Helping fatherless children cope with Father’s Day

For some reason Father’s Day wasn’t nearly as important as Mother’s Day when I was growing up.

With my father living to the happy age of 86 you’d think I’d have lots of personal memories of his special day. In fact, I have only one. I’m six and have decided to give him a copy of Treasure Island. I vividly remember painstakingly wrapping it in crinkled newspaper and excessive amounts of tape. His beaming face as he carefully unwraps it is also etched in my memory. How kind of him to pretend he isn’t fully aware that I nicked it earlier from his very own bookshelf.

Today, Father’s Day is much more important. It carries quite a weight in the world of family celebrations. While this is tricky for anyone whose father is no longer living, it can be heartbreakingly difficult for young fatherless children. However, I’ve learned that it needn’t be. The surviving parent just needs to be armed with a few basic ground rules.

I gradually learned these rules after my husband, John, died of complications from Crohn’s disease in January of 1997, leaving me to raise our 16-month-old son and three-year-old daughter. My job was obvious: I had to raise two healthy, well-adjusted children whose lives wouldn’t be defined by the untimely death of their father. He would expect nothing less.

It was an innocent comment in June 1998 that alerted me to the fact that I needed to do some tweaking in this department. At preschool circle time, I overheard a well-meaning friend whisper to her daughter “Don’t say anything to Meredith about Father’s Day. She doesn’t have a dad.” Excuse me?

My child is aware she doesn’t have a dad. Excluding her from normal daily conversation is more painful than yet another reminder. Comments like this showed me I needed to educate those around us.

So, I embarked on an education campaign. Each September at the “meet the teacher” sessions, I would introduce myself and then inform (or remind) them that my child’s father had passed away. This was not a solicitation for sympathy but rather a request that my child be treated the same as every other student in the class. I specifically asked that my children be allowed to fully participate in any fatherly activities. Friends soon noticed the inclusion. This worked remarkably well both inside and outside of school and my two rarely felt excluded or, more importantly, signaled out as ‘special’ or ‘different’ because they didn’t have a dad.

During the elementary school days, preparations for Father’s Day take place well in advance of the official June date. Children work for weeks on their carefully crafted presents. Of course, we needed a recipient for the special crafts that were created. My dad, a retired pediatrician, was the natural candidate and he never once let the team down. He’d express surprise and delight with each presentation.

Over the years he was gifted with a myriad of treasures. Highlights included indiscernible drawings, planted seedlings, lumpy clay pinch pots, and his particular favourite, a garbage can constructed from gold spray-painted cardboard egg cartons. The latter resided for years beside his special chair in the living room next to the high-end Asian antique cabinets and hand-picked artwork.

With time, my children took on the education campaign. A few years ago, while staying overnight at my mom’s, they were shocked to hear her whispered request to an equally astonished television repairman to “Please show Henry how to hold a hammer. He doesn’t have a father.” Bless her heart. She is still living that one down.

Of course, raising two children without their father isn’t all about ensuring they can handle Father’s Day.

It’s important to instill in them the knowledge that he didn’t choose to leave. He’d give anything to be alive now and a part of their lives. They know that. They also know him. Perhaps this is the most important ground rule of all. Over the years I’ve inundated them with “all things John.” Through pictures and endless stories they’ve learned the good, the bad, the funny, the quirky and the spirited nature of their father. Again, he’d expect nothing less.

It’s true that John has missed 15 Father’s Days. His children, however, haven’t. We look forward to the upcoming one on June 17. Who’s the lucky recipient now that both their father and grandfather have passed? Their Uncle Mike. Perhaps he’d enjoy a copy of Treasure Island . . .

Kelly McKenzie’s column is distributed through Troy Media at