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When someone loses a child, their world changes forever. Father’s Day is just one of many days that make that loss feel even more profound. Bereaved parents may feel angry, cheated, heartbroken, or all of these at once—and they may worry they can’t be there fully for surviving children the way they want to be. Whether it’s the first or the fiftieth Father’s Day after a child dies, part of a parent’s heart always belongs to their lost child. As Darcy Krause of the Center for Grieving Children puts it, “A child is a child no matter how old they are. In a mother’s or father’s heart, it’s their child.”
Parents who have living children in addition to the one who passed can find Father’s Day bittersweet. One child doesn’t replace another or soften the blow of that loss. Sue Lloyd of Kara, an organization that provides grief support to families, tells us, “It’s like having a separate bank account for each child. Parents want to have pure joy and celebration for their living child but also need to set time aside to mourn the loss of the child who is gone.”
Miscarriage is another loss that can ache on Father’s Day. In this case, even though parents and family didn’t get to know their child, they might grieve for the life that child won’t have. And if it was a loss early in pregnancy, friends and family might not even know that it happened. That can be isolating as well.
Dr. Kory Floyd, a professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Arizona, explains, “Fathers are sometimes forgotten, but miscarriage or the death of a child is as significant a loss for them as it is for mothers. Both want to be parents but can differ in how they express grief. Men are taught to be less open with their emotions and can sometimes feel shame for experiencing or expressing grief. It’s important to know that even if he’s not vocal, a father still has needs and feelings.”
As a friend to a grieving parent, you can never take away that pain. But there are things you can do to help support bereaved parents—especially if they’re not looking forward to Father’s Day. Experts suggest that you
Psychotherapist and grief specialist Fran Dorf cautions friends not to say or do things that could make a parent’s grief seem like it’s out of proportion or taking too long to resolve. Listen to your friend without judgment or advice. There is no right way to grieve. We need to let others work through their pain instead of trying to force them through it.
You could say something like, “You’re on my mind today. I miss Michael, too.” If they have a living child, try, “This day must be filled with mixed feelings for you. I love seeing the relationship you have with Cora and remember your love for Jessie.” If you don’t know what to say, that’s okay. Just acknowledging that it can be a hard day can help your friend feel supported.
Often when someone dies, people stop saying their name around the grieving family. Experts agree that many families want to hear the child’s name out loud. Grief-support expert Shelly Gillan of Kara says that “it reminds them that their child is still loved and missed by many. A parent’s worst fear is that their child will be forgotten.”
Darcy Krause advises that while some grieving parents won’t want to talk about their child, “others will leap at the chance. Follow social cues. If they change the topic, follow their lead.” Let your friend know that you’re available to talk or share stories about their child. If you want to give a thoughtful gift, write a card that they can read when they’re ready. Take a photo of something that reminds you of the child’s favorite color, movie, or holiday and send a text that lets your friend know you’re thinking of them.
Darcy Krause reminds us that, even in families, grief can be lonely. Bereaved siblings can feel left out or experience survivor’s guilt that they’re still alive while their sibling isn’t. They sometimes feel pressure to take on the deceased sibling’s role in the family. Pay extra attention to siblings and help them feel nurtured and loved. Plan a special outing with them after Father’s Day: a trip to the aquarium, an afternoon of arcade games—anything that makes them feel cherished.
Take your friend for a walk or drop by with a healthy meal. Offer to spend Father’s Day together doing something relaxing like enjoying the outdoors or watching a ball game.
Father’s Day doesn’t necessarily become easier over time for a parent who lost a child. But friends and family can get caught up with their own lives and forget to check in as time passes. Commit to being there in the years to come on Father’s Day and to helping your friend keep their child’s memory alive.
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