If you’ve been widowed in the past year, and you have kids, you may be staring down a very unwelcome date on the calendar: The First Father’s Day Without Dad.
I remember our first Father’s Day without my husband, Dennis. June 19, 2016. He had died a few months earlier, after an eight-month-long battle with inoperable brain cancer. Our kids were 9 and 11.
I was plagued with doubts.
What do we do about Father’s Day?
Is there any way to avoid it being a disaster?
Can we just ignore the day altogether?
No matter which way I thought about it, I couldn’t convince myself that Father’s Day wouldn’t be miserable that year. And probably every year thereafter, for that matter.
I’ve learned a lot since that first Father’s Day. If this year marks the first Father’s Day without your kids’ dad, here are a few suggestions you may find helpful.
Include your kids in the planning
I was talking with a widowed mom recently, and she asked me if I thought there would be a right way to remember her kids’ dead dad this first Father’s Day without him.
Should they bring a picnic to the cemetery? Cook his favorite meal? Release balloons with notes attached?
The right way to celebrate is whatever feels right for your family. Is everyone excited about the balloons? Great, do that. Have the kids already brainstormed their favorite picnic foods? Find the basket and the paper plates, because you’ve got a workable plan. Do they want to draw pictures for dad, or write him letters? Fantastic. Gather the supplies and get started.
What I’ve learned is that the right way to do Father’s Day is whatever everyone is on board with. It doesn’t matter if it involves a visit to the cemetery, or doesn’t; if it incorporates favorite foods, or doesn’t; if art is on the agenda, or isn’t. If the kids are involved in the planning, you’re likely to settle on something everyone feels okay about.
It’s helpful to start dropping some mentions of Father’s Day into the conversation in advance of the day. Ask the kids what they’d like to do. Brainstorm together. Suggest some ideas, and see what sticks. And take comfort in knowing that the only way to really mess it up would be to make assumptions and plans without your kids’ input. If you do, your best-laid plans are likely to go astray, leaving everyone frustrated and upset — and making the day harder than it needs to be.
It’s okay if not everyone does the same thing
If you have more than one kid, you’ve probably already figured this out: multiple kids in a family means multiple experiences of grief. There are many reasons for this: the ages of the kids, their personalities and the relationship they had with the parent they've lost, to name a few.
What do you do if, for example, one kid absolutely feels they need to go the cemetery, and another flat-out refuses? Do you try to force the issue?
It’s totally okay to mark the day differently with each kid. Maybe you bake Dad’s favorite pie with one, watch Dad’s favorite movie with another, and yet another helps you make Dad’s favorite food for a family dinner. There’s no rule that says everyone has to do the same thing.
Again: go with whatever feels right for the members of your family.
Depending on the ages of your kids, you may need to call in some helpers to pull this off. If some of your kids aren’t old enough to stay home alone, for example, it may be time to enlist one of those friends who said “let me know if there’s anything I can ever do to help.” They can hang out with the younger kids, if what the oldest really wants to do to remember Dad is to take a special bike ride with Mom.
Planning several different activities and remembrances to account for various kids’ needs will likely be more work for you, but think of it this way: It will almost certainly end up being easier than handling the frustration, anger and upset that everyone will feel if the one big family activity you’ve planned — and insisted that everyone participate in — devolves into disaster.
Yes, you can ignore this “holiday”
If every fiber of you being is screaming I just wish Father’ Day would go away, then make it so.
Assuming, that is, that your kids are on board with this approach.
There’s nothing wrong with declaring it an ordinary Sunday. Maybe do something low-effort, like grab doughnuts for breakfast or takeout for dinner. Or don’t. Just because card shops say that the third Sunday in June is a Big Day doesn’t necessarily mean you need to follow their lead. If planning special activities feels too hard, then don’t.
Again, check this with your kids first. If they are assuming you’ll have a barbeque or go hiking or do whatever you did on Father’s Day in prior years, then you’ll want to talk it over and agree on what to do — or not do — this year.
And if you skip the holiday this time, it doesn’t mean you have to cancel it permanently. Next year, everyone may feel differently about how they want to recognize Dad on Father’s Day.
One word of caution: Don’t let skipping Father’s Day mean that you also skip the hard conversations that come up when you have grieving kids. Don’t let it mean that you avoid bringing up Dad in everyday situations, or avoid talking about grief.
It’s critical to be honest with your kids about difficult topics. To let them feel their grief, and to encourage them to share how they are feeling. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s so important for them to understand that these topics aren’t taboo, that they don’t have to keep their grief inside and that they don’t have to be afraid of mentioning Dad for fear of making Mom sad.
So take a pass on Father’s Day, if your family wants to, but don’t pass on the difficult feelings and hard conversations that could easily come up any old day of the year.
Widowed parents often dread Father’s Day. It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, talk openly with your kids about what they want to do. Acknowledge that this day may be really hard for all of you. If you do this, you can come up with a plan for the day that will work for your family.
And you never know — you may find, as I did, that the days leading up to Father’s Day were way worse than the day itself. It was as if I’d expected the worst, and then when the day was just so-so, it felt like a win.
May your Father’s Day be peaceful, this year and always.