When Father’s Day is Different for You
It’s hard to find the right words to explain a day of public celebration and personal dread. (If Hallmark knew them, we could purchase them from tiered displays with labels like “Daddy Issues.”) What do you do on holidays when holidays are hard? When your relationship with your dad isn’t what you hoped, what do you do on Father’s Day?
Level with yourself*
*You may not be in a place of internal stability or external support to answer or act on these questions by yourself. Supportive friends or select family members may be able to process with you. There also may be personal obstacles that keep them from being able to help. (Not a shameless promotion, but: That’s why therapists exist.)
**Ask these questions before the day arrives. Prepare yourself in an emotionally quieter time so that you can logically address your boundaries. The anticipation of an event may be harder to handle than the actual day itself, so planning ahead can offer an outlet for negative energy.
Question 1: What may the people be doing, saying or asking of me on this day?
It can be a lot easier to watch other people instead of keeping tabs on your own interior state. Rather than feeling sheepish about it, let’s start there. What will others be doing? What messages will you encounter? Some people will be happy on Father’s Day…and that’s ok. When you see them, what thoughts and feelings may come up for you?
Question 2: What do I wish I could be doing?
Brace yourself. This one is a two-parter.
2a. What would be the best possible Father’s Day?
Think through your hopes for the day. This isn’t really the “miracle question,” and some outcomes are impossible and highly improbable (see 2b). But what would constitute a good Father’s Day within the bounds of reality? Your difficult relationship may have had some positive qualities – it’s ok to recognize those and even celebrate them if you wish. If you don’t feel a bit like celebrating, what things would you do to honor yourself and your experience on this day?
2b. What won’t happen?
Blissful reunions. Out-of-the-blue heartfelt apologies. Unexpected adequate follow-through. Some things just won’t change, even if they did for your friend’s cousin or the girl in that movie. Conflict will not be resolved in a day, even on Father’s Day. Even if you plan well and do it all well, it may still feel bad. Much like the anniversary reactions that follow traumatic events, holidays can bring up intrusive memories, desire to avoid people, places or situations related to the distress, altered mood or cognitions, and arousal or reactivity. Set manageable expectations. Be patient and gentle with yourself.
Question 3: What will I do on this day?
You’ve looked at the reality of your situation, now ask: “What will make this day meaningful or productive or just plain livable?” Set boundaries for what you will be a part of, and prepare what you could do or say when you will not participate.
After losing a parent, a holiday can bring up a host of memories and emotions. Consider creating a ritual that helps you to connect and celebrate the life he lived.
What do you enjoy? Who will listen well or help you feel better? Let the people know who need to know. Schedule an appointment with your mental health provider, or join in with a support group. If you want to spend the day in sadness, then list your favorite ways to wallow, and cross off the options that would leave you in a worse place the day after. If you want to be mad for awhile, make a plan to blow off some steam. It could be volunteering for a cause you believe in, or planting a garden…but it doesn’t need to be. Maybe you just need to take to an open field with a carton of eggs and a golf club. Or a spin class, angry journaling, or happy painting. Plan an activity that moves you toward healthier functioning and doesn’t harm yourself or others.
Question 4: What will I do after the day is over?
Think of the best place, person, and time for processing your experience with this hard holiday. Make those plans. Be honest and unashamed with yourself about your reactions – even if they feel like setbacks. Bottling, shelving, and ignoring difficult experiences leaves us with a mess in the emotional pantry, if you will.
Don’t be deterred if your story isn’t in the card aisle. (Related: check these out.) Tell the truth and set your boundaries. THAT is worth the celebration.
Tala Ciatti, M.Ed, LPC, NCC is a mental health counselor with a natural fascination in people. She’s not naturally mindful, collected, or ordered, so she works at it. Literally. Her professional experience has included the treatment of children and families, healing from trauma and loss, maternal wellness, mindfulness, and healthy human development.