‘Experiencing the grief journey’: How to cope with the death of a father on Father’s Day

Holidays are always difficult to get through when you’re grieving a loss, and this Sunday, Father’s Day, can be especially hard.

Marcie Fairbanks, director of family services at Capital Caring Health, said you don’t have to rush the process, and if a friend or loved one is the person grieving, you should make sure you’re not pressuring them to do the same.

Her number-one piece of advice to those in a period of bereavement is to be in tune with themselves by setting healthy boundaries and being honest.

“So often people feel this sense of societal pressure that, when they’ve suffered a loss, they need to just do things status quo, the way they’ve always done them,” she said. “I always ask for people who’ve lost a significant loved one to give themselves permission to do things different and to have healthy boundaries for themselves, and to be open and honest with their loved ones.”

She said if someone is used to participating in a specific Father’s Day celebration, they should be “honest with [themselves] and with [their] family and say this year needs to be different.”

“Oftentimes, others expect us to move a little faster through our grief than maybe we’re ready for, and we just need to be good to ourselves as we’re experiencing the grief journey,” Fairbanks said.

Throughout the pandemic, many people were completely physically cut off from their support systems, but as vaccinations rise and the country begins to reopen, Fairbanks said some people who are grieving may not be ready yet to reconnect with loved ones.

“Even if they have access to family and friends, they might not feel comfortable accessing their family and friends in the same way that they did prior to the pandemic,” she said. “I really strongly encourage people to do things incrementally — baby steps.”

Helping children cope

Fairbanks said it’s important for parents or guardians to remember that children don’t experience grief the same way adults do.

“It’s important to really look and be attentive to our children, and help them to understand more significantly how they can bring their deceased father or father figure into their life, even if they’re no longer physically present,” she said.

She recommends different coping methods to help bring the child’s father “into the present day” on Father’s Day and every day:

  • Creating an art project for their deceased father, such as making their dad a drawing or card, can help the child feel “continually connected.”
  • Journaling can help the child process their emotions.
  • Participating in an activity or hobby their father enjoyed, such as hiking or seeing a baseball game, can “keep them alive in the life that they’re leading moving forward.”

A study in JAMA Pediatrics found that nearly 40,000 children in the U.S. had lost a parent to COVID-19, and the number has only gone up since the study was published this April.

Fairbanks pointed out that many children, and adults, who experienced loss weren’t able to “visit with their fathers or father figures before they passed away.” Fairbanks added that many also “weren’t able to have memorial services or even funerals,” and that has further complicated grief responses.

As Father’s Day approaches, Fairbanks said it’s vital to “think about ways that they can remember and honor their loved one, especially if they weren’t able to do that previously.”

Checking in

Fairbanks said it’s essential to be intentional about reaching out and checking in on loved ones who lost someone.

“So often after the hubbub of the first few weeks after a death, and there’s a memorial service or a funeral, then a lot of supports tend to kind of fade off. And that’s when the individual who’s grieving feels isolated, because others have moved on with their lives,” she said.

She encourages people to make phone calls, schedule get-togethers and let their loved one know that they care about them.

“Be aware of the fact that you need to be on their schedule, and not take it personally if they say, ‘You know what? Today’s not a good day for me,'” Fairbanks said.

Capital Caring Health offers free grief counseling and support online and by phone. Call 1-844-447-4383 to access its grief support call center.

Hannah Parker

Hannah Parker is a writer and editor for WTOP. She is most interested in covering social issues in the D.C. area and is always looking for news tips and story ideas.

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