I Wouldn’t Have Missed You for the World

One Father’s Day when I was about 13, I had the idea that my gift to my dad was to remove all the rocks from the dirt trench lining one side of our house, where my parents planned to put in rose bushes. My dad was going to use the rocks I removed to build a stone wall in front of our house, like the ones in New England my parents loved so much.  After one day of working in the dirt and rock pile I felt like one of the kids from the movie Holes, and was ready to throw in the towel. I was already regretting not just buying my dad a nice tie!  It took me all summer to finish that project but by then my dad was too sick to plant anything in the newly cleared dirt, and the stone wall was just a foot long, ending in a tumble of scattered rocks. He died the following February.

I know it may seem blasphemous, but I’ve kind of liked having Father’s Day “off” all these years. Especially when I got older and had a beach house for the month of June every summer at Long Beach Island.  I could enjoy a leisurely Sunday in the middle of June while my housemates were racing home, heading north on the Garden State Parkway, to spend Father’s Day with their dad.  Often dads they didn’t even like.  I remember after my dad died and my friends would tell me stories about their dads… how their dad drank, or hit them, or never said he loved them, or touched them weird.  I would think to myself why did my~ dad have to die?!  Why did the nice and good dad have to die and not their lousy fathers? They felt similarly.

I know that Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, and other certain holidays can be a trigger for some people to miss that person even more.  I’ve heard people say “I just want to get through the day.”  Or “maybe I’ll just stay in bed all day.”  But for me, I don’t need a special day to miss my dad. I miss him every day.  Not a day goes by I’m not aware there is a missing piece, a missing dad in my life.  I miss him when I see a dad holding his daughter on his shoulders, or teaching her to ride a bike.

Part of what I missed is what I never had.  A dad to teach me things as I got older.  Like how to balance a check book or change a tire on my car (my brother taught me that… thanks Jim!)  A dad to teach me I was fine just the way I was.  A dad to talk with about all the important things.  A dad to help us all feel safe and secure growing up instead of fractured and dispersed.

In working in this field of grief support I’ve come to believe the world is driven by unresolved grief.  Walk into any 12-step meeting, any psychiatric unit in any hospital, any prison, or any therapist’s office, and you will hear nothing but stories of grief and loss.  Having been a child in grief, I know this to be true personally, and having studied grief and its impact on children for over 20 years, I know it to be true professionally.

My father died of cancer at the age of 46 when I was 14.  Over the past decades of working in the field of grief support I shared my story of loss countless times and so I hesitate to share it again. Partly because as I’ve gotten older I’m not sure how relatable it is. I mean who cares that a 62-year-old woman’s dad died when she was 14. It’s so long ago.

What bearing does it have on anything today?

But here’s the thing, ask any kid whose parent died, and they will tell you no matter how long it’s been they think of that parent almost every day.  And they will tell you they still miss their parent. And the same is true for me, I miss my dad.  I think partly because so much is left unknown, and you wonder about all you missed.  I think what would have been different had my dad lived. I imagine, my entire life would have been different.

But then there would be no Good Grief and no Imagine.  The centers created out of one daughter’s loss and pain.  And that’s what we want for kids… to be able to transform their loss into something good in their life because that’s the possibility.

My brother and I lost years of our lives to unresolved grief because back then people didn’t know that children grieved too and the school had no idea how to help, despite seeing a drastic change in our behavior.  We were textbook examples of grieving children. I always say “we weren’t bad kids, we were sad kids.”  We missed our dad and our life as we knew it. So I work in this field to ensure other children don’t suffer the same consequences, the same lost years, due to unresolved, unaddressed grief. I work to ensure that some day no child grieves alone.

How You Can Help

So, what can YOU do to support children and teens who may be grieving the death of a parent or a sibling, a friend or a classmate?  Or who may be grieving because their parents divorced or separated? Or any of the other myriad losses kids experience growing up.

Research shows the single most important thing that helps youth coping with loss is the active presence of at least one, preferably more, caring functional adults in their lives.  An adult who shows up and pays attention and lets that child know their loss matters.

Some things you can do include:

  1. Send them a card acknowledging their loss and that you are there for them.
  2. Attend a workshop on how to support grieving children (contact mary@marylrobinson.com for more information.)
  3. Listen. Listen. (This means no advice giving, no probing questions, no telling them about your loss.)  Simply listen with empathy.
  4. Give them a journal in which they can express themselves.
  5. Tell them stories or share memories about the person who died.
  6. Keep showing up.

Together, let’s imagine a world where children coping with loss grow up emotionally healthy and able to lead meaningful and productive lives.  Let’s imagine a world where grief, loss and trauma are transformed into resilience, empathy, and compassion.

So that someday the world is driven by love and compassion, and not unresolved grief.

p.s. one of the things I learned recently was from my kindergarten friend Chris Harrington whose mom died when he was 11.  He wrote a Mother’s Day Blog entitled  “I wouldn’t have missed you for the world.”  It was then that I got it.   I would take my dad for the 14 years I had him, over any other dad.  And that instead of being the victim of having a dead dad, I could rejoice in the one I had.  The 14 great years I had with the kindest, funniest, smartest dad there was.  

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