal attack when a friend or relative posts a photo with their beloved mother, but it certainly feels like a sucker punch to the gut. I admit that I’ve often thought that it was reasonable to expect everyone else to stop being happy because I’m grieving, or at least keep their joy hidden behind closed doors so I wouldn't have to see it. If you’re like me and staying off social media is hard because you love the drama in your neighborhood Facebook group (and don’t want to miss the never ending complaints on errant sidewalk dog poop and gas-powered mowers starting too early in the morning on a Saturday), consider unfollowing all of your friends. This gives you the benefit of not seeing happy photos when you’re not feeling up to it. You can always re-follow in the future and your buddies are none the wiser. I unfollowed everyone (that’s right — every. single. person.) after my sister’s death and I have no plans to change my social media feed in the near future. Unfollowing is pretty liberating.
Tip 4: Pass along kindness
This year, on the anniversary of my dad’s death, I tipped 100%. I am so cheap and this was completely out of character for me, but my dad was extremely generous. After adding the tip, I wrote a note for the server with a little info about my dad. Sometimes doing something for someone else can bring you the feel-good feelings you’re searching for. Perhaps on that Sunday you want to volunteer, donate blood, pick up trash, or leave $20 on a park bench. Kindness tends to magnify when you are enveloped in sadness, and doing so might give you just what you need on a really hard day.
Tip 5: Embrace your anger
It is ok to be angry. Really angry. Do not feel guilty about being angry. It is unfair and not right that you are missing your person. I’m so sorry, I wish they were here with you.
Anger + Grief = Angrief
Tip 6: Tell people what you need
Last year, the first Mother’s Day without my sister happened to fall on my birthday. So, not only was it the first year where I wasn’t conspiring with her on Mother’s Day plans or just having my sibling with my family as we celebrated our mutual parent-child relationship, but it was also the first time I aged up while she remained at 37. It was very hard for me to get texts from people that only spoke to the superficial joy of the day. “Happy Birthday!🎂🤸🏻♀️👑” or “Happy Mother’s Day!🥇🌸🌼👩👧” There was no happiness on that day, and these messages alienated me from my friends and family.
[Disclaimer: When I share statements like this, the responses typically fall into two camps:
1. "You're so ungrateful! You're lucky that people text you to say happy birthday or wish you a happy Mother's day. At least you are healthy and had another birthday and at least your child is alive and healthy. Who cares what they say, they said something and that's all that matters. You're being too sensitive"
2. "I get it." (because they've been there) or "thank you for telling me," (because they haven't been there but they are open to learning how to support someone in pain).
I recognize that it is an honor for people to think of me on these days (or any day), and that as of right now my family is healthy and health is something I never want to take for granted. But, that gratitude doesn't cancel out the difficulty of the mismatched experience between what I need and what people give.]
I chose to not respond to those celebratory texts, but in retrospect, I wish I had used social media to make a post a few days before. Something like, “This weekend will be hard without Alison. I ask that you take a moment to think of her on Sunday.”
There is a huge disconnect in our grief culture, and the burden of teaching almost always falls on the bereaved. It is totally understandable why someone in the throes of grief would have no interest in or energy to tell people what they want, but at the same time, we can’t expect people to know what we need if we don’t tell them.
Think of what you might need or want from people, and put it out there a few days in advance. Perhaps you’d like your friends who knew your mom to toast her on Mother’s Day, or you share your dad’s favorite meal in case anyone might like to think of your dad the next time they enjoy it. Maybe your son loved a particular playground and you request family and friends to consider making that destination a part of their Father’s Day celebrations.
Tip 7: Find Community
You may not have friends or peers in your community with similar losses, but they are out there. Now it is easier than ever to find an online group of people who have a similar story to your own. Connecting with these people, though they may be strangers, can bring an enormous sense of comfort. We recently passed Siblings Day (which I didn’t even know was a thing until after my sister died). I loved this post where many surviving siblings shared beloved memories of their sisters and brothers. Reading and learning about other people’s losses helps me feel less alone.
I tend to lean towards more untraditional ways of honoring my dad and sister, but there are certainly endless ways to incorporate your beloved people on trigger days. Visiting the cemetery or the place where there ashes were scattered, attending a service, leaving a chair open for them at the table, giving a toast...the possibilities are endless. Do what feels right. It is also totally reasonable to pretend the day isn’t happening and treat it like any old day. What works for some won’t work for everyone else. But what works for me may work for you. I hope that you find something that makes the day just a little easier.
For Children Missing Parents
Being a motherless mother
Molly Rosen Guy’s piece in on her dad dying while she was divorcing is unbelievable, and her Instagram account documents raw experiences of life after her father’s death in January, 2018 (she tags the posts #ClubOfLostDaughters)
Community of storytellers, and people who want to hear about your parents
A beautiful short by a son about his father
An opportunity to share about life without your mom
For Parents Missing Children
A mother’s words on her first mother’s day without her daughter and she also writes more on the first spring after Ana’s death
A new community of storytellers
Compassionate Friends support groups - both online and in person
Words on parent loss & child loss
A chance for mother's to share about their children and #LifeAfterLoss
For Widows and Widowers
Father’s day from a widow’s perspective
Every spring, Modern Loss hosts gift exchanges for people hurting on Mother’s and Father’s Days and the December holidays. They will thoughtfully pair you with another person with a similar loss. I participated last year for Mother's Day in honor of my sister and I loved it. Sometimes the best comfort can come by way of kindness and connection with a stranger.
Signups happen about a month before the day. While we’ve passed the deadline for Mother’s Day, stay tuned to their Instagram page for the Father’s Day sign-ups in mid-May. This isn’t strictly for fathers missing children or children missing fathers. It’s for anyone for whom Father’s Day is hard because of someone’s absence.
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