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Expert Advice

How to show your love for a friend grieving for their dad on Father’s Day

The signs that Father’s Day is approaching are everywhere: our inboxes fill with gift suggestions for dad, and radio ads offer deals on power tools or the must-have electronic gadget. For many people, Father’s Day encourages us to thank the men who raised us and loved us from the moment our eyes first met. For those who have lost their dad, Father’s Day can be a painful reminder that he’s gone. Here are ways to help them acknowledge and navigate the day.

When a child is missing their dad on Father’s Day

Whether the loss happened a few months or a few years ago, a grieving child can often feel left out—at birthday parties and soccer matches, school plays and back to school night, and especially on a day like Father’s Day. They may feel angry that they don’t have a dad to celebrate or feel isolated—especially if their friends don’t know what to say or do. They may want to avoid the subject altogether. Children can cope with devastating losses, often beautifully, but losing a parent has a ripple effect that will continue throughout their lives—and the loss is especially poignant during events that their dad should be there for.

How to help

Children need support from family members and trusted adults as they learn to navigate life without a dad. Here are some tips for helping grieving children, especially on an emotional day like Father’s Day.

1. Make it okay to talk about their dad. Counselor Emily Miller advises, “The number-one thing I can encourage friends, family, and surviving parents to do is to ask the child how they are doing. Create a space where it’s okay to talk about their dad. And also respect that child’s boundary if they don’t want to talk about him. An adult who opens up the conversation is creating a container for the child’s feelings and experience.” Be aware that children may think that talking about their dad will make the family sad. Reassure them that talking might bring feelings to the surface, but it doesn’t cause sadness—and in fact can lessen it.

2. Help the family have a plan for Father’s Day. Ideally, the surviving parent will talk to the children about how they want to spend Father’s Day at least few weeks ahead of time. It’s good for everyone to be on the same page. If you sense this isn’t happening, talk to the parent about possible choices. There’s no wrong way to spend the day, and supporting the parent can also help a grieving child cope.

3. Share memories if it’s comforting. Take cues from the immediate family. If the child wants to reminisce, share stories and fond memories. If it’s too soon or upsetting, save those stories for when the child is ready.

4. Be an adult the kids can count on. Uncles, aunts, and other friends or family members can never replace a dad. But they can be trusted adults the child can turn to for advice or help.

5. Help kids find a community. Children who have lost a parent can feel isolated. See if there are resources for grieving kids in your area and share what you learn. If you don’t have a program like this, think about other communities the kids can tap into. Encourage children to be open with their friends, teachers, and others about their loss as they heal. Having conversations about loss kicks the elephant out of the room.

6. Remind the child they are loved. If you know a grieving child, let them know how much you care. If your child is friends with a grieving child, encourage them to reach out too. Cara Belvin is the founder of empowerHER, an organization that pairs women who have lost a mother with girls who have recently suffered a similar loss. When Cara’s mom died, her best friend gave Cara her favorite candy every Mother’s Day to let her know that she remembered. It was a simple yet meaningful gesture that reassured Cara she wasn’t alone. The same concept can help a child who has lost their dad feel acknowledged on Father’s Day. You could give a child a book or game, for example.

7. Be thoughtful about school activities. Ask teachers about any planned in-class activities around Father’s Day and let the surviving parent know. This gives the family time to decide if they want to participate or do something else. You may also suggest classroom activities that a grieving child can participate in—like drawing or writing about a memory of their dad.

When an adult misses their dad on Father’s Day

On Father’s Day, no matter what age we are, we remember our dads. And just like with children, it can be bittersweet for adults whose dads have passed away, no matter how long ago.

Hope Edelman, the author of Motherless Daughters, explains that loss changes over time, but it’s always there. “Don’t ask, ‘Why aren’t you over it yet?’ The loss is permanent. When your friend loses a parent, the facts don’t change. But their relationship to those facts changes over time. If your friend becomes a parent, they may miss their dad in a different way. Their perspective shifts, and they look at loss differently. Grief is a lifelong process—it doesn’t end, but it evolves.”

How to help

While adults understand that loss is an unavoidable part of life, we all need a little help from our friends on hard days. When someone doesn’t have a dad to call or visit, Father’s Day can really hurt. Here are a few tips to help your friend:

1. Say their father’s name. Grieving people often wish that others would say the name of the person who died. It reminds them that others are remembering their dad and missing him too. Try saying, “I’ve been thinking about Bob this Father’s Day. I miss him a lot.”

2. Share memories, especially if you knew the parent. Our memories are what keep us close to those we love, even after they’ve died. If you’ve known your friend for a while, you may have spent some time with their father. Share the gift of remembering how much he meant to you. It’ll mean the world to your friend.

3. Remind them that you and others are there. As Hope Edelman says, “We are part of a web of connections, and if your friend lost a parent, one of their main connections is missing. Remind them that they are still connected to others. They still need a community for those moments when grief bubbles up again.”

4. Do something thoughtful. Simple gestures, like a note or text to let your friend know you’re thinking of them this Father’s Day, can make them feel less alone. Be there to listen if they want to talk.

5. Don’t try to fix things or cheer them up. The bond between a father and child can be one of the strongest relationships there is. No matter how long it’s been since their father died, your friend may still be very sad. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date. The goal isn’t to help your friend have a “happy” Father’s Day. It’s perfectly fine if they hate the day or choose to ignore it—they just need to feel supported.

6. Avoid complaining about your family. We can all good-naturedly complain about our fathers, fathers-in-law, or children from time to time. For someone who has lost their father, those comments can sting, especially on Father’s Day. And even if your relationships with your family members are strained, if those people are still alive, you have the hope of making things better. Your friend doesn’t get that opportunity. Save any complaints for another time or audience.

Whether you’re a kid or an adult, whether it’s been two months or twenty years, when you’ve lost your dad, Father’s Day can be hard. Love and simple acknowledgment from friends and family can make a world of difference.