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How to handle grief on Father’s Day

Grief — for a parent, a child, or fertility issues — can be especially heightened during family holidays. These tips could help.

I didn’t realize that a commercial for flower bouquets could feel like an emotional assault until Mother’s Day 2019. My mother died on November 25, 2018, the day before my birthday; I remember thinking that I would never be able to celebrate with joy again. Then that first Mother’s Day came around, and every time I saw or heard anything about buying cards or gifts to honor the woman who raised me, I wanted to punch someone or crawl under the covers and cry. Or both.

In the years since, I’ve calmed down about the commercials and the greeting cards. I wrote a book of essays about grief, So Sorry For Your Loss, which forced me to face my emotions head-on. It’s still painful to see Instagram photos of people having brunch with their mom with captions gushing about how lucky they are to have such an amazing mother. I still feel angry that mine isn’t here, and jealous of anyone whose mom is a phone call away — and I’m not talking about a call to an AI resurrection of a dead parent.

That doesn’t mean every holiday will be miserable, though. It also doesn’t mean every milestone or anniversary will play out in the same way for everyone. Maybe that first Father’s Day you feel emotionally numb, but the next you’re sobbing in the shower. If grief is anything, it’s unpredictable. I’ve found that the anticipation leading up to the big, obvious dates and anniversaries is often worse than living it. I’m more likely to cry on a random day when I hear some ridiculous celebrity gossip that I know my mom would love; the realization that I can’t text her about it is way more powerful than any 1-800-FLOWERS Mother’s Day commercial could ever dream of being. It would be nice if we didn’t have to endure the holidays and anniversaries, but thanks to Anna Jarvis, who created Mother’s Day in 1908 after her own mother died, Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day, which was started a few years later by a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd) is here to stay.

Meghan Riordan Jarvis (not related to Anna), a grief-informed psychotherapist, author, and podcast host, says people often ask for advice about how to make it through Mother’s or Father’s Day when they’re grieving. The question can come from a person mourning a parent, from someone who has lost a child, or from people whose grief comes from fertility struggles. “What’s implied but not said is, ‘How do I make it less painful?” she says.

There is no single answer to that question, since the experience of grief varies for each person on any given day. Still, there are a few strategies you can try if you’re worried about enduring a 24-hour period of emotional agony on the second Sunday in May or the third Sunday in June.

Find a ritual to connect you to a person you’ve lost

Jarvis speaks openly about experiencing PTSD after losing her father and then her mother within two years of each other. She hosts the podcast Grief Is My Side Hustle and says that holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day can be an “invitation to be conscious.” That means that instead of ignoring them or bottling your feelings up, you can, if you choose to, discover ways to intentionally honor a parent. My mom loved hydrangeas, so on Mother’s Day I buy myself her favorite flowers as a way to remember her. I also talk to her, out loud, all the time, since it helps me feel connected to her.

Kris Masalsky, president of The Learning Community for Loss, Grief and Transition, says she doesn’t like to give advice, but she does share things that have helped her weather the loss of her son to suicide, and soon after, the deaths of her mother and sister. Masalsky encourages people to talk about the person they’re mourning. “In the midst of deep grief, sometimes it’s hard to look beyond that hedge and you wonder how you can ever find meaning in this,” she says.

Maybe your dad had a favorite hiking trail, so you go there on Father’s Day, or you watch your mom’s favorite movie on Mother’s Day. You can cook their favorite food, or listen to their favorite music. Masalsky started a tradition where she would set a place at the table for the people she lost, and ask people to tell a story about each one. “My first Mother’s Day was a killer,” says Masalsky. Finding a ritual or tradition that helps you feel close to the person you lost can help bring meaning to an otherwise tough day. If the ritual you found feels right one year and terrible the next, that’s fine. “Start something else,” Masalsky says. “Nothing is forever. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to it another year.”

Take a break from social media

Maybe you want to just distract yourself and not consciously focus on your grief on a day that you feel will be tough. Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok might be fine if the posts you’re seeing are all about pretty beaches and gourmet food, but on Mother’s and Father’s Day those posts can be a landmine of “I’m so lucky to have my parent!” sentiments. It can also be extremely tough for those who have lost a child. Seattle-based psychologist and grief specialist Jill Gross says that if you’re worried about being triggered by a photo or video, “It’s probably best to close the laptop, metaphorically.” If you’re online, it’s hard to avoid social media “memories” that pop up throughout the year, but if you feel like it’ll ruin your day to see something on Mother’s or Father’s Day, it might be helpful to log off.

Give back to your community

During the course of writing my book, I spoke to several parents who had lost children, and many of them found it helpful and even healing to create something in memory of their child: a soccer clinic in honor of the sport someone’s son loved, or an organization dedicated to reforming bereavement care in America.

Lizz Wasserman, a Los Angeles-based creative executive, lost her daughter in 2019, and Mother’s Day became extremely painful for her. “It became like a hole in the calendar and it was super triggering,” Wasserman says. Last year, she started the Mother’s Day Project. She creates colorful, flower-printed T-shirts and caps, and donates the profits to the National Birth Equity Collaborative and Planned Parenthood. “I can’t do anything about people dying, but I thought I could do something to make things a little better in this tiny little way.”

The connections she’s made through the project, with people sharing their own stories, reminds her that she’s not alone in her grief. “We can help each other by talking and let other people know that these holidays are not all pastels and brunch. It is a complicated day.”

If it’s a parent you’re missing, you could give back to an organization that would have meant something to them personally — an animal sanctuary if they loved animals, or an education fund if they were passionate about teaching. It won’t make the day a breeze, but it might help.

Listen to yourself to figure out what you need

Say you promised yourself you would go to your father’s favorite restaurant and eat the chicken-fried steak he ordered every Father’s Day to honor his memory. What if you wake up that morning and feel deep in your bones that going to that restaurant will launch you into a purgatory of sorrow and pain? You don’t have to force yourself. Just skip the restaurant and eat a salad at home instead. “If you have to go to bed and stay there for a while, that’s okay,” says Jarvis. There is no formula for handling these holidays, so listen to what you truly need in that moment.

The first Father’s Day after Jarvis lost her dad, she says she could feel all the sadness and anxiety about the day long before it arrived. She woke up “really weepy,” so she took her kids to Macy’s and bought a bottle of her dad’s favorite 1980s cologne. “I took the green bottle and sprayed the cologne all over myself and all over the house. My house smelled like my dad when he was young and healthy in 1987.” It was a spontaneous idea that she listened to, instead of shutting it out. Yes, she cried, but she also looked at photos of her dad and called her siblings so they could tell stories about him. “Grief grips you and you can twist in its tightness, but it will let you go,” Jarvis says.

Gross, the psychologist, also suggests staying open to whatever the day may bring. “Meet yourself where you are on the day and give yourself flexibility. It might be a big deal or it might be that the anticipation is the worst part,” Gross says. “Our relationship with a loved one is about so much more than the 24 hours Hallmark has made.”

Dina Gachman is a Pulitzer Center grantee, a bestselling ghostwriter, and the author of the new book of essays So Sorry For Your Loss: How I Learned to Live With Grief, and Other Grave Concerns. She can be found online @dinagachman and @dgachman.

Update, June 15, 11:45 am ET: This story, originally published on May 11, has been updated for Father’s Day.

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