Like Mother’s Day—or most holidays, really—Father’s Day can be polarizing. For some, it’s a fun excuse to get the family together (well, maybe not this year) to have a barbecue and shower Dad with gifts. But for others, it triggers upsetting memories. If you fall into that second category, getting through the third Sunday in June can be tough. We spoke to several mental health professionals to better understand why this day can be so difficult, and to get tips for making it through—whether you’ll be alone or with family on Sunday.
There are plenty of reasons why Father’s Day is a day some people dread, or at least find challenging. Whether someone’s dad is deceased, estranged, absent, or not the ideal father, it can be hard for the children (even if/when they’re adults), as well as the fathers themselves (more on that in a bit). Oh, and also, we’re still in a global pandemic, and even for people who have a wonderful relationship with their father, this year might be hard if they can’t spend the day together.
For those who find Father’s Day hard, it can elicit disparate emotions ranging from sadness to anger to disappointment. “While some experience anticipatory anxiety about this day due to recent loss, others have complicated relationships with or are completely estranged from their fathers, and may struggle with how to process the symbolism of this day,” Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director with Community Psychiatry tells Lifehacker. “Meanwhile, fathers who have lost their children or do not see them often for a variety of reasons may grieve in their own way. Some individuals are unable to become parents or adopt, and may experience a sense of emptiness or loneliness.”
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When the holiday takes the form of grief, it becomes a reminder of a relationship that someone doesn’t have, rather than one that they do, according to Litsa Williams, a grief therapist and licensed clinical social worker. “Of course, this is true for children who have lost fathers and fathers who have lost children, but also the partners, friends and parents of fathers who have died,” she tells Lifehacker. “It is difficult for those who have lost fathers or children due to estrangement, incarceration, foster care and relocation.”
And then there are other ways that Father’s Day can sneak up on you emotionally. First of all, as Dr. Rebecca Gernon, a family physician and the medical director of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City points out, we all have strong feelings about our parents and their role in our lives. When we find out that they’re not infallible, it can be a disappointing lesson to learn at any age. On top of that, if your parents’ marriage ultimately dissolved, sometimes Father’s Day brings us unresolved feelings about the separation or divorce, she adds.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the role of fathers has changed in recent years, expanding to include duties like changing diapers, and attending parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments, that were traditionally jobs for the mother. “Many adults—whose fathers were in their lives—will remember a father who was less present than their mother; a father who may have been stuck in a traditional role, who felt he missed out on parenting joys and experiences; a father who had difficulty expressing feelings,” Gernon explains. “[Some] adults may look back at the father they knew in childhood and wish they knew him better, had more time with him [or] that he could have experienced more of parenthood or expressed feelings more freely.” So even in cases where someone’s father was present growing up and they had a decent relationship, the holiday can still stir up feelings.
And though people (rightfully) think about Father’s Day being difficult for children and adult children of deceased, estranged or absentee dads, Aisha R. Shabazz, a licensed clinical social worker, therapist and clinical supervisor, says that we should consider the other side, too. Specifically, “the shame and sadness that could potentially come along with ‘everyone’ else receiving gifts, lunches, dinners and acknowledgements, while others are getting nothing because their child is deceased or estranged from them,” she tells Lifehacker. “You receive the title of ‘father’ because you have children and yet, if your children are not present, you feel as though you cease to exist. It’s very isolating.”
Now let’s talk about how to get through the day.
Let’s start with tips specifically for dads who are struggling:
If you’re part of this category, Shabazz encourages you to honor the time you had with your child by creating a new or upholding a tradition as a way of memorializing their father-child relationship. “Do something that you used to love doing together—a favorite movie, snack, meal, hobby, etc.,” she adds. Also, Williams suggests that they may want to connect with other grieving fathers through support groups like The Compassionate Friends.
Regardless of who caused the estrangement, Shabazz says that it might be appropriate to reach out again one day. But without doing some personal development work first, you might repeat the same behavior patterns that made the relationship deteriorate in the first place. “Try engaging in support groups or therapy, reading books or listening to podcasts that focus on rebuilding relationships and communication,” she advises.
For those in this group, it can be very easy to play the “what-if” game, Shabazz says—but try to avoid it if you can. “It’s not productive and it won’t help resolve your present concern,” she explains. “Consider the qualities that a father has, and determine which of those qualities you possess. You’ll soon realize that although you may feel incomplete, you have some of the components of a father. Then consider how you can show up for others as a father-figure.”
And now, some general strategies that could be useful for anyone triggered by the day:
If you’re not feeling Father’s Day, it’s perfectly acceptable to give yourself the time and space to grieve. “Communicate to others in your life that Father’s Day is tough for you and let them know what they can do to help,” Williams says. And yes—that means everyone. “Men are socialized to not show a wide range of emotion, as well as not talk about their feelings,” Shabazz says. “If you’re a man that fits into this category, consider expressing yourself in a different way by tapping into your creativity. Create something that speaks for you, and over time you’ll gain the security and confidence you need to say what’s on your mind.”
For those who struggle during holidays, social media can be pretty brutal. Even if your plan is to avoid it all day, there’s always the chance that, out of habit, you’ll pick up your phone and start scrolling through your Instagram feed without even realizing it. “On Father’s Day, social media is typically filled with posts, pictures, and videos of people with their fathers or posting about their fathers,” Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical executive at JourneyPure tells Lifehacker. “This serves as a constant reminder to those who have complicated relationships with their fathers about all of the things they are missing out on.”
Not everyone falls into the “social-media-is-triggering” category. Others find comfort in looking at old photos or watching home videos of their dad. “Even though Father’s Day might reopen old scars, turning it into a celebration of life can help bring some joy back into the holiday,” Wind says. “However, if you have recently lost your father or haven’t dealt with your grief before, this could be painful to do—especially alone. If needed, seek help from a therapist to help process your grief.”
As humans, it’s always tempting to compare ourselves to other people, but when it comes to doing that with your relationship with your dad, Wind suggests avoiding it. “Instead, you can take time to celebrate the relationships that you do have in your life because those can be celebrated on any day of the year,” he says. Along the same time, don’t go into the day with high expectations based on the sentiments found in greeting cards, Michael Gaziano, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical program manager and therapist at Sierra Tucson tells Lifehacker. “Relationships are complicated, and one of the best ways that you can help unravel them is to focus on what you have control over and the thoughts and feelings that you can work on for your own self care.”
Even if it seems like you’re the only person with mixed—or outright negative—feelings about Father’s Day, you’re definitely not. Wind says that it’s not always easy to deal with emotions like anger, sadness, loneliness and frustration, and thanks to COVID-19, these emotions might hit even harder than usual. But keep in mind that there are plenty of others out there struggling on that day.
If you know Father’s Day isn’t your thing, try to make plans in advance. Yes, that’s especially hard this year, but even doing a virtual visit or taking a masked-and-socially-distanced walk with a friend could help. “If you’re struggling, one of the best things you can do is surround yourself with people that you love,” Wind says. “If you don’t feel safe meeting up with friends or family, make an extra effort to reach out to them and express your feelings. Simply talking through your emotions can help relieve the weight that they hold over you.”
Even if you didn’t make plans ahead of time, if you’re having a hard time on Sunday, Dr. David Finkelstein, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, recommends reaching out to someone for support—“especially someone who may uniquely understand your feelings or has dealt with something similar.”
If spending time with your extended family (i.e. those you don’t live with) is stressful for you, then at least you can thank the pandemic for putting the kibosh on this year’s festivities. But that only (ideally) prevents in-person gatherings: there may still be Zoom family reunions, or phone calls that you’re expected to make. If there are certain IRL or virtual get-togethers you absolutely cannot avoid, Natalie Buchwald, a therapist, as well as the founder and clinical director of Manhattan Mental Health Counseling suggests getting as much time alone prior to and during the event as possible.
“Use this time to meditate, calm yourself and make notes of what emotions are stirred in you,” she tells Lifehacker. “Don’t suppress your emotions. These are insights to be understood. Instead of taking your emotions out on others, go cool down by going to another room or going on a short walk. If you need to address something to a family member, say it assertively but from a calm place. This will increase the likelihood that this would lead to a constructive discussion rather than a shooting match.
Dr. Scott Guerin, a developmental psychologist and adjunct professor in psychology at Kean University lost his father last week—41 days after his mother passed away—both from COVID-19. Right now, he’s focusing on how to cope with the day, and has found that one strategy is working: appreciation. “When word got out about my dad many of my friends sent their condolences,” he tells Lifehacker. “Several conveyed stories about how he helped them…As of right now, each day, my feelings of loss are being overrun by feelings of love and appreciation.” Another take on appreciation—but for those who never knew their fathers or are estranged from them—involves composing a gratitude list inclusive of all the individuals who have served as father figures throughout their life, Magvi says.
If your family’s usual Father’s Day celebration is hard for you to get through, take the opportunity to use this year as a “reset.” Gaziano suggests creating new traditions for yourself and/or your family by redefining the day. This will put you (somewhat) more in control of the holiday. And if your new tradition is ignoring the day completely because that’s what’s best for you, that’s fine too.