Ask at therapist: How to celebrate Dad after he's gone

It has been four months since my husband died unexpectedly from a heart attack. I am now a single parent to our two sons who are trying to adjust to a new life without their Dad.

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  • Question: It has been four months since my husband died unexpectedly from a heart attack. I am now a single parent to our two sons who are trying to adjust to a new life without their dad. As you can imagine, it has been a challenge to support them and to help them deal with their feelings of loss and sadness, and on top of this, to manage my own feelings in a way that doesn’t add an extra burden to what they are already carrying. Now our first fatherless Father’s Day is approaching and I feel completely at a loss as to how to navigate this day in a way that minimizes the grief my sons are dealing with yet allows them to celebrate the father they loved.

  • What I do know is that I don’t want to go out to places where families will be celebrating as this would only intensify our sense of loss and the feeling that we are now different and somehow incomplete. Staying home doesn’t feel quite right either as it would just feel like another Sunday — only one without the Dad who was central to our lives. The idea of doing something silly and fun seems almost disloyal, as though feeling happy means that we didn’t love him enough if we can move on so quickly without him.

  • Do you have any thoughts or suggestions as to how we can observe this day in a way that focuses on happy memories, celebrates who he was and will continue to be in our hearts and allows us to be together as the new family we are now?

  • -Grieving Widow and Mom

  • Dear Grieving Widow and Mom,

  • Let me begin by saying how very sorry I am for your loss. Losing a spouse suddenly is a devastating blow. Add to this the additional challenge of suddenly being a single Mom to two sons and it’s hard to even imagine — let alone cope with. But cope with it you must, so here are some things to think about as you plan this first Father’s Day without him.

  • Ask for input

  • It can be very difficult for young males to articulate feelings, especially vulnerable ones like grief and loss. Rather than trying to elicit these directly, ask them what they want to do for this first Father’s Day. Keep your request open-ended, letting them know you really want their thoughts and input. Reassure them that you are open to all possibilities, and be sure to throw your own ideas into the mix. Then decide on a plan as a family unit if possible. This is one step toward functioning as the changed family that fate has created.

  • Make a plan

  • You don’t have to do this all alone. You have your sons, extended family and friends to help you. Ask the people you are closest to for ideas and suggestions, and consider marking the day by celebrating your father, father-in-law and other special dads along with your late husband. If your dad or your father-in-law is deceased, you could start a new tradition like a memory day of the dads you have lost but who live on through all they have left behind. You could do this by planning an activity your husband or one of these other dads loved to do or something you shared as a family like biking, fishing, a favorite spectator sport, a picnic or a day trip. Anything meaningful that you all would enjoy is a great start.

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  • Include time to grieve

  • Consider incorporating a ritual like visiting the cemetery where your late spouse is buried or the place where his ashes were spread. You could write a letter to read quietly to him together or with each of you writing and sharing your own. Releasing a bunch of balloons with a note attached is also a way of "speaking" to Dad.

  • You will work through your grief together and separately by meeting one challenge at a time. And yes, you will laugh again and feel joy and find a new life without your husband and the father of your children. Your sadness will subside along with the guilt and what-ifs. Just remember to reach out to those around you who love you and knew and loved him. They need to grieve as well and what better way than to be there for the family your husband left behind.

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Toni Coleman, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. She is a well-known relationship expert and author, working with many publications, television and radio programs. Follow her on Twitter @CoachToni and FB at www.facebook.com/coachtoni.coleman. Toni writes for HopeAfterDivorce.org and FamilyShare.com.

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