On Days Like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, What Are We Supposed to Do with Ourselves If We’ve Lost a Parent?

I want to go back to celebrating my father on Father’s Day, so I talked to the folks who found ways to keep this day special even after losing a loved one.

On Days Like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, What Are We Supposed to Do with Ourselves If We’ve Lost a Parent?

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"It never occurred to me that on a day like this, someone might want to shut off from the world and silently, painfully, wait for the party to be over. You never notice the amount of headlines and advertisements about it until they’re no longer relevant."

With Mother’s Day approaching, I have been thinking a lot about all the people who, like me, have lost a parent and do not know what to do with themselves on days like these. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are known around the world as joyous occasions, as family gatherings and new memories to make. But what are you supposed to do, when the one person you want to celebrate is no longer here?

Every year since I’ve lost my dad, I have asked myself the same questions. Would it be appropriate to celebrate Father’s Day, still? Should I write him a little note? Light a candle in his honour? Where is the handbook? 

I remember the first year without him, and seeing Father’s Day in a whole new light. It never occurred to me that on a day like this, someone might want to shut off from the world and silently, painfully, wait for the party to be over. You never notice the amount of headlines and advertisements about it until they’re no longer relevant. I remember how long it stayed ingrained in my head to look for a gift, even though there was no one to give it to anymore. For years, I would unconsciously single out items that I knew he would like - the scarf I could see him wear, or the vintage music album I knew he would have been so happy to listen to again.

Fifteen years later, I no longer look for things to get him, but I am still yearning to celebrate him on Father’s Day. All this time, I have kept quiet and seen my friends celebrate their fathers, sharing their pictures on social media and sometimes even helped others find that special treat for their loved one. I thought the feeling of exclusion, of discomfort, or not knowing what to do with all this love, would pass. But my brain still screams: I do have a dad too! I want to celebrate Father’s Day too! So this year, I will finally do something about it.

In the process of finding the perfect way to honour my dad again on that day, I talked to others who lost a parent, to find out how they cope on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and how they manage to keep some of the celebratory spirit alive.

Maria Bailey, 45, lost her mother in December 2020. She tells me that this year, she’s going to have breakfast in her family beach hut to remember her mum. “Her ashes were scattered in the sea in front of our hut, as it was her happy place. We have a gas camping stove in the beach hut, so I'll make bacon sandwiches and a cup of coffee for my husband and our eldest. The youngest ones will probably have pains au chocolat and hot chocolate for a treat. The beach hut has just come out of winter storage but I'm planning on painting 'Remember me when you look out to sea' inside. Last year, the build-up and anticipation of Mother's Day was harder than the day itself. My husband and children spoiled me with breakfast in bed and lots of cuddles, and dinner, which took my mind off it, and reminded me that Mother's Day is about me, too.”

Maria’s story struck a chord with me, because the build ups to Christmas and Father’s Day always feel harder than the days themselves. There is a lot of chatter leading up to them, and being someone who works in media, I don’t really have the luxury to turn it off. I suppose this will become easier now that I’ve made the decision to join the party again.

Jo Threlfall, a 29-year-old PR and freelance journalist, tells me losing her dad from a stroke when she was seven years old was one of the hardest things she had to get over, but she has since found ways to cope by incorporating things into her lifestyle that he would have been proud of her for accomplishing, and doing them in his memory. She shares that these go from fundraising and running marathons to help raise awareness for strokes, to getting back into art and getting into a job role that's creative and in the digital marketing space. “I'm following in my father's footsteps everyday,” she says. “When it comes to his birthday, Christmas and Father's day, me and my family always get my dad flowers, and whenever I travel, I always light a candle in the church I've discovered on my travels in his memory. I also blast out some of his favourite songs and sing along and envision he's there with me. I recently went to see Genesis because he was a super fan of them, and I wanted to go to do it for him as it was one of the last bonding experiences I had with him in his car.”

This is definitely something I relate to, as my very last memory with my dad was an evening listening to his favourite tracks from the seventies. We hung out in my room as I was making him a playlist - if I remember correctly, a belated birthday gift. We talked for hours, about Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues and how the song would play as he was queuing for the student cafeteria during his university years, and that was the evening I fell in love with Aphrodite's Child’s Rain And Tears - a song that is sadly still hard for me to listen to. Music is so meaningful, and can trigger memories instantly, happy and sad. In my case, the whole playlist we were working on during that cherished evening of February 2007 will forever live in my heart, and I’m thinking of finally picking it up where I left off.

Lou Willis-Keeler, a 43-year-old CEO of a social enterprise, tells me that after losing her mother last year, her grief journey is made even harder by the publicity around Mother’s Day, a constant reminder that her mother is no longer around. But she still has plans to celebrate. “I want my mother to be remembered, not just in the emotional sense but also through physical acts and experiences, by doing things she would enjoy,” she says. “She loved beautiful flowers, so I’ll be planting some colourful flowers in her honour, after placing flowers on her grave. I will be eating afternoon tea, as she was a massive cake fan, and will hopefully be watching a beautiful sunset.”

As the founder of Grief Specialists CIC, Maria also has expert tips on how to keep celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, if you want to. “There's no right way to grieve,” she says. “Some may have a wobble at the prospect of Mother's Day, while others will think of it as yet another day without their mum. However you feel is a normal and natural response to loss for you. Everyone's relationship with their mum is unique, which includes not having a great relationship. While others will struggle every time they see a Mother's Day card, or receive yet another email trying to sell you flowers, gifts, etc. Don't compare your feelings and actions to others, or you could find yourself feeling like you haven't mourned enough or properly. If you have a friend who has lost their mum, and are perhaps on their own on Mother's Day, a kind gesture such as flowers, or an offer of a walk are usually welcome ways to acknowledge their loss.”

Thinking about going back to celebrating my father on Father’s Day makes me incredibly excited, with a warm fuzzy feeling in my chest. It also made me realise what the meaning of these days really is. Despite what brands and a capitalist society are telling us, these days are not simply meant for us to buy things. They are a moment for us to reflect on what parents mean to us, on how thankful we are to have, or have had, a mum or dad. They’re meant for us to show them our gratitude, and bond with them. So this year, I will start by finishing the playlist of my dad’s favourite songs, the ones we listened to together on an evening that I will forever remember as when we connected the most - an evening that was the last, but that was filled with laughter and personal stories. And I will think of all the folks who have lost a parent too, or have never known them. They get a special hug from me.