The Dark Side of Sunny Holidays

Originally published by The Guy Code on June 28, 2001.

“Ha-ha,” said Eeyore bitterly. “Merriment and what-not. Don’t apologize. It’s just what would happen.” — A.A. Milne

For those who have lost a parent, whether to death or to abandonment, sentimental holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can seem like personal insults.

The marketing of those days by greeting-card companies, florists, tie salesmen and retailers of all sorts can spark a resentment deeper than that felt by single people on Valentine’s Day.

This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course. Some people have fond memories of celebrating the day with their departed parent, and they dwell on those memories rather than on the absence. Parents may focus on the joy of receiving gifts from their kids.

For others, though, especially the newly bereaved, the anger and sadness sparked by the marketing of these days is even less susceptible to humor than the emotion felt by single people on Valentine’s Day. Otherwise, though, the feelings are similar. Just as on Valentine’s Day, single people tend to notice only happy couples, on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day children who have lost their parents sometimes imagine that all the other children have both parents and love them both, and that all parents love all of their children.

These ideas are not true, of course. We know that, if we stop to think about it for even a moment. But maybe we don’t want to think about it.

So many gifts are given on these days and so many phone calls placed amid so many smiles that it is easy to believe that the happiness we see on other faces is there all the time. The child within us believes it. And even if it is not true, we don’t care that it’s not. We miss the happy, intact family we don’t have, even if we never had it in the first place.

We know that the marketing blitzes are not directed at us personally. We know, if we think about it, that not every member of an intact family is happy to be there. We even know, if we think about it just a little more, that we are not alone – that many thousands all around are just like us – also with absent parents, also feeling insulted and self-conscious. But sometimes we don’t want to think about other people. We just want to feel what we feel.

Have you called your…

We feel it when our friends start to say, “What are you giving your . . .” or “Have you called your . . .” and then stop themselves, feeling embarrassed. Even if they don’t start sentences that way, we are aware of the possibilitythat they want to talk about how their father or mother felt about the gift given, the call made, but that they may stop short to avoid the awkwardness. We may sometimes ask them if they called Mom or Dad, and may even show interest when they discuss it – and may even feel interest, especially if we know their parents or would like to know them. Other times, though, we do not ask. It’s not that we do not care about our friends, just that we do not want to remind ourselves of our pain.

Some of us plan outings on that day, so that we will be out of the house in places where there are likely to be few happy families. Satisfying both goals is not as easy as it sounds. We learn that it’s best to avoid Sunday brunches and church services in May, and red-meat restaurants and sporting events in June.

Others of us go right at the problem. We visit the cemetery for a few moments of silence, and then head back home to figure out what errands we can run or movies we can see to make the day pass.

It’s an amazing thing, really. Before the loss, we had never looked at these holidays as possible sources of pain. Annoyance, maybe — but not pain. In all likelihood, we had never really given the days much thought at all, except as two more days of obligation. We knew we had to give gifts and express gratitude, even if we did not feel particularly generous or grateful. (Even now, generosity and gratitude may not be the first feelings that occur to us when we think of our missing parent or parents. Yet even that does not make us feel better.)

In years past we may have made fun of the days that Hallmark seems to have created, but we did so lightly, unaware of the implications all that marketing had for the many millions of people who had no one to give to.

Then one year, we joined those millions, and the holiday changed for us, just the way our birthday changed and, really, all holidays changed.

A constant reminder

The difference was that this change was specific. Most holidays are general enough that almost anyone can find something to celebrate, even if it’s only the day off from work and a department-store sale. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, though, most people would have already had the day off, and there isn’t much to buy – just the constant reminder that you have no one to buy for.

This is especially true for those whose job it is to market to these holidays. Many of the folks at Hallmark writing those sentimental poems, the florists and restaurateurs have lost parents, too – but they know they can benefit from those who haven’t, so they keep selling. Probably most of them wall off the conflicted feelings from awareness as best they can, smiling through the day, getting the job done. At least business is good.

At some point we realize that, although we may come to enjoy other holidays again — the family gathering, the food, and the football games can be at least as fun with new people as they were with the originals — unless we have children of our own, we may never quite enjoy Mother’s Day or Father’s Day again.

And if we do have children of our own, and they give us nice things and treat us well, the day will still remind us that we have no mother or father, and that someday our kids won’t, either.

Oh, well. At least it’s springtime.

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