In May 2016 I was shopping in Target when I saw a display of Father’s Day cards. I’d always sent a special card to my Dad and decided I’d pick one out right then. While surveying the multitude of choices, a force of reckoning hit my chest.
I don’t need to buy him a card this year.
My father was dead. For six whole months.
How could I have forgotten?
I blinked back a surprise of tears. In that small space of forgetting, my father had come alive again.
“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”—Euripides
Maybe you’ve had such an experience, too. You pick up the phone thinking you’re going to call your Dad (or your mother, aunt, brother, friend) only to remember…
Or maybe you’ve had a vivid dream of being with your dad–a dream so real that when you awoke it took a moment to believe it hadn’t actually happened.
A period of disbelief often follows the loss of a loved one. This feeling can be more more pronounced when the death comes suddenly and inexplicably, as was the case with my dad. Not seeing him buried, or having stood at his grave site, added to the feeling of unreality. And because we lived in different cities, it was easier to believe he was still in Florida enjoying the sunshine.
From Homer to Shakespeare, mythology and literature are replete with stories of characters grappling to accept death’s permanence. Sigmund Freud wrote that an essential component of the complex “grief work” is coming to terms with the fact that our loved one is physically and permanently gone. “Mourning has a quite precise physchical task to perform: its function is to detach the survivor’s memories and hopes from the dead.”
Sounds like a good plan.
Yet when Freud lost his dear daughter Sophie to influenza, and then later, her beloved only surviving son, Dr. Freud remained inconsolable and unable to follow his own prescription for mourning.
In Joan Didion’s exquisite grief memoir, My Year of Magical Thinking, she potently describes the disbelief that grips us after losing a loved one. Joan’s husband of 40 years dropped dead of a massive heart attack as the couple sat down to dinner one evening.
“It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.”
Didion is taken aback by the irrational belief that her husband will return. She can’t bring herself to give away the clothes he may be needing.
“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick.”
We attempt to keep our loved ones alive by holding onto momentos—a watch, tie, jacket, hairbrush, written letters—as if we are able to contain their physical presence within the object.
We’re afraid of forgetting them—and of letting go.
He was my North, my South, my East, and my West
my working week and my Sunday rest.
~ W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”
On my desk, I keep favorite photos of Dad, a few of his fencing medals, a handwritten letter, and his Olympic baseball cap.
Me and Dad, July 1990
As Joan writes: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”
I’m lucky to have had may father for many years and many chances to share my love and appreciation. My heart breaks for those who have lost their father at a young age. Growing up without a father can have longterm psychological effects. Children are particularly vulnerable to the belief that their father will “return”. The experience leaves a gaping hole of missed moments and opportunity. The surviving adult-child’s life is shadowed with “what might have been” .
My friend/mentor Nechama Laber lost her father at age ten. She didn’t know he had been ill and never got to said goodbye. It wasn’t until Nechama was a grown woman that she came to realize the full impact of his absence on her emotional well-being. Nechama has since devoted herself to continuing her father Rabbi Azriel Wasserman’s legacy of Jewish learning. This summer she will publish a book celebrating his life and teachings: Finding the Song in Sorrow – My journey from Loss to legacy to Light!
Blogger Leslie Spencer (lifewithoutmydad.com) also lost her father at age ten. Her 2017 post about being a fatherless daughter on Father’s Day is particularly poignant. She offers her approach to facing this time of year.
By age 25, author Claire Bidwell Smith, had lost both her parents to cancer. For the past 10 plus, Claire has supported others through grief workshops, retreats, podcasts, online programs, and individual counseling.
If you are missing your Dad this Father’s Day, try to do something that honors his memory: donate to charity, write him a letter, cook his favorite dish, make a photo album, or share a story about him.
And if you never knew your dad, or are estranged, then honor another special dad you care about.
After getting through the first Father’s Day without my dad, I do not feel anywhere near the pain I feel on his death anniversary. That day triggers traumatic memories.
My dad died on my son’s birthday—one of the happiest days of my life.
I hope I get to see my son become a dad.
I look forward to sending him a Father’s Day card.
Grandson Sam as a collegiate fencer