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Expert Advice

How to support a widowed parent on Father’s Day

Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays can bring on a cascade of emotions for widowed parents. Father’s Day is no exception. Widowed parents are under a lot of pressure to be strong for the kids, take on all the household and parenting responsibilities that were once shared by two, and build as normal a life as possible for their children—all while grieving for their spouse. They’re forced to cope with the profound loss of a partner while also taking on a new set of challenges as a single parent. As a friend or family member of a widowed parent, you have an opportunity to help them through what could be a difficult Father’s Day for them and their children.

Let them know you care

It’s normal to feel a little nervous about broaching sad topics, but it’s one of the most helpful things you can do for a parent who is grieving for their partner. If you’re worried that you will somehow remind them of their deceased partner, don’t—they couldn’t possibly forget. This Father’s Day, let them know that you’re thinking of them. It reminds them that you care and that you recognize the weight the day might carry for their family.

Dr. Don Rosenstein is a psychiatrist and Dr. Justin Yopp a clinical psychologist at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After realizing that few resources existed for parents who lost a spouse to cancer, they started a support group nearly a decade ago. According to them, “People often hesitate to say something because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. The best approach here is to acknowledge the challenging time but avoid suggesting that it’s one you can completely identify with. Also, it never hurts to compliment a widowed mother or father on what a wonderful job as a parent that they are doing during unimaginably trying times.”

If the living parent is a dad

It might be less obvious that this is a difficult day for him. After all, Father’s Day is his day! But any day can hurt when you’ve lost your spouse, family holidays especially. Friends and family members can help by:

  1. Reaching out with a simple call, email, or card
  2. Acknowledging that this year has been difficult for the family
  3. Reminding him that he’s doing his best and that his children are loved

If you have a close relationship, you can help the kids make cards or a special breakfast for their dad. Without the other parent around, there might not be anyone to help younger kids celebrate him.

If the parent who passed away is a dad

The surviving parent may be worried about how to approach Father’s Day without their partner. Or the day might sneak up on them in the fog of grief. How to handle Father’s Day is a family decision, and the children and their parent should decide ahead of time how to spend the day. As a friend, you can plant a seed to start that family conversation.

According to Drs. Rosenstein and Yopp, “There are many ‘right’ ways to honor Father’s Day, and almost all of them include thinking ahead and communicating with the children. If a friend or family member senses that this is not happening, starting a discussion with the widowed parent may be helpful.” In the weeks before Father’s Day, reach out and invite the widowed parent to grab coffee or a meal. Encourage them to start thinking about Father’s Day—without suggesting a “right way” to spend it.

Here are some things you can do to help your friend plan a day that works for their family.

  1. Remind them that they don’t need to be perfect. This is hard. There’s no rule book for this kind of loss.
  2. Talk about what tone to set for the day and how to make it happen. For example, does the family prefer a solemn visit to the cemetery or going to dad’s favorite restaurant for a special meal? Start the conversation and encourage your friend to think about options and what plans need to be made.
  3. Remind them that there are many ways to mark the occasion. Drs. Rosenstein and Yopp have observed some parents “take a moment to honor the departed by talking about dad or flipping through photo albums. Others opt not to do any of these things and focus instead on celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or other holidays.” There’s no right or wrong way to spend Father’s Day.
  4. Encourage them to talk to their kids. The day may cause a variety of feelings and thoughts, and each child may have their own perspective. It can be hard to know how the kids are doing without having open lines of communication. This is especially important, according to Drs. Rosenstein and Yopp, when there are adolescents at home. “Including the kids in planning for Father’s Day also helps parents determine what their children want, and whether the timing is right, to set a celebratory tone that honors the dad. In our years running support groups, we have heard more than one story about parents telling their teenagers the plans for honoring holidays—only to have the adolescents push back with ideas of their own.”
  5. Suggest that they check in with the kids’ teachers. They may want to see if there are any plans for in-class Father’s Day activities and talk with the teachers about how to address them.
  6. Encourage them to have this conversation in future years. We all move through grief in different cadences, and what feels right this year may not be right the next.

For any widowed parent

There’s no expiration date on feelings of loss and grief. The family that remains will always have a relationship with the parent who died. Over time, that relationship will change as they continue to have experiences in life without that person.

Drs. Rosenstein and Yopp have observed that “all the support and offers of help tend to ‘dry up’ in the first several months or so after the death. As everyone else returns to their own lives, it can send the message to surviving parents that it’s time to ‘get on with it.’ As we’ve learned from our research and clinical work, the hardships facing a widowed parent will last for years to come.” Keep offering your assistance and friendship. You can:

  1. Help with things around the house
  2. Show up with snacks and give them company
  3. Do an activity with the children to give the parent a break
  4. Encourage them to make time for self-care. Often, the widowed parent’s needs come last; they put their children’s well-being ahead of their own.
  5. Keep inviting the parent over for dinner parties once reserved for couples
  6. Listen without offering advice

Father’s Day may always be hard, but in time and with support, the family will learn how to spend the day in a way that works for them.