National celebrations like Father’s Day inevitably bring bittersweet memories. The picture above is my husband Jim enjoying the quintessential father-moment of dancing with his daughter Krista. Holding a young woman radiant with peace and happiness after the traditional father-daughter wedding dance, he needs to tangibly let go as she turns to dance with her new husband. Also a bittersweet moment, but he chooses to live with the trust that the deep roots from family of origin will remain as they integrate creating their new family with continuing bonds with their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and extended family.
In a way, after a child dies, parents face a similar challenge. After the tangible loss of our child, we are forced into letting go of the sheer physical pleasure of their presence, their hugs, the lilt and tone in their voices, all that we yearn for and miss. But, as long as we don’t aim for the illusive ‘closure’ that our culture elevates (see earlier blog Who Wants Closure), we can turn in trust that our bonds will continue with the warmth of deep memories. A father and mother’s challenge is learning to live with sorrow and forever love intertwined, often heightened during America’s parent-day celebrations.
One mother interviewed in Pilgrimage through Loss expresses how she discovered this possibility after the intensive early years of deep grieving.
“When you integrate your child into your life, the loss changes significantly,” explains Babs Egolf, whose only child died at sixteen in a pick-up truck accident.
“At first, when Wade died, the loss felt completely outside and I was missing him terribly. But then something wonderful happened; it’s like I turned around and he came back inside me. I first sensed this when I traveled to India for four months. Without the familiar sites of his bedroom at home, I felt disoriented, wondering, ‘Where is he?’ But then I recognized he lives inside me now and I can never lose him….even in the Himalayas.”
“The loss is quite different now,” she said, amazed at this change. “It’s like we became one.”
What Babs Egolf is experiencing is what many grieving persons discover; they desire to continue the bonds they have with a loved one, not end them. The ‘continuing bonds theory’ emphasizes people do not just let go and move on, but they hang on to the bonds by transforming the relationship. “Every year on my daughter’s birthday,” said one parent,”I write her a long letter and then go and sit by her gravesite and tell her all that has happened in the family and my life. It’s a comforting time for me.”
This afternoon, we are looking forward to a fun Father’s Day barbecue at our son Jefferson’s home with his wife Kris and granddaughter Erin, grateful for this continuing of family bonds. With Jim, Jefferson and Jack (Kris’s special stepfather), we will celebrate their goodness in our lives. But to ease into this bittersweet day, I surprised Jim with a treasure hunt, with hidden gifts for his heart, soul, body, and mind. The heart-gift was the promise to frame this delightful picture from granddaughter Erin who lights up her grandfather’s heart, a tangible remembrance of the ongoing nature of family!
What have you done in your family to help ease the bittersweet celebration of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day? Is there anything you’ve found helpful to do for families you know are encountering grief on this day of remembrance?