How 3 grief professionals find space for self-care
Holidays like Father’s Day can spark complex emotional responses from grievers. It can be a time when we feel deep longing for our father figure to be around. It can be a time when we feel frustration or anger about the fact that they aren’t. And it can also be a time when we feel nothing at all, except annoyance about the fact that everyone else is shoving their celebrations in our faces.
Unfortunately, those complex emotions can also come with pressure to grieve or commemorate someone in the right way. As Claire Bidwell Smith shared in “Griever’s Guide to Father’s Day”, “It can be so exhausting to try and do right by someone who has died - to try and do the perfect thing or keep them alive in the perfect way.”
To help you feel less alone in whatever you’re feeling during the Father’s Day season (or any holiday or milestone), we spoke with grief experts Sara Faith Alterman, Claire Bidwell Smith, and Dr. Mekel Harris about how they take care of themselves and find time for unique commemoration activities during this challenging time of year.
Introducing our “Griever’s Guide to Father’s Day” speakers
Sara Faith Alterman is the author of the memoir "Let's Never Talk About This Again." Lauded by TIME as one of the must-read books of 2020, the book is about Sara's relationship with her late father, Ira, a prudish punster with a smutty secret, who died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in 2015. Sara's writing has been featured in the New York Times, McSweeney's, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, and the anthology 'Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief.' She's a longtime producer with the acclaimed stage show Mortified.
Claire Bidwell Smith is a renowned grief expert and author. After losing both of her parents at a young age, Claire was drawn to helping others navigate the grief process. A former therapist in private practice for over a decade, she has counseled thousands of people, and written three books about grief and loss. Claire is passionate about advocating for advancement in end of life care and also bringing awareness to our culture’s understanding of grief. She serves on the board of End Well Project, an end of life initiative that holds a yearly conference, and also Near, an organization devoted to helping people find end of life and grief support.
Dr. Mekel Harris, Ph.D., NCSP, PMH-C, a licensed psychologist/health service provider (HSP) (and CEO of Harris Psychological Services, LLC), currently serves in private practice in the mid-South, offering psychological evaluation and support to children, adolescents, and families. Further, she offers training/education, consultative, and supervisory services to several local organizations throughout the Memphis area. She is a TEDx speaker, blogger, magazine and podcast contributor, and author of a memoir, “Relaxing Into the Pain: My Journey Into Grief & Beyond.”
3 ways to find time for self-care during Father’s Day season
When navigating a hard grief season, it can be important to not only figure out how to commemorate our person, but also how to care for ourselves. The way we make time for ourselves to be alone, with family and friends, or a combination of both, can be key to ensuring that we have the capacity to move through life day-to-day while grieving.
Sara Faith Alterman recognizes that finding space for rest and sleep have been the most impactful thing she can do during a period of grief. “I have two little boys, which, if there any parents present, they might understand when I say that I haven't slept in about six years,” said Sara. “For me, sleep has been a huge part of just my mental health and my grief process and just day-to-day struggle. So this week, I finished sleep training my toddler and it's so lame but I'm at the point in my life where when I sleep for eight hours, that's the biggest thing happening! And it has been incredible. So that is what I have done for self-care is sleep train. I think getting any kind of sleep is a win that’s very fair to celebrate.”
Dr. Mekel Harris has the compounded losses of both her dad’s birthday and Father’s Day falling during the same time of year. She shared how making space for time without commitments leaves her room to process whatever she needs to. “My dad passed away in March of 2020. And so this week, I decided, you know what, I am pushing all my appointments back. I'm saying no to a lot of stuff. So I can just sort of engage in slower rhythms,” Said Mekel. “Slowing things down and being okay with taking things slowly this week has really been the best self-care that I could have asked for.”
Throughout our conversation, Claire Bidwell Smith shared about the value of doing whatever feels right (or in her words, “deliriously wonderful”) during the Father’s Day season. She notes that there shouldn’t be pressure to celebrate or feel any particular way - what’s important is that your grief is tended to in the unique, specific way you need it to be. “I feel like every year for me, it's different,” said Claire. “My father's been gone for 18 years, so a long time most of my adult life. And I think every year these holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, Father's Day - I always feel different. Some years, I do really want to memorialize him - do things and honor him, create meaningful things, go to a restaurant that he loved, or buy a Father's Day card and write in it. And then some years, I just don't want to care and I just want to skip it, not make a big deal about it. And then some years, I'm somewhere in between that.
Claire recommends that griever’s find ways to listen to what their body and brain is telling them is best. “Go with your gut and honor your own feelings,” she said. “And if that means just pretending that Father's Day isn't happening or sitting together and eating a pizza because that's what you feel like doing, I think that's perfect. I just went on a little trip with my three kids and our best friends and we just spent three days in a hotel pool. It was deliriously wonderful. So I have been doing self-care in that way this [Father’s Day].”
Header photo: J.A. Bracchi/The Image Bank/Getty Images