Father’s Day: Grief and the Calendar

The rhythm of our year often follows dates on the calendar – a new week, a new month, the change of seasons, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, vacations. Some days like today, Father’s Day, marked with a symbol or words meant to celebrate the people we love. Grief seems to have a rhythm and flow all its own; sometimes it echoes milestone events on our calendar, and other times it chooses a seemingly random day to make its presence known.

Special events and holidays present difficult moments for children (and adults) who are grieving. Should the day be recognized in some momentous way, or rather, should it be a quiet time of reflection? Parents often ask what is the “right” thing to do.

Like so much about grief, this question has no right answer. Trying to plan what a child feels or wants to do (or not do) on an event like Father’s Day is like trying to predict what you want for breakfast three weeks from now – it depends on a lot of factors. This week I asked a few of the children we work with about Father’s Day, and they pretty much all said the same thing: the actual day would be okay – they hated having to keep thinking about it’s arrival.

Ultimately, some children want the day to pass like a wave rolling over them, some want to celebrate with other friends or family members, and others simply want to be allowed to just be. This last one is the hardest for adults – to allow a child to feel sadness, and all the other emotions that come along with grief, can feel unbearable. Because no one wants to see a child in pain, we often try to plan a way around it. The truth is that there is no shortcut to escape grief, no successful escape plan, so instead we must focus on how to support those days on the calendar that are claimed by grief.

Bearing witness to a child’s story is a powerful gift. Giving a grieving child the opportunity to participate in a celebration, mourning ritual, or to opt out of all of it, gives them power in an otherwise powerless situation. Giving a child permission to just be – to feel whatever they are feeling without judgement, whether that is sadness or joy – empowers them to express their emotions. They may be upset or mad or frustrated… but they may also be relaxed or happy on a day filled with good memories or time with family. Grief doesn’t really follow the calendar.