What Not To Say To The Fatherless On Father's Day

Here’s how to be mindful of people who’ve lost their dads.

Two women hold hands, comforting each other. Here are 5 things not to say to people who've lost thei...
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I’ve been muting the television during commercial breaks for weeks now, averting my eyes every time I walk into a shop with a card section containing really terrible jokes that I used to scrawl my name beneath thoughtlessly, and I’ll definitely be avoiding the online galleries of filtered memories past and present on Sunday. If you don’t have a father, chances are you’ll have been doing all of those things — and more — ever since you first became fatherless. It’s just that on Father's Day, the dark, hollow basin of grief which many of us have learned to anchor deep within us becomes more of a shallow, somber well which threatens to overflow without warning, every time that pang of nostalgia becomes an insidious encroachment on our newly-managed definition of normal.

I lost my dad last May to a cancer that started in his stomach before seeping into his bones and causing his body to implode after a year of intense chemo. As anyone who's ever faced cancer head-on will understand, all the films, ads, and documentaries on the illness can't prepare you for the real horror of living through it, day in, day out. Last year, my first Father's Day without the man who taught me everything was simply an exercise in survival; getting through the day was my only objective. This year, I'm thinking of everyone else who's in the same position or a similar one. Some days, the pain feels easier. Other times, its as raw as day one.

If you’re close friends with someone who doesn’t have a dad on Father’s Day, don’t let them get swallowed whole by that self-assembled blanket of envy, isolation, and the constant flow of status updates. Ask how they’re feeling, because that will mean a lot; the worst that can happen is that they’ll tell you they don’t want to talk about it. If you knew their dad, don’t be afraid to reminisce with the person about some of his best (and worst) characteristics, because they might appreciate you keeping it real. If they had a dad with a penchant for cupcakes and your friend is planning a bake-a-thon in his memory, bring over your piping bag and get to work. Just make it known that you're thinking about them in some way, however small. For me at least, that's what make me feel supported and help me get through a difficult day.

There are some things that also do the opposite, though. And while I realize that I can't speak for everyone, as someone who is without a father on Father's Day, the things below are the kinds of questions and comments that can be hurtful, even if they're not meant to be. So be mindful of your friends without fathers this year, and avoid saying any of these to them.

1. “Hey, How Are You Going To Mark Father’s Day Without Your Dad Around?”

Unless you are also fatherless and therefore trying to build some kinship over how crappy your Father’s Day is, too, this question is to be avoided when someone doesn't have a dad in their life; it's insensitive at best and downright hurtful at worst. The fatherless sons and daughters of this world are united through the absence of a parent, and each one of them has undoubtedly devised their own special formula for dealing with the uncomfortableness of Father's Day. So yeah, let them know you're thinking of them — but don't corner them with a question like this. Some of us might share a photo or memory online, while others might visit a graveside or a special place. But many will choose to do nothing at all — and it's totally fine to have no plans on Father's Day, too. Even if it's well meaning, nobody wants to be made to feel like there's some set of particular actions they should be carrying out to acknowledge their dad.

2. "So... What Happened To Your Father Again?"

If you know the person and have managed to forget that they're without a dad, that's bad enough, but remember that for most people, Father's Day is definitely not the time to start enquiring as to his whereabouts.

3. "I'm Here If You Need Me."

Although probably well-meaning in its intention, saying this to someone who’s grieving an absent parent is in itself a passive statement that honestly doesn't mean much. When my dad was sick, I heard this all the time; however, the people who said it to me also ended up being the ones who couldn't really commit to sharing in any of my suffering. It was paying lip service to the idea of "being there," but without the actions that actually showed me they were there. Speaking from experience, when things are so bad that your nightmares are the best part of your day, it won’t be the people who vaguely said they were "around" that will comfort you; it will be the ones who broke down your door to see how you were coping when you went quiet, or those who answered their phone when you rang them at 3 a.m. desperately needing to talk. Showing that you're present and that you care is very different than simply saying you are. Actions, as they say, speak much louder than words.

4. “My Dad Is Soooo Annoying Right Now!”

I get it; everyone’s got their own family problems, and usually I’d be there with an open ear and some helpful advice. But on Father’s Day, when every single word or phrase relating to dads is a sting on the soul, bringing drama to my door which is, in the grand scheme of things, trivial will incur a whole lot of side-eye from me. Being grateful for what you have is admittedly really hard when you have it right in front of you (there's a lot of truth in that old adage, "you don't know what you've got until it's gone"), but for those of us who have lost our fathers, or who are estranged from our dads, hearing someone whine about something relatively minor in relation to their parent will likely make us want to tear out our hair from the roots. I'm all up for talking about your dad, but just be mindful of the grief those of us who don't have them are carrying around on this particular day.

5. "It's Been A While Now — Aren't You Over This?"

There are a few things in life that get easier the older you get — think driving and talking about contraceptives with strangers — and even more that don't — like paying taxes, eating with chopsticks, and dealing with the absence of a loved one. The death or the absence of a loved one is something that we're all going to have to face at some point or other, and if you haven't come across it yet, chances are you won't always get it right with those who have. And that's OK; we all have to learn somehow. But just to be clear: under no circumstances is OK to make someone feel guilty for not being OK, or to encourage them to "tone down" their grief to make you feel more comfortable. Make the conversation a little easier for everyone involved by using your social filter.

What all of this comes down to is one thing: Sensitivity. If you're sensitive to what's going on around you, everything else will follow. You might not even have to say anything. Just be there. Hold someone's hand. Sometimes, that's enough.