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Surviving a Fatherless Father’s Day

Jun/11/2023 / by Sweta Vikram

Finding your way through a time of profound grief

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I have loathed the month of May for a decade now because both my mother’s death anniversary as well as Mother’s Day fall during this month. May reminds me of the irreplaceable losses in my life. But May 2023 was a tsunami of many sorts.

We received a phone call that my father-in-law was having a surgery for hernia, and my dad had a minor heart attack. Since my husband and I were in India in April 2023 and had met the fathers, we didn’t grasp the situation could be fatal. We had spent time with our aging parents. Both of them, in their mid-to late 70s, had become frail, but nothing seemed at the level of DEFCON 1.

Within a week, both their conditions started to deteriorate rapidly. ICUs. Not responding. Infections. Organ failure. Drop in oxygen levels. Critical. Blood pressure dipping. All the triggering medical terms you hear in television shows. As my husband and I rushed to India, I kept praying my father would wait for me. Nine years ago, in the month of May, my mom passed away while the airplane was somewhere over Russia-Ukraine. I couldn’t think of NOT being able to say goodbye, once again.

Saying Goodbye

The universe listened. I got to spend five days with my father in his home. I fed him, chatted with him, held his hand, massaged his hands and head, and asked about his feelings as well as discomfort. He inquired about my PhD, new book, and expressed his desire to spend his birthday in NYC. Then I also saw him slowly fade away. Besides, 3.5 hours away in Mumbai, my father-in-law kept declining in the ICU and my mother-in-law kept going deeper into denial. I joked about how the Pune-Mumbai highway probably had my picture on their billboard with a caption saying “Customer of the Week.” I kept alternating between the two cities and praying on the roads, in quiet corners, and in public for both of their sufferings to get alleviated and their dignity restored.

May 31, it was my mother’s death anniversary. That morning we did a “chautha,” a puja completed on the fourth day of the departed soul (My father, this time). My brother, his wife, my husband, and I scattered Dad’s ashes in the river in Pune after a ceremony. We wrapped up my dad’s house, handed over the keys to the management, and drove straight to Mumbai to attend my father-in-law’s cremation. It was a scene out of a horror film.

I hugged my husband’s sister tight. We are/were both daddy’s girls who had lost our biggest support and safe space. I saw my husband complete the last rites. Two days ago, it was my brother making the rounds of our father’s dead body with a “janev” around his shoulder and earthen pot in one hand. Deja vu.

As you can imagine, I am dreading Father’s Day. In our case, it’s been a double whammy where my husband and I are both grieving and consoling at the same time.

Suggestions for Father’s Day

Get off social media

One of the worst ways to ruin a relationship or burn a friendship is because of false expectations. Father’s Day might feel heavy and emotional for you and me, but for those whose fathers are alive or have kids, they might choose to celebrate. Meaning, Father’s Day can make one feel left out. Between cards, gifts, commercials, and cookouts … it’s not easy to avoid this consumerist holiday. Just avoid scrolling your phone on Father’s Day. Social media posts rarely address the realities of life and focus on capturing 30 seconds of exaggerated moments in people’s lives—happy selfies of faces stuffed with joy and food. Then there are people, who might miss their dad and post emotional content that could be triggering.

Be kind to yourself

Grief has a mind of its own. You don’t know how and if it will show up on this holiday. What are you supposed to do with these feelings? If pictures of full, healthy, and happy families trigger you, don’t be alarmed or self-conscious. It’s called the human condition. If you don’t want to respond to phone calls or messages, don’t justify your choices. Honor your needs. If you are a father yourself, perhaps, use this holiday to make memories with your children.

Find gratitude

It sucks that my dad is gone. He was my safe space and made India home. But at least I knew my father. My friends and extended family doted on him. The service staff called him their generous hero. He would take the driver out to dinner, joke with the cook, and buy chocolates for the cleaners.

Don’t get me wrong. My father had his quirks and a short fuse. He was an impatient man. But at the end of the day, he was a progressive, generous, caring, witty, and lively human being who never smothered me with stereotypical South Asian expectations or traditions. He raised me well.

A friend recently told me that she didn’t know her father at all. Now that kind of loss and emptiness is different from losing a loving father. I have memories while she must navigate ghosts. Even when it feels difficult, rely on gratitude to get you through the roughness of this holiday.

Celebrate your dad

This is the first Fatherless Father’s Day for both me and my husband. I have already planned that after school that afternoon, we will go for a hike and eat a meal that includes our dads’ favorites. We will focus on the good memories and their healthier days. I love writing about my dad and his impact on my upbringing. He taught me to love pastries and cold coffee just as much as speaking out fearlessly. I’ll toast his larger-than-life presence, his humor, and his dedication to social change and women’s rights. Find your own unique way of celebrating your father.

Connect with people who nourish you

Two of my chachas, Dad’s brothers, have been checking-in on me regularly since Dad passed away. They even made sure my husband and his family were doing OK through their loss. These are my dad’s cousins, but they treat me like their own child. We all have that emptiness within us birthed by massive losses. Identify the men in your lives who have stood in when you lost your father (mentors, friends, family, teachers) and reach out to them on or around Father’s Day.

He shaped me into who I am. Dads can be so powerful and generous that way.” ~ Connie Britton

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