When I was growing up with happily married parents in small-town upstate New York, Father’s Day usually involved a homemade card decorated with scratch-and-sniff stickers, a visit to my grandparents’ house, and eating grilled hot dogs in the yard. It was not controversial or fraught with anxiety. My children, however, have not had that carefree experience. After their dad died at age 43—when they were 8 and 9—this holiday suddenly became one more date on the calendar to dread. On our fourth Father’s Day without him, I’m still struggling to find a balance between celebrating it with the other dads in our lives and ignoring it completely.
The people who care for us also have some level of difficulty. They don’t want to ignore the elephant in the room, so to speak, but they often don’t know what to say to the kids. I understand—I don’t always know how to help them, either. But over the years I have learned some conversation starters that work and others that aren’t as useful. Here are five phrases best avoided, as well as alternative approaches that would be more appreciated.