On Father’s Day, Here’s How To Support A Dad Who Has Lost A Child
When grief is amplified by a holiday celebrating fatherhood, things get complicated.
The loss of a child is one of the most gut-wrenching things that can happen to a person. With such a profound loss in their life, a day devoted to celebrating fatherhood can intensify that heartbreak for dads. Especially for fathers who have children still living who may want to make the day special for him, supporting a dad in his grief on Father’s Day is a delicate dance. Bittersweet is the word that comes to mind.
For dads mourning a miscarriage or stillborn, the loss they feel on Father’s Day can be grieving the time they wish they could have had with their child. They may feel isolated or empty as Father’s Day approaches and dads everywhere begin to make plans for the day. For dads who have lost a child that they had more time with, the day may bring up memories of past Father’s Day and how they used to celebrate.
But, the day is what it is — a holiday to honor all that dads are. A dad who has lost a child is still a dad, so here’s what experts say you can do to support them.
Don’t Avoid A Grieving Dad
“First and foremost, it would be to make sure that grieving fathers aren’t alone or avoided for fear of bringing up unpleasant memories of fatherhood,” licensed professional clinical counselor Mike Gallagher tells Romper. “The grief process is different for everyone, but one of the best ways to support a father who’s lost a child is to make sure they know they are important, and that fatherhood didn’t end with the loss of their child.”
If you aren’t someone living with a grieving dad (maybe you’re their friend, coworker, or sibling), reach out to them and see what you can do to support them through Father’s Day.
“Call instead of texting so you can gauge from their voice how they are doing emotionally and you can take cues from them,” neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Romper. “If they seem like they want to talk and reminisce or cry, be that outlet for them. If they want a friend to join them on a particular remembrance activity, offer to be there. If they seem not to know what they want, ask how you can make their day better, or ‘how can I support you today?’”
Acknowledge The Day & Them
While your gut instinct might be to avoid the hurt that mentioning a dad’s loss or celebrating the day could bring, experts say this strategy could backfire.
“Downplaying the significance of Father’s Day for a grieving father could be sending a message that their experience as a dad, or the loss they are feeling, is insignificant,” Gallagher says. “While we want to honor the grieving process, we don’t want to ignore or extinguish their memories as a father. While Father’s Day might look different without their child, there should still be some ways to honor their love for their child and their role as dad.”
When you speak to a grieving dad about the holiday, you can address their role as a father to show support. “If you know the name of their child, make sure to address their deceased child by name so you don’t come across as impersonal,” Hafeez tells Romper. “If they still have living children, remind them of what a good father they are and how loved they are by their child or children.”
Honor Their Child
Especially within a family where other children may have lost their sibling and a mother her child, finding a way to honor the loss on Father’s Day can be helpful for everyone involved — dad included.
“One way the rest of the family can support a grieving father is by collaborating with dad to create a new tradition to honor the child they lost,” Gallagher says. “Maybe go to a shared fishing spot, spend time on a hike they used to share together. While their deceased child is no longer able to be there physically, they still may be able to feel connected to them through a shared experience or memory.”
There are a ton of ways to do this, so brainstorm together as a family and see what Dad is actually up for.
“You can do something kind together in the name of the child. It could be a monetary donation, volunteering together, or doing a project for a neighbor,” Hafeez says. “Celebrate something together that the deceased child loved. For example, maybe the child was a baseball fan, you can all go out to a ball game. If it’s not too painful, you can watch old home movies or go through photo albums together.”
A grieving dad might also just need to get his mind off of his loss for the day. Even if you engage in activities that honor their child, you can also pair that with something fun for Dad if he’s up for it. “If you know that there is something Dad loves that never fails to make him laugh or hold his concentration, engage him in that activity for Father’s Day to take his mind off his grief,” Hafeez suggests.
Ask Dad What He Needs
If you want to make a plan for Father’s Day, keep dad and his needs centered. It’s better to ask him what he’s OK with than to assume he feels any certain way about making new memories, especially when it comes to honoring a lost child on Father’s Day.
“The key would be to allow dad to share in this process of creating a new tradition, rather than deciding for dad,” Gallagher says. “This wouldn’t just allow dad to remember their child, but also remind them of the support they still have.”
While Hafeez explains that a dad whose pain is still quite raw may need more space than others on Father’s Day (especially when a loss is recent), she suggests asking what the dad prefers when it comes to observing the holiday.
“A father of a deceased child will, no doubt, be aware of Father’s Day approaching,” Hafeez tells Romper. “Not speaking about it is just keeping the elephant in the room. When in doubt, simply ask what would make that person most comfortable in terms of observing the day.”
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist in NYC and Columbia University faculty member