Long Reads

Why we shouldn't forget people without a dad on Father's Day

“My dad might be gone, but he was here once. And that is worth celebrating.”

My dad should have been at my graduation. He should have stood, waving off the van packed with Ikea’s finest, when I left home for the last time. He should, at the very least, be there on the other end of the phone when I dial his number – which I still know by heart, even though it’s been 14 years since I’ve had a reason to call.

But he didn’t do any of that. Won’t do any of that.

Because on 10 July 2004, after 46 years, six months and 27 days of life, that was it. He was gone, and I was left trying to catch my breath, to figure out what the hell had just happened. I was only 13. My biggest worries back then should have been organising my MySpace top friends and choosing which glittery body spray to marinate myself in. I wasn’t ready to try and comprehend how a person could become past tense, just like that.

Losing a parent young unclips you from the carabiners of normality, so much so that even years later, the grief can come from nowhere, punching you in the back of the head as you walk away. It’s the sequel nobody asked for. Like Grease 2, just with more therapy.

One of the days that punch lands the hardest rolls around on every third Sunday, every June, every year. Father’s Day. It starts small, with the vague stirring of recollection that the day is coming up. But soon, with every TV advert, every card-lined supermarket aisle, every inbox reminder from that mailing list you keep meaning to unsubscribe from, it builds to a crescendo. It’s like being single on Valentine’s Day, but exponentially worse. Because it comes without the hope that next year could be different. 

But you know what? Don’t leave me out. Yes, my dad might be gone now. But he was here once. And that, I think, is worth celebrating.

I know I can’t speak for everybody. I’m not claiming to be the patron saint of the bereaved. But personally? I find the silence around the day pretty deafening. I completely appreciate that, if you’re not on this side of the fence, it can be hard to know how to treat people. Hard to know whether to address the elephant in the room, or if that’ll just salt the wounds. Grief is awkward, and uncomfortable. It grabs you by the head, forces your eyes open, makes you confront the one thing we all fear most, like some sort of Ludovico technique for worst case scenarios. So, while there may never be a fix, an appropriate way to handle it, I can’t tell you how far a simple, ‘Thinking of you’ text can go. Just remember me, and those like me. That’s all I ask.

I didn’t always feel this way, though. For years, I preferred to completely ignore the day, hole up and prepare to complete Netflix while staying far, far away from social media. But now, and maybe this is something that comes with time, I’ve realised that you absolutely can still mark it – it’s just that you’ll need to create some new traditions. There’s no reason for the worst thing that ever happened to you to exclude you from the party. Father’s Day shouldn’t – and doesn’t – have a no hats, no trainers, no grief door policy. 

These days, I try to keep busy and make sure I’m not on my own. I’ll make my way to a pub at some point, raise a silent glass to my dad and then take the funds that have very noticeably not left my account to pay for a Father’s Day present and buy myself something I’ve wanted for ages. 2017’s gift, for example, was some new trainers. 2016’s was a Zara jumpsuit. Look, it may be shallow, it may be materialistic, but if it can bring me £39.99 of happiness on an otherwise bleak day, then what’s the harm?

Of course, bereavement isn’t the only reason Father’s Day may be difficult. Family is so incredibly nuanced that applying a one-size-fits-all mentality is really just ramming a square peg into a round hole. There’s those who don’t know their fathers, those who grew up in care, those who’ve been walked out on. Children of divorce, of estrangement, of family feuds. The list is endless. As are the stats. An estimated 42% of marriages end in divorce. Child Bereavement UK record that every 22 minutes in the UK, someone under 18 loses a parent. A 2013 study found that one in five fathers living with second families have little or no contact with the children born during earlier relationships. There are a lot of us in this club that nobody ever means to join. 

It’s an inescapable fact that this day will roll around every year – but surely it’s time to modernise? The notion of the nuclear, 2.4 kids, white picket fence and a Volvo family is outdated. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Just think of your immediate circle of friends. Don’t most of them have family complications or difficulties, in one form or another? 

Of course, if you have still got living parents, together and on speaking terms, that’s fantastic. I’d never want to make anybody feel guilt over that. But it’s time Father’s Day made a little room for the rest of us. Because dads don’t, despite what advertisers would have us believe, all go mad for sports cars, beer and golf like we live in some godawful dystopian future where every man is Jeremy Clarkson. Dads come in all forms. There’s the step dads, the like-a-father-to-me brothers and friends, the mums who do both. And they deserve to be celebrated too.