Bereaved Families Corner
Father’s Day After a Child’s Death
By David Roberts
When life progresses according to the human laws of the universe, much beauty can be discerned from that progression. But what happens when life does not go according to plan? What if an event so catastrophic occurs, that it alters the natural laws of the universe and changes the way that we view the world? What if that event also causes us to question the values and assumptions that we once held so near and dear to our hearts?
I am one of many parents in our country whose life plan has been altered by a catastrophic event. My daughter, Jeannine Marie Roberts, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer in May of 2002, three weeks after giving birth to her daughter and my only grandchild, Brianna. Jeannine died at home, at the age of 18 on March 1, 2003, just 10 months after she was diagnosed. Jeannine never had the opportunity to be a mother to her daughter; cancer suddenly and unceremoniously entered the equation. The unconditional love that my wife Cheri and I showered our daughter with was simply not sufficient to ensure that she would outlive us.
During early grief, holidays were particularly difficult for me to manage. My memories of Jeannine became more frequent during the days leading up to the holidays, and as a result my pain became more intense. The holidays could never go by fast enough. Father’s Day was in many ways my toughest holiday to endure.
In the beginning of my journey, Father’s Day was associated with many raw and painful triggers. While I am blessed with two great sons, Jeannine was my only daughter, and Father’s Day was a constant reminder of many experiences that we would no longer share. There would be no more father-daughter lunches, no more rock concerts and no more of her beautiful smile to brighten up my day. Father’s Day was also a reminder of lost future dreams. I would never get the chance to walk Jeannine down the aisle at her wedding or share that ceremonial father-daughter dance at her reception. I would not have the opportunity to watch her have more children or grow as a mother and as a companion to her significant other. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
Father’s Day was not bittersweet, it was just bitter.
Today, I do not dread Father’s Day like I did early in my grief, nor do I experience the raw emotion associated with it. I believe that one of the things that has helped is my realization that Jeannine is still my daughter and that I can still have a relationship with her. That relationship has been strengthened in part by the signs that she has given me of her presence. The most emphatic sign that I received from Jeannine was during Father’s Day in 2009. I was doing some work on the computer when my wife Cheri told me that there was a double rainbow outside. She believed it was Jeannine’s Father’s Day gift to me. I did as well, because I had been thinking about Jeannine earlier that day. Plus, I have learned that the signs we receive are usually a product of what is happening with us in the present moment.
What has also helped soften the pain of Father’s Day is the conscious decision I made to embody the best qualities of Jeannine in my own daily life. Doing this has allowed her essence to become a part of everything I do and every holiday that I celebrate, thus softening the pain that her physical absence can bring.
Maintaining a relationship with Jeannine by embodying the best of who she was has also allowed me to stay connected to her. Because of my change in perspective about life and death, Father’s Day (as well as other holidays), no longer brings me to my knees.
Here are some other suggestions for activities that can be helpful for fathers to stay connected and to honor the legacies of their deceased child on Father’s Day. I believe these suggestions can also apply to anyone dealing with the challenges presented by the death of a loved one during any holiday:
- Plan a family gathering to share stories and memories of your loved one. Our loved ones come alive through the stories that we share.
- Write a special prayer about your loved one and say it to yourself or out loud. Also, if you choose, create your own special ceremony or ritual. On Jeannine’s angelversary date this year I wrote a prayer for her using Native American influences, burned incense and played music. During my ceremony, I gave Jeannine permission to grow outside of our relationship so that she could share her wisdom with others who are struggling with life’s challenges. I felt empowered and at peace during and after my ceremony.
- Plant a tree or start a garden. In our backyard, we have a mommy’s garden that my wife Cheri designed to honor Jeannine as our daughter and also as mother to her daughter (our granddaughter.)
- Volunteer at a local organization that had meaning for both you and your loved one. I am a volunteer for Hospice and Palliative Care, Inc. in New Hartford, New York. Jeannine had Hospice Services during the last 10 days of her life. They provided amazingly compassionate care to Jeannine and to our entire family.
- Release biodegradable balloons or sky lanterns that contain messages from you, family and friends to your loved one. You can do this alone or in the presence of others.
- Find some old magazines and invite family and friends to make a collage of pictures and words that remind you of your loved one.
- Light a special candle.
- Make a donation to a favorite charity or cause in memory of your loved one. The amount does not matter – even a small amount towards a meaningful cause can be a wonderful gift.
- Perform a random act of kindness for somebody. The act can be as simple as holding a door open, or letting a car in front of you in traffic. The warm feeling that you get from doing this may put a smile on your face and give you a brief respite from your emotional pain.
The activities that you choose to honor your deceased loved ones on Father’s Day and on any day of the year should be those that uniquely connected you to your loved ones during their life on earth. There is no human law that governs what rituals or activities we choose; it is sacred and personal law that rules.
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