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How to Survive Father's Day When Your Father Wasn't the Dad You Needed

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For many people, Father’s Day is a time of joy, laughter, togetherness and love. For many people, Father’s Day is handmade cards and gifts, tight hugs and heartfelt words. For many people, it is a day to remember a person who shaped them into who they are, who loved even the most unlovable parts of them, who bore every step of the journey with them, who celebrated their triumphs and shared in their trials. For many people, smiles are wide and hearts are filled with the greatest feelings.

But what happens when your father is not a person you want to celebrate?

What happens when your “knight in shining armor” was just a guy in tinfoil?

What happens when your father was not a father?

What happens when for me, rather than being a day of joy, this day is a day of pain — a day of wounds reopened, bleeding fresh and wide?

What happens when for me, Father’s Day is an unwanted, uninvited reminder of something beautiful you had and lost, or of a long-kindled dream that finally died for good?

What happens when for me, Father’s Day is a cruel calendar intrusion of regret and grieving and anguish?

For many, Father’s Day can be one of the hardest days of the year, especially in a 21st century world in which we are so connected. I suppose that is why they say technology is both a blessing and a curse.

For me personally, it is a very paradoxical time, as I try to honor my stepfather while simultaneously shuddering at the very mention of the holiday. I tend to do my best to not let my own personal feelings affect others, and I truly want those around me to be able to experience the holiday in its entirety and bask in the joy it brings. Even so, the struggle is one that is very real.

This is the first year I will not honor my biological father in any way. I have come to learn when you are in a toxic or abusive environment, it can become your “normal.” I was fortunate enough to have a mother and a stable home that showed me otherwise, but even then, even with only weekend and summer visitation, it was my “normal.” So, we too acted like we “should” and celebrated the holiday with gifts wrapped in fake smiles. With my father, holidays were always trying and I can never forget the irony of handing him a homemade card with hallmark style heartfelt messages, pretending everything was grand only minutes after one of his frequent meltdowns. I believe humanity’s ability to “fake it til you make it,” is a bit scary at times. I think it works so well because I believe humans often enjoy being how we think “most people” are, so we ignore what we do not want to see and think it will keep us safe

I must admit,  a part of me misses those times, as they were the only times I thought for a moment maybe he did not mean everything he said and maybe a part of him loved me. I think I continued to hold onto that hope and good faith and forgiveness for far too long because fear is a powerful thing. Fear of what? Fear of realization, fear of not being loved, fear of repercussions, fear of abandonment, fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong and just fear in general. I no longer believe he is the man who is meant to be my hero, my guide, my protection, and my inspiration. That being said, it is still a very open, gaping, raw hole of the realization for me that one of two people meant to love me unconditionally, couldn’t.

So, how are those of us who have trouble with Father’s Day meant to survive this day? How are we to reconcile the wants and needs to give the other parental figures in our lives respect with our internal turmoil? How are we to ensure our wounds do not become unbearable?

The truth is, I have no perfect answer to these questions, but here is what I do know: 

You are not broken. You are not unlovable. You are not less. You are not your past. You are not what has happened to you. You are not your mistakes or failures. You are not the number on the scale or the size of your jeans or your GPA or a number at all. You are not how often you fall. You are not your mental illness. You are not the words he may have said. You are not tainted. You are not at fault. You have done nothing wrong. You could not have stopped what happened.

Most of all, you are not alone.

Something my amazing therapist has said multiple times has stuck with me. She said, “It was his job to love you and protect you and he failed and hurt you instead.”

I believe being loved is a privilege that is earned by parents — not a right. Not loving the man who was not your father does not make you “bad.” Please do not feel like not loving him is your fault.

I want you to know if you are burying your deep hurt, I see you. And I want you to know it is OK to feel all of that today. It is OK to scream in anger until your lungs burn and your voice is raspy. It is OK to feel so sad your chest has a ton of bricks on it and you cry those tears that choke you up and get snot everywhere until your sobs cease and you can breathe again. It is OK to hurt. It is OK to grieve the father you never had.

Here’s a big challenge: I don’t want you to apologize for any of it. Those emotions are valid, deserve to be felt and as “Inside Out” showed us, perhaps even necessary at times. You have the innate right as a human being to feel and feel fully whatever it is you need to feel. Do not berate yourself.

Please, do whatever you need to let the chaos you may feel escape you in a healthy way. Please, do not contain in that warrior chest of yours such turmoil.

I hope this can be a letter for people who may not be receiving the love they desire from their fathers this Father’s Day. I hope this post can be a hug for those who may not be getting one today. I hope these words can be the kind words you may not be hearing today. I hope this post can be a little love you may feel like you aren’t receiving. I hope this can be whatever it is you are needing most. You deserve these things and so much more. You are worth it.

This Father’s Day, please do what you need.

Here are some ideas I came up with that might help a bit:

1. Avoid social media.

2. Find other male figures in your life to celebrate.

3. Write about the things your father did do for you without intending to. For example: made you stronger, made you more independent, showed you what not to do, etc. I know this one is hard and one I cannot personally do yet, but if you can, go for it!

4. Write an honest Father’s Day card (and yes, you can curse).

5. Be honest with those around you. If you don’t particularly feel like celebrating, you don’t have to.

6. Recognize things that may potentially be triggering and plan ahead.

7. Write whatever it is you are feeling! Journaling is amazing!

8. Read what you wrote again and again.

9. Distract yourself!

10. Try to pretend it is just a celebration and not what it is specifically about.

These are just a few ideas and I realize they can be hard to implement. I personally am not sure if I can do it myself. At the end of the day, remember that this day too will pass. Remember to take time to heal and recuperate. Self-care is key! I believe in you. Your track record for surviving bad things is 100 precent so far, which is pretty amazing!

We are going to get through this Father’s Day together.

Take care beautiful people. Until next time. You are loved.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Archv.

Originally published: June 16, 2017
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