Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Holidays without My Father



We might as well have strung lights on the white elephant in the room instead of the tree that first Christmas after my dad died. I was eleven that year, and Christmas was surreal. Words like "sad" or "painful" would probably seem the obvious choices. They work too, but mainly surreal.

My family didn't have the emotional resources to deal with the pain, so we just pretended everything was normal for Christmas. And suffered inside in silence. I don't blame my family. We were all doing the best that we could in a horrible situation.

But it was a brutal way for an eleven year old to learn that the outer world doesn't necessarily have to match your internal experience.

So, when Father's Day rolled around the following year, I was happy to ignore the festivities altogether. Ignoring was preferable to pretending.

Over the years, Christmas has become filled with new associations. The holiday doesn't remind me of my dad so much anymore. When I celebrate with my family, my internal reality generally matches the outside one. As it should be.

Father's Day has not changed. I have continued to act as if this holiday doesn't exist. In a mixed-up way, my stance is how I choose to honor my dad, how I honor the experience of losing him. If he is absent, so is the holiday. No pretending, just remove the white elephant altogether.

Now, there's Claire. And her father, George. The elephant returns (really, it never went away). Last year was our first Father's Day together. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it. Surprisingly, I enjoyed participating in the holiday again. My husband is a great father, and deserves to be celebrated. The ritual of the holiday seemed a quite lovely, if slightly uninspired, way to honor the family that we have become.

I felt a slight twinge of discomfort about betraying my father's memory, leaving him behind somehow. But not as much as I thought I would. I mainly felt sad that he won't ever be a part of our new family.

Still, the experience of losing a father brings into focus the reality of the shadow side of holidays. The side that you won't find on a Hallmark card.

Fathers die. They aren't around for their kids. Relationships can be strained or fragile. Whatever the circumstances of the loss, holidays can be like a finger in an open wound to those who have bonds that are broken.

These harsh realities aren't reason to begrudge people celebrating one another on Father's Day or any other holiday. I need to remember that they exist though. I am one of the people who has lived despite loss. I no longer have a father.

His death has made me that much more grateful for George, my daughter's father. I am that much more grateful that Claire has a dad with whom we can both celebrate this Father's Day.


JD Bailey from Honest Mom helped inspire this post.

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60 comments:

  1. this is a touching post. I don't really celebrate Father's Day either, but for a different reason. My father didn't die, he just wasn't there. But now my husbad is a father and a great father so i am not sure how to celebrate it after not celebrating it for over 20 years.

    But such an inspiring post.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Rekita. I really relate.

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  2. You really gave such a beautiful tribute here to your dad, as well as your husband. My dad had a mini-stroke a few weeks back and I actually have a post going up tomorrow with some of my feelings about knowing my dad won't be here forever and seeing him now beginning to age a bit before my very eyes. Even though I am still so lucky to have him here, I have my own fears right now and trust me I try hard not to sit and dwell, but sometimes you just can't help it. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and feelings too with us.

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    1. I'm sorry about your dad, Janine. It is so hard to watch our parents age.

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  3. Oh Rachel, I am so pleased that you shared this. I'm trying to keep it together myself as this will be my 5th Father's day without my dad. I want the day to be special for my husband too because he deserves it, but most of our grown children are out of town now and it just feels kinda empty now. This was a beautiful, poignant post, and I think you're going to help a lot of others out there who will have very mixed emotions on Father's Day. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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    1. Aw, Marcia, I will definitely be thinking of you on Sunday. I'm glad the post resonated with you and thank you for your encouragement about sharing it. The sharing part did feel hard.

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  4. Wow. I relate to this on so many levels. First, I am so so so sad that you lost your dear father at such a young age. That's really rough and I get why you wouldn't want to address this painful holiday on this amazing blog, my awesome friend. I think you are brave for talking about it now. Hugely brave. And wow how the dynamics change when our husbands become fathers. And how wow you are dealing with so many emotions about this now. I commend you, friend. Really and truly.
    Second, while it is not a death and therefore maybe assholishness of me to compare, I feel the same way about Mother's Day. My mom left us when I was 13. She took the higher road of "these kids are annoying and I am having an affair with Mikey's (youngest brother) hockey coach." My dad raised us. Talk about an elephant in the room. I get the missing parent thing although I hope I am not insulting in comparing a missing parent through abandonment (because there is HOPE) to death.

    Hugs to my lovely amazing friend Rachel when she was 13 and to my amazing friend Rachel now and every single year between. Brave and brilliant post, love. Truly.

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    1. No, asshole, Kristi. Just complete camaraderie with you, my dear friend. Thank you for your encouragement.

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  5. Rachel this brought a tear to my eye. I am so sorry about your loss. I can't even imagine losing my father at 28. I don't even know how you handled all that at the age of 11. That must of been so hard on you and your family. Holiday's are different without a loved on but now you can experience it a little different with your family. Your husband is a proud father. Just remember you are not forgetting and never will forget your father memories on this holiday. You can share it with your husband and start a new tradition while incorporating the new. =]

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    1. Thank you for your empathy and encouragement, Kae. I do feel like I'm moving on yet holding onto my father too.

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  6. My father passed when my mom was 9 months along with me. I never knew him. I'm 42-yrs old now, and sometimes I still miss him, so I can relate a little to your post, and definitely empathize with you on the day. We too celebrate for my husband who deserves to be celebrated. He's a great dad.

    I'm glad you celebrate too, for your George. :)

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    1. I'm so sorry, Rosey. My brother was young when my father died. He doesn't remember him. It torments him in a different way than me.

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  7. You are so correct about holidays never being the same. My mom died on Good Friday, and Mother's Day was painful, even though I was pregnant myself, and all the holidays that followed. It's a little easier now, but you can't ignore that white elephant.

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    1. No, ignoring the white elephant is not a good idea. He doesn't ever go away until you tell him good-bye.

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  8. Very thought-provoking post. It's a good reminder that holidays can be as full of painful memories as happy ones and that as a family we have to deal with them all.

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    1. Thank you. I do feel that holidays are more complicated than we would like to believe.

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  9. This is so raw and honest.
    I think that you are so strong and it's wonderful that you are able to celebrate your husband with your sweet one despite this tremendous loss.
    Do you think that your Dad would have wanted you to enjoy these holidays? Perhaps you can honour him by sharing memories about him. I found that after my grandma had passed (she was my second mom) I too despised celebrating the holidays. It was awkward. One Christmas, my Aunt brought some game over and you had to reach into the bag to pull out a question. someone had picked "Who was your hero"...then my grandma came up. We spent that whole evening going through the best memories we had with her.
    Is that something that you would feel comfortable doing?

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    1. Thank you for sharing you story, Kim. Yes, he would have wanted us to enjoy our time together, celebrate our connections to one another. We don't ever talk about him though. It's weird. I don't know if I have the strength to change the family dynamic. I was uncomfortable about posting this piece here!

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  10. This is such a beautiful, heartfelt post. I can feel your pain, still fresh, at losing your dad at such a young age. How your loss has shaped who you are today. A woman who loves the father of her child. And that in no way minimizes your father's memory. It enhances it. I will be thinking of you on Sunday.

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    1. Thank you, Kerri. Your words are really lovely.

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  11. I love that you shared this. I think it's perfectly natural to go through phases in your life in regards to how you deal with the loss of your father via this holiday. What a sweet post, Rachel!

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    1. I like that..."phases" about how I deal with it. I would love to get to a place where we could be more open about my father and talk about him. I think we would all feel better if we could keep his memory alive, but my family just doesn't do that.

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  12. You wrote about this with such depth, Rachel. I can't even imagine all the layers involved in celebrating holidays, or milestones, or just ordinary days, when there is grief and loss tangled up. Beautiful job. xo

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    1. Thank you, Stephanie. Memories of my dad hit me when I least expect it.

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  13. Rachel, my mom's mother passed away when she was 11. I never thought about how conflicted she might feel about Mother's Day until I read your post. I tell you that because I'm sure this was tough for you to press the "publish" button when you were done writing this. I hope you can see how this served a purpose for yourself and for your readers. Well done.

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    1. It was hard to publish! Funny, not so hard to write, but hard to publish!

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  14. I didn't experience the death of a parent but I did experience the loss of a parent so I can absolutely relate. Father's Day is always a conflicting holiday for me. Fortunate for me my father is back in my life but it does make you appreciate more the type of father your own husband can be for your daughter.

    ¤´¨)
    ¸.•*´
    (¸¤ Lanaya | xoxo
    www.raising-reagan.com

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    1. Yup. I am right with you Lanaya. I'm sorry to hear about your experience growing up and glad you have mended fences. It shows how giving you are!

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  15. What an amazing opening sentence. And the concept of "the shadow side of holidays" is perfect - something that is definitely not on a Hallmark card - and the reason I found myself getting teary on Monday, staring at the wall of Father's Day cards at Target.

    I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this beautiful post with us.

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    1. Thank you for helping inspire it. I was struck by the contradiction that you talked about. It reminded me of me!

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  16. I've started and erased at least five (six) comments but I'm not sure what to say. I'm lucky to still have my parents around. As suffocating as they can sometimes be, they have both always been in my life. I'm sorry for your loss, and the realization you had to make at the tender age of 11.

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  17. I often wish we can choose to celebrate or not celebrate holidays. While this is not analogous to your feelings at all, I am always creeped out by Valentine's Day and all that it represents. That feeling of 'having' to do something, rather than acting spontaneously. Way too much pressure.

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  18. I've been very fortunate to have my parents here and in good health, but I know many people my age who aren't so lucky. I know posts like these aren't easy to write, but you did this so well Rachel! Thank you for taking the time to write and share your feelings!

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    1. You know it was harder to publish than to write, Sarah!

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  19. I'm so sorry for your loss. Your honesty is courageous. I'm sorry Father's Day is bittersweet and complicated for you.

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  20. Hi, we have one major thing in common: the loss of our fathers. I can really relate. I am going to blog about my Dad Sunday. Working on it now. I miss him so much. He died on May 25, 1999 of a massive heart attack. My husband also lost his father to a stroke and his mother to breast cancer, so, May and June are equally hard for him. Just know you are not alone. I know how you are feeling although I was an adult when my father died. It does not make it any easier, though.

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    1. I'm sorry for your loss, Mary. I hope Father's Day was ok for you.

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  21. Also your writing was so poignant. I really thank you for sharing this.

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  22. Beautiful post! I've been in a similar situation since the time I was 13. I like to celebrate "a little" now in honor of my daughter's father. He deserves to be recognized. I rarely attribute the day to my own dad, however. It's a personal choice.

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    1. Yup. I hear you loud and clear, Crystal!

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  23. So honest and beautiful even in its sorrow. It leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach. Father's Day does in general even though I love my dad and am happy to celebrate him. My best friend lost her dad a few years ago and I have almost physical pain for her around this time of year ever since.

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    1. Oh, you are such a loving friend to be so affected by the loss of your friend's father!

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  24. Beautiful tribute to your father. My dad died almost 38 years ago and I still miss him. He went into the hospital the day after our Fathers Day celebration and died 3 days after Father's Day.

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  25. I understand what you mean about ignoring the white elephant. I lost my dad in 09 and just felt like Father's Day hasn't been right since. I have a wonderful husband, he's such a great dad. But I always miss my dad a little extra on Father's Day. I feel like I'm doing hubby a disservice by being sad, and I feel like I'm doing my dad a disservice if I don't think of him. If I could think of him without getting sad it would be different...but that takes time I guess. A beautifully written post! Very honest and raw.

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    1. It's amazing how hard it is to find space for celebration and sorrow at the same time! Very tough stuff!

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  26. You just gave me chills!!!! Thank you for opening up! This is a beautiful tribute!

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    1. Thank you, Melissa! I did have a hard time hitting the publish button! I'm glad that I did!

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  27. I'm glad you managed to have a good Father's Day last year and focus on George. xo

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    1. Thank you, Shell. I did! It felt like a relief, really!

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  28. I savored this post. Articulate, honest...beautiful. I experience such an intense mix of feelings as I try to celebrate both Mother's and Father's Day...for different reasons than yours, but I love how you express your own response to the mix. There are no pat answers, but there is always hope. Thank you for writing this. Lynaea @ EveryDayBloom.com

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    1. Thank you for these words, Lynaea. I struggled to hit the publish button on this post. It's responses like yours that make me glad that I did!

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