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The agony of Father's Day after losing a child

After recently losing his teenage son, a grieving dad faces his first Father's Day. It's a reminder that we need to be there for parents who have lost children — and be grateful for our own families as well, columnist Tammy Swift says.

Tammy Swift online column sig revised 3-16-21.jpg
Tammy Swift, Forum columnist.
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FARGO — “On the days when no one but you mentions their name, I am so, so sorry. Say their name bravely. Know that they are still real, they were still here, and they are still yours.” — Lexi Behrndt, Scribbles & Crumbs blog.

As this Father’s Day weekend approaches, I find myself thinking of an old friend.

Sunday will not be about cards, cakes or gifts of fishing gear for him this year. He has just lost a son.

His son, “MC,” had just graduated from high school with honors. At the funeral, he was remembered by teachers, family and friends as a unique spirit — a young man with an old soul who seemed to belong to an earlier, gentler, simpler time.

I especially remember MC as a boy — a smiling, little guy with huge, blue, inquisitive eyes. When I was married, he and his dad came out and helped sandbag our house. MC was maybe 5 or 6, but he hoisted sandbags as big as he was to ward off the waters from the swelling Buffalo River. His mother took a picture of him at the end of that day — standing on the back steps, wearing mud from head to toe and a smile as big as the sun.

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But that was MC. He liked to help. He liked to be around people, especially adults. He liked to get up early and always have something to do, whether that was a fishing trip with his grandpa, baking cookies with his grandma or a wintertime campout with his brother in his backyard.

Throughout his service, so many stories of MC were told. How he was so firm in his likes and dislikes that, as a small boy, he once gave a piece of Halloween candy back to a homeowner after they unwittingly gave him a treat he didn’t like.

How he was the type of person who strangers would approach — even strangers others might consider “weird” — because they sensed he would be respectful and kind.

How he was so bright that he retained anything he studied. How he became known by his teachers as punctual, funny and thoughtful. How he loved dogs and really old country music and teasing his mom. How he wore Wrangler jeans and a mullet, complete with perm, because he didn’t care what kids his age considered to be “cool.”

One wishes that MC could have heard people sing these praises and talk about how special he was. If only he could have seen how his family members’ faces, drawn and tear-streaked with grief, would light up with joy when they shared memories of him. How his parents would likely have given their own lives before seeing him choose to take his.

Would it have made a difference? I know that he grew up in positive, loving and encouraging households. How could he not know how much he was loved?

But a voice louder than theirs ruled in MC’s head. It was the mental illness that lied to him. It told him over and over that he didn’t fit, he couldn’t live up to anything, his family would be better off without him.

This voice grew stronger and more convincing, even after the doctors and the hospitals and the medications did all they could to quiet his brain’s toxic monologue.

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And then, one day, the voices simply grew too loud.

This kind, funny, determined, one-of-a-kind boy —this fiercely loved, fiercely wanted human — left us.

When I learned, his graduation announcement still hung on my refrigerator. I was so proud of him when I opened it. In his sun-dappled pictures, he looked so grown-up and happy — still sporting those lively blue eyes, that unforgettable grin, that defiantly ‘80s mullet.

Now, just a few weeks later, all of that is gone. His parents and family are left behind to shoulder the incomprehensible grief. They are left to agonize over the wasted potential, the did-I-do-all-that-I-coulds?, the cavernous emptiness of the son who is no longer there. For them, Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day) will never be the same.

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So please keep MC’s parents — and all parents who have lost children — in your heart this weekend. Please remember that they will always be parents, even in cases where they may not have other children with which to celebrate the day.

We don’t need to avoid saying their child’s name or try talking them out of their grief. We can just listen and be there for them.

Even better, we can be grateful for our own families. We can appreciate and treat our kids as the gifts they are — those imperfect, lovable, one-of-a-kind souls who came into our lives without contracts for how long we would have them.

We can continue to love and nurture our kids, despite the sometimes messy, imperfect, frustrating realities of raising families in a chaotic world.

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Because, deep down, we know that those grieving parents would give anything to touch those imperfect, lovable, one-of-a-kind souls who had been theirs once again.

Help and support

If someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Grieving parents can find Fargo-Moorhead grief support groups online: https://www.hansonrunsvold.com/grief-and-healing/local-grief-support

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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