Father’s Day: A Duel Between Happiness and Sadness

The first Father’s Day I remember was when I was 8 or 9, and my dad and I were on an “Indian Guides” camping weekend with our “Tribe.” “Indian Guides” was a father and son organization run by the YMCA, and that weekend lots of fathers and their boys went camping in cabins, roughing it, and bonding. The Sunday morning that weekend was Father’s Day, and I had, with the help of my mother, hidden a pair of socks, wrapped neatly in my bag, so I could surprise my dad with a present when he woke up. Turns out, I was the only boy in our group whose mother had had the foresight to prepare such a tribute, and my dad made a huge deal about it. I was very pleased with myself.

When I became a father myself 17 years ago, I looked forward to special Father’s Days like that one with my son, David. When his sister Abby came along 2 years later, the love doubled. Father’s Day was fun in our family. We always did something special as a family, and we built memories that like the morning I gave my dad socks that my kids would hopefully remember many years later. Unfortunately, six years into those halcyon days, things changed forever when David died during a football practice at the age of 10. Father’s Day would never be the same again.

Father’s Day became a duel between happiness and sadness. For the first few years especially, sadness was a difficult emotion to battle. I knew it was incredibly important for my daughter to celebrate our relationship, and for David’s death to not destroy what she and I shared. I loved her, and she loved me, and to make sure she never felt that David’s death took a more important role than her love did in my life, I would do all I could not to let the despondency I felt over him being gone show too much. I would always gush over what her and my wife had planned for the day. I would smile and hug and kiss her, all the time thinking of David. In other words, I faked it a bit for Abby, so she knew David’s death would never overshadow her life. But, I also knew it was important that she see my sadness as well. During the day I would always make sure, at an appropriate time, to bring David up, and mention that though our celebrating was wonderful, I was sad David was not with us, as I was sure she wished he was there to help her plan fun things to do.

I’m happy to say, my Abby is a very smart, empathetic and intuitive young lady. She always understood. In essence, just like all other holidays, David became a part of it in a very tangible, yet none disruptive way. The shared family communication we worked so very hard on after David’s death, to continue forward, was a key not only in our day to day lives, but also on the big days. I’m sure if you asked Abby today, without hesitation she would tell you that David will be mentioned someday when she marries, or has children. David has remained a part of our lives, and recognizing that he is missed when the important things happen in our lives is a way of keeping him close. We don’t dwell, and we don’t let the sadness interrupt our celebrations, but we always acknowledge at some point how much David would have liked this. And we always smile.

This Father’s Day though is going to be an entirely new challenge. My Father died last week at the age of 89. I have been very fortunate to have him in my life for as long as I have. He was a strong, personable man, whose life was his family. We spoke at least once a week on the phone. In recent years his memory had failed some, and he was not as sharp as he once was, but he loved a good joke, loved to share his knowledge of life, and loved to feel his opinion mattered to me and my two brothers, sister, and their families. My mother and he had been opportune enough, though they had both had their share of physical troubles that come with aging, to still be living in their own home as their 63rd anniversary approached. Until 2 months before his death he still drove, and he had never “succumbed” (his point of view, not mine) to an assisted living situation. He was a great guy.

I have found during the first week since his death, the grief over losing my father has been much more “natural” then when David died. He had lived a rich life of love and family, and by anyone’s standards, 89 years is a privileged amount of time to have had in life. The service and time spent after his death was one not purely of sadness, but of celebration as well. In fact, much of the sadness I experienced after his loss was directly reflective of David’s death. The idea of him and my dad being reunited on the other side brings tears to my eyes immediately. When I told my dad to give David a big hug for me as I viewed him in his coffin, tears again streamed down my face. It’s not that I was less sad at my father’s passing, but it was not the disruptive event losing a 10-year-old is.

Which brings me to the approaching Father’s Day. I’m not sure what to expect this year. I no longer have a father to call or send a gift to as a way of saying “Thanks, I love you for all you gave me.” And I don’t have my son to hold and hug. It’s unusual to think the two most important men in my life, my father and my son, are no longer here on earth. I have no doubts, as grief always does, it will surprise me with small emotional bombs that will explode in the days before, the day of, and the weeks after. But those bombs have been a part of my life now for an extended time, and I have learned how to quell the fires quickly and effectively. More often than not, the fire brigade will include my daughter Abby. Abby’s love has been the saving grace of the last 6 years. And it will be her recognition of Father’s Day that will give me the love to keep moving forward. And this year, when the time is right, we will talk about David, and Granddad. Maybe I’ll tell her the socks story. Because now my father joins David as part of the special days and holidays, and the memories that make us who we are, and why we love.

Happy Father’s Day to all. It’s our choice to honor the love that keeps us moving forward. Peace, Light, and Laughter to you.

Bart Sumner

More Articles Written by Bart

Bart Sumner is an actor, screenwriter, and improvisational comedy teacher and performer currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife Leslie, daughter Abby, and two dogs. Originally from Union County New Jersey, he is a graduate of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey with a BA in Theatre Arts. He spent over 20 years chasing the Hollywood dream in Southern California. He is a proud member of The Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and has performed in films, television, musical theatre and some of the most prestigious comedy clubs in America. He is also a produced screenwriter and television writer. His son, David, died in 2009 from a severe brain injury suffered while playing football. He is the founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit HEALING IMPROV, which provides no-cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward after loss. Since beginning his work to help others find a path forward through grief, he has spoken and presented nationally on the subject of grief with The Compassionate Friends USA and the Bereaved Parents of the USA. He authored the book HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER, which shares his own grief journey and details how Healing Improv Workshops work while sharing some of the improv exercises used in the workshops. He has been a contributing writer for www.TheGriefToolbox.com and www.HelloGrief.com as well as writing the blog "My Stories From The Grief Journey" at the Healing Improv website. He enjoys pizza and making people laugh.

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  • Great writing my friend. To the point and from the heart.My Dad died when I was 15, I know how blessed you must feel to have had 89 Father’s day with him. Then so unfair to have only 10 with your David…. but yet today and many more with Abbey an emotional conundrum indeed. but I now find… I rejoice on Father’s Day; pride wins over pain.