I spent my first Fatherless Father’s Day bawling my way through The Happiest Place on Earth. Our family had traveled to Disney World, and I thought a change of scenery could help me escape the pain of losing Dad. But all the joy surrounding us just made my grief sting more. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of death. (You know how many Disney princesses have lost a parent? Um, all of them. And don’t even get me started on Simba.)
Without understanding why, I was having panic attacks watching the nightly fireworks. Hyperventilating in gift shops, surrounded by Mickey and pals. You know you’ve really leaned into your grief when a toddler lets you cut in line for Space Mountain, in the hopes that you’ll stop crying.
When my dad died, I didn’t just lose the man who co-created me. I lost my sense of safety, sense of fairness and sense of wonder. Those were replaced with panic attacks, bitterness and loneliness. Until that point, I’d mostly been sheltered from my new companion, Anxiety.
Since Dad’s death, Anxiety has been my shadow. Anxiety is the devil on my shoulder, encouraging me to hide, avoid and be fearful. Sometimes Anxiety skips town for a few months, but it always returns in June, as Father’s Day nears.
I know I’m not alone. For so many, Father’s Day is now associated with loss: the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of the dream of being a father or the loss of a connection to a father who is still very much alive.
You can’t outrun that kind of loss, and sometimes it’s more painful to try. That’s why now I decide to celebrate Father’s Day, even though my father is no longer here.
But Anxiety wants nothing more than to be our sole focal point and the star of Father’s Day weekend. Selfish, right? Personally, I’m done letting Anxiety win.
For those who are anxious about Father’s Day, here’s what’s helped me:
1. Have a plan.
Get out of town. Stay in town. Do an activity that reminds you of your dad. Stay in bed all day and watch Netflix. Celebrate the other men in your life who have served as father figures. Send a card to a child who doesn’t have a dad at home. Having even a loose semblance of a plan will help you feel more in control. Anxiety hates that.
2. Eliminate/avoid needless grief triggers.
Once June hits, there’s nothing like a quick scroll through e-mails to remind you if your dad’s dead. For two weeks, we get to immediately delete e-mails with subject lines like “Still time to remember Dad!” and “Show Dad you love him!” (Or my favorite: “Did you forget about dad?”) Do yourself a favor and unsubscribe from promotional e-mails, or set up a temporary filter to send them to a special folder. Anxiety hates that, too.
3. Limit – or embrace – social media.
For the first few years after Dad’s death, I avoided all social media on Father’s Day. Now, I embrace it. I’m like that aunt who likes and comments on every picture IN ALL CAPS. I’m an ambassador supporting those who still have their dads. Many of my friends who yearn to be parents choose to abstain from social media around the holidays. You do what’s healthiest for you. Anxiety really hates that.
4. Treat yourself, and treat yourself well.
Practice some self-care strategies. Book a massage. Get a manicure/pedicure. Go for a long walk or run. Buy yourself some nice sheets and get some rest. Go to a concert, see a movie, read a book. Grab some friends and family and raise a toast to your loved ones. Do anything that helps calm and steady you. Anxiety won’t even recognize the new you.
5. Ignore the calendar.
For me, the days surrounding an anxiety-fueled milestone are often harder than the actual milestone. Start your self-care strategies early, and extend them past Father’s Day. Put out the “No Vacancy” sign and let Anxiety know you simply have no time or space for it this year.
Above all, go easy on yourself. You’ve been through worse days, and you survived. It will hurt, but you’ll get through this one, too. That’s what my father always taught me.
This post first appeared on The Mighty.